Are you perpetuating stereotypes about your student and their families?

We have talked about home-school partnerships many time on this blog, because parent engagement is, undoubtedly, one of the most powerful tools for helping students achieve success (even if parents don’t always know how to get involved). Yet, curiously (and alarmingly), teachers are unconsciously impacted by racial and ethnic stereotypes when it comes to communicating with minority parents.

Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng is a sociologist and researcher at at New York University’s Steinhardt School, and has dedicated a large chunk of his research to finding out how teachers may perpetuate harmful behavior cycles among their students, simply by communicating, or not communicating with parents. Read the post from the Atlantic here.

It turns out, teachers demonstrate particular sensitivity to bad behavior among black and Latino students, with far more reports of such behavior to parents among these students than any others. Conversely, bad behavior among Asian Americans largely goes unreported. In fact, Asian American parents hardly ever hear about the progress of their students, good or bad. Whether Asian Americans are struggling to keep up with homework or consistently succeeding, their parents are less likely than other groups to find out firsthand from teachers. This feeds into the “model minority” myth, and minimizes the fact that Asian students may benefit from support services, or by contrast, that they students deserve acknowledgement for their accomplishments as much as any other group.

Classroom disruptions among blacks and Latinos are more likely to be communicated to parents than accomplishments, except among black teachers, which tend to report disruption less. Similarly, female teachers tend to communicate with parents more frequently than male teachers. So, teacher characteristics, including race/ethnicity and gender are driving factors as much as student characteristics.

Limited English proficiency and the perception that immigrant parents aren’t as tuned in or interested in their children’s education also cause teachers to hesitate about communicating with families. It appears that cultural discomfort, as simple to identify as it may be, is actually a complex phenomenon that drives our behavior as educators.

The cautionary aspect of this information is how it is prejudicial or harmful to students. In this sensitive and politically correct society, we dare not ask some of the hardest questions of ourselves, but let’s do a self-check here, as the success of our students may depend upon it:

  • Are Asian or white students more likely to get away with negative behaviors in your classroom?
  • Are you more likely to acknowledge the successes of blacks and Latinos, while smoothing over those of Asian Americans?
  • Do you put off phone calls to limited English proficient parents until you’ve done all the “easy” students first?

Truthfully, in my early years of teaching, the answers to the first two questions would have been “yes.” It had to do with simple expectations, which seemed imperceptible at the time but now are painfully obvious. It was simple: I held Asian students to a higher standard of behavior than blacks and Latinos. When Asian students were “bad” it was never “AS bad,” and when they demonstrated success, it was merely par for the course, not something to celebrate. Meanwhile, the “problem students,” (blacks and Latinos) were expected to misbehave, so when they demonstrated success and good behavior, it resulted in exaggerated celebration, taken as a chance to reinforce a positive cycle. Little did I realize, it was actually a negative cycle for everyone.

If you, too, answered yes to any of the above questions, have no fear. We are all human, inclined to interact, favor, and protect those that resemble us most. But identifying unfairness in your own practice and rectifying it, is arguably the most notable thing a teacher can do. If this is one of your personal struggles, I encourage you to identify another educator who excels in parent engagement, cultural empowerment, and/or setting high expectations to be your mentor.

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