I recently finished my doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. After a year of TA-ing doctoral students, five years teaching middle schoolers in the classroom, two years of graduate school studying education and pedagogy, plus these last three years elbow-deep in research at Hopkins, there is one thing I can definitely say about education:
Teachers don’t know much about South Asian American students.
That is to say, my research finds that while teachers, and education in general, face a variety of problems, one very real problem, which often gets overlooked, is that teachers lack cultural proficiency as related to their South Asian American students. The National Education Organization defines teacher cultural proficiency as having cultural knowledge, personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, and skills that enable teachers to effectively teach in multicultural environments.
My research included multiple surveys, including a small survey of 15 teachers. Less than half of the teachers (46.7 percent) identified themselves as culturally proficient related to South Asian American students (which means over half did not self-identify as sufficiently equipped to support these students).
On the student side, South Asian Americans themselves indicate their teachers don’t know much about them. The primary component of my study, a mixed methods survey of 85 South Asian Americans reflecting on their K-12 experiences, found that most South Asian American participants — 73 percent, in fact — felt that their teachers didn’t understand them or their culture.
Never mind that most (78 percent) participants also felt their teachers believed the model minority myth (or that many teachers admitted to it as well). Never mind that this belief manifested in many (65 percent) participants reporting that they had academic support needs that went unnoticed or unmet. My research also revealed that many South Asian Americans admit to having had negative overall experiences in their K-12 schooling, especially in the context of teachers’ cultural proficiency.
None of this is good.
But what I’m stuck on right now is the implication of a vast population of students who are taught by teachers who admit to knowing little about them or their backgrounds. I also admit that it is the very, very tip of the iceberg: my findings include hundreds of disconcerting bits of data, but almost all of it has greater implications for multicultural education researchers than the general public community.
But I am writing this here, in a South Asian American-centric space, because I have a request. I am hoping that by writing and sharing this with you, dear readers of The Aerogram, you will be able to share your ideas with me via social media or email, on how we can change the situation.
Clearly, teachers’ low cultural proficiency related to South Asian American students is, itself, problematic. Moreover, there is evidence that it results in lower reported support for the students themselves, and negative overall experiences for the students themselves. So I ask:
How can we, as South Asian Americans, improve teachers’ cultural proficiency related to our own backgrounds, or at least mitigate the negative effects of the low cultural proficiency?
How can we fix this?
Note: As you think of possible ways we can rectify the situation and share via social media or email, I would remind readers that teachers are humans, and that this can translate to falling into that old human trap of believing stereotypes and lacking perfect cultural proficiency. That said, I believe that of the immense influence that teachers can (and, as the evidence suggests, do) have on students’ experiences and entire lives, they should be held to a slightly higher standard than others when it comes to cultural proficiency.
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Dr. Punita Chhabra Rice is a researcher and writer focusing on the experiences of South Asian American students and also the founder of ISAASE, an organization aimed at improving South Asian American students’ experiences through research, outreach, and promoting teacher cultural proficiency. Find her on Twitter @punitarice.