Learning To Be a Culturally Inclusive Educator & Researcher is a Process

I didn’t realize being an early childhood researcher and educator who incorporated multicultural and anti-bias principles was going to be an intense growth process. Since I was raised with educators in the family, attended international studies schools, and lived as a woman of color, I figured I knew what to do (for the most part). Little did I know that this was not going to be the case.

Looking back at some of the activities I did with children when I started being more culturally inclusive, I find myself either thinking or saying to my peers “I can’t believe I did that”, “I think some of my activities were not culturally authentic”, and “I’m so glad I make better choices now”. I often have to remind myself of the Maya Angelou quote, “when you know better, you do better” so I don’t spiral into teaching regrets.

When I started being more intentional about being culturally inclusive, I implemented what multicultural educators call the “contributions approach” or heros/heroines and holidays approach.  The contributions approach is the first stage of multicultural education and the quickest, easiest, and most common. It focuses on the lifestyle and specific mainstream people and narratives, glossing over concepts related to societal issues, such as discrimination, or trivializing cultural dynamics of ethnic, gender or other identity groups. In my case, I would do activities or a series of projects that focused on aspects of a culture or country. The knowledge and projects about other cultures and countries were not integrated into the curriculum nor did I create opportunities to include aspects of social justice.

My intentions were to expose children to other cultures and make them conscious of diversity. Children seemed satisfied with activities and enjoyed their brief moments with other cultures, countries, and people. However, even with the approval of the children, families, and other teachers, I felt that some depth was missing; like, I had told them a lie that all things in society are great. As an African American women who grew up in the midwest and had friends from all over the world, I knew I had limited the children’s knowledge and possibly didn’t acknowledge the complexity of their experiences. I struggled with believing that young children could grasp concepts of social justice; at the same time, I remember understanding the concepts of privilege, power, and oppression at a young age. These experiences I had as a child provoked me to keep asking questions of myself as an educator and researcher.

In a perfect world, I would have been able to take a break from early childhood and figure out who I was and wanted to be as an educator and researcher before interacting with society. That’s not how that happened. What happened was something more gradual. I re-read books from my master’s program that focused on culture and early childhood education, like works from Delpit, Derman-Sparks and Tobin, Wu, and Davidson, and curated more research about children’s socialization related to race, gender, and other identity groups. These readings provoked conversations with peers, and I was compelled to reflect on my practice, acknowledge my errors, and make multiple tweaks.

My current doctoral program has expanded my resource list to include the works of MacNaughton, Davies, Yelland, and Salazar-Pérez. Besides readings, I have developed other strategies that help me become better at applying principles of anti-bias and multi-cultural education. Some of them are:

  • Getting to know the children and families I work with. Sometimes I am amazed at how much I can learn from a parent/guardian in a 5-minute conversation. While most of my dialogue with children and families exceeds beyond five minutes, I have found it valuable to utilize whatever time I am given to build engagement and connection.  Not only do I learn about children and families, but these conversations also show that I see, hear, and care about them. From these dialogues, I have an understanding and knowledge about topics I can integrate that is meaningful and culturally relevant for the children.
  • Having a diverse group of colleagues who work with different communities. My professional learning community keeps me reflecting and improving myself. For instance, some of my more recent conversations with peers have been about how to use media and technology that is more inclusive of gender identities and expressions. From these dialogues, I have realized that my lens of gender has been from a binary perspective (female and male). This awareness has compelled me to gather more resources and shift how I look at gender in my research and practice, which is still a process for me.
  • Being willing to try new things. I love to succeed. The idea of children not having the optimal experience with me is crushing. I know if I’m not willing to try a new technology, way of teaching, or approach to a research question then I may miss an opportunity to create a supportive and engaging experience for children. However, trying something new means it is likely that I may “mess up”, (a.k.a. what I consider not succeeding). With time, patience, and courage, it’s becoming easier for me to say yes to trying; at the time same time, I am still learning to accept “trying” and “messing up” as a part of my work.
  • Staying present. Each child, family, and community are different. When I moved to New Mexico, I had to learn a new culture and a way of being. After living here for 3 years, I am still considered an outsider, especially since I wasn’t born and raised here. Despite being an outsider, what has helped me become a more culturally inclusive educator and researcher is to be present. I have found that being present helps me learn with the children from them about them. What children say, don’t say, do, and don’t do are important, and sometimes the smallest details of an action can be the most telling. Being present can be hard when juggling multiple tasks and priorities. Each time I am not the best, but even the fact that I conscious of being more present make it becomes more natural over time.

The road to becoming a more culturally sensitive, relevant, and inclusive educator and researcher is a growth experience. I have found it helpful (and at times painful) to look back at my progression of multicultural and anti-bias education. To be better has meant that I have to acknowledge there are some parts of my practice that I have not done well, and I have to change. It also meant I have to be willing to find my own approach, which takes trial and practice. While I still don’t think I have figured it out, I have noticed that thoughts of regret happen less frequently and I do feel like my research and practice with children and families is improving. I can’t change the past. I can learn from it and commit to doing better.

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