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My journey as an immigrant from a small town in Africa’s smallest mainland country, The Gambia, to the biggest city in the United States, with its many diverse cultures, has given me a unique perspective. I’m a better teacher because of it.
It has also helped me appreciate that differences matter, and rather than just tolerating them, they need to be celebrated.
As a student at Poughkeepsie High School in upstate New York and then as a high school educator in the Bronx, I’ve observed, both inside and outside the classroom, that many of us develop unconscious biases. They influence and blur the social lenses through which we see and experience the world around us.
Teaching is all about relationships. As educators, it is crucial that we learn and understand our students’ stories in order to build meaningful relationships with them. Learning their stories gives us insight into what influences them. But when doing so, we need to check our unconscious biases so that we can develop deeper connections with our students. That is how we create harmonious classrooms.
As a new immigrant in high school, I once wore a Gambian outfit to school: a white embroidered three-piece kaftan with matching pants. I received lots of compliments from teachers and students. However, one teacher, my history teacher, seemed bothered that I had worn African attire to school.
He blurted out in front of the whole class, “If people want to wear their funny dresses, they should stay in their country. This is America.”
I was shocked. What he didn’t know was that I had run out of my clean “American” clothes. He didn’t know my story. He didn’t know that I only had a handful of clothes.
It was an uncomfortable situation, but one that we both later learned from.
Differences matter, and rather than just tolerating them, they need to be celebrated.
Over the next few months, he began to get to know me better as a person; he stopped relying on stereotypes and assumptions. We developed a strong relationship based on understanding each other’s backgrounds and values. He helped me during lunch with my history assignments, and he became interested in the role of immigration in American history.
For our final class project, he assigned us to interview immigrants in our community about their experiences in America. We compiled the stories into a book, “Poughkeepsie Pride: The Stories of Our Immigrants,” and distributed copies to the local community.
This experience gave me an opportunity to recognize my own cultural myopia. I had to confront my own assumptions about Black students in the inner city, white people everywhere and my own culture. Years later, as a first-year teacher, many of my struggles in the classroom still involved cultural misperceptions.
For example, most of my students were from the Dominican Republic, where hugging and kissing on the cheek are part of everyday life. Yet, in the classroom, this bothered me because of my own biases. To me, these public displays of affection were inappropriate.
Of course, I communicated this bias verbally and nonverbally. Right at the beginning, I set a judgmental tone by essentially frowning on a natural and innocent behavior common to my Dominican students’ culture. I was seeing through an African lens. A Muslim lens. A male lens. And no wonder I couldn’t reach them and therefore teach them.
By examining my unconscious biases, I quickly came to understand that my students’ culture could absolutely enrich and be compatible with my beliefs and understanding of the world. That’s when we were able to relate to one another and form productive relationships.
My interaction with educators around the country has proven to me that most educators have the desire to build strong bonds with their students.
So here is a simple, yet profound suggestion to accelerate this process: Take time to learn each student’s story. When you know someone’s story, it’s hard to dislike them.
In my classroom, I ask students to write a letter to their future selves that they would be proud to share with the class in June. This letter includes their hopes, dreams and vision. But it also contains their worries, struggles and frustrations.
Reading through each letter at the start of the year informs me of what motivates each student. This activity empowers me to build a strong and meaningful connection with each of them.
The sharing of stories is as human and fundamental as breathing itself. It is how we relate to one another on a personal basis.
We become, as such, better individuals, better teachers and better citizens. Despite our differences, stories are what keep our bond of humanity intact. And the process begins at the foundation. As Maya Angelou insists, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity, there is beauty and there is strength.”
And we educators must recognize the beauty and strength in all students.
Alhassan Susso teaches government, economics and personal development at the International Community High School in New York City. He was the recipient of The NEA Foundation’s top honor, the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence, in 2020, and the 2019 New York State Teacher of the Year award.
This story about teaching and cultural diversity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.