Cultural and Religious Literacy for Teachers is a Present-Day Imperative; it’s a quick win, period.
Since 2020, PK-12 grade stakeholders have been in a state of uncertainty because of Covid-19. Here we are, months into the 2021 school year, and the uncertainty hasn’t budged; in fact, it is now coupled with a concoction of parental angst and educator fatigue. With seasonal respiratory illnesses compounded with Covid-19 outbreaks, things may get gruesome fast with higher infected rates and absenteeism. However, one certainty is that America’s PK-12 population is still diversified while the teacher workforce trends oppositely.
Before the pandemic, about 80% of public-school teachers were white; 85% in private schools; in charter schools, there was 68% white representation. The lack of Black and Brown teachers is pronounced and sobering. Although career exit for teachers is a topic of discussion, due to the unpredictability of Covid-19, other factors contribute to retaining teachers: family responsibilities, living expenses and health care. In other words, some teachers, regardless of race, aren’t going anywhere and capacity needs to be built in them and aspiring teachers.
The demographic landscape and the lack of teachers of color is a challenge that needs to be addressed with adaptive thinking from administrators from both teacher preparation programs and schools of education. With collaboration and new information, existing teachers and aspiring teachers could be provided professional development to meet the cultural needs of their students.
Here’s why: before and even more during the pandemic, identity-based harassment and violence have impacted targeted students and their communities. For this reason, teacher preparation and professional development need to include cultural and religious literacy to protect students and build capacity in teachers overall.
Students possess cultural capital in their values, customs, and beliefs; for teachers to overlook them or not be prepared to acknowledge them is to dismiss the totality of students’ identity. While teacher pipelines are doable and definitely show promise to bring a remedy, it is a process over time. The urgency of the matter necessitates quick wins. A step to a quick win would be successfully investing in aspiring, and current teachers alike, with cultural and religious training from an academic standpoint.
In both schools of education and accredited teacher preparation programs, there is little to no evidence of addressing the demographic mismatch by tending to the cultural and religious literacy of aspiring teachers. With excessive policing on Blacks across the nation by non-police and an array of acts of violence inflicted on many solely based on hate, similar acts have the susceptibility to show up in our schools.
Empowering teachers can disrupt the harassment and discrimination some American students experienced before and during the pandemic. What hurt would be done by grounding aspiring teachers with a culturally responsive lens that intentionally highlights students’ values?
Teacher preparation tracks of cultural and religious literacy contribute to building rapport with students and their families and, in fact, informs instruction and allows teachers to get to know the fabric of their students. Let’s keep it real; as a whole, America is culturally illiterate about many of its own residents. Case in point: a poll conducted by the Washington Post revealed that Americans have spotty knowledge of American slavery. Given that high school history curriculums are troublingly outdated, that is not a surprise. Another example: a report displayed that 41% of Americans didn’t even know what Auschwitz was.
What makes schools exempt from being fields that display hate and religious and cultural illiteracy? Prior to the pandemic, Sikh children were bullied for wearing turbans, Black girls were sent home from school for wearing extensions, and in other cases, a Muslim student was suspended for wearing a kufi while a Muslim 2nd grader’s hijab was ripped off her head.
Schools that are publicly funded have a responsibility to demonstrate awareness and cultural sensitivity to protect our children. During the pandemic, students of color, specifically Asian American and Pacific Islanders have been harmed from harassment and discrimination.
The racial and cultural disconnect between teachers and students requires immediate treatment. Experienced teachers need creative professional development about the matter. Aspiring teachers should be introduced to the field with coursework and practicum that assists them to respond to such a diverse student population effectively. Ultimately, teacher preparation programs across the nation need to be re-examined through collective and diverse dialogue.
The concept of cultural and religious literacy is not devotional. It is an academic approach towards the culture and beliefs of the student population. While the latter can be achieved with a mandated course on religion, the culture of students can be addressed by threading syllabi with theoretical frameworks that enable aspiring teachers to analyze factors surrounding race and culture meaningfully. Also, practicums for aspiring teachers can be tailored to provide experiential learning that is followed with ongoing professional learning communities. These approaches allow teachers to grapple with implicit biases and become culturally familiar with students from various backgrounds.
Genuine participation from aspiring, and existing teachers, coupled with interactive learning, can produce comprehension that can support the overall goal of teacher preparation programs and schools of education–better preparing teachers to educate students. Re-engineering course requirements for teacher preparation demonstrates a commitment that will shift implementation to purposeful practices. This outlook counters today’s racial climate that eerily resembles images and testimonies of the 1960s.
Teacher preparation programs and schools of education have a responsibility to equip teachers to hurdle racial and cultural partitions that are present in the classroom between them and students. Cultural and religious literacy is a budding sprout to address the task. The
nation’s diverse student population requires a caring school culture, robust social capital, and the promotion of genuine teacher-student relationships. Teachers being abreast with students’ beliefs and values can certainly be a quick win on the pathway to buffering cultural differences between teachers and students in PK-12 education.
S. Divine Sankofa is a mentor teacher and has served students in Washington, DC and Maryland. He is also a PhD student studying Higher Education and Leadership Policy Studies.