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Learning to teach in urban settings.

Teacher education programs throughout the United States are grappling with how to raise the achievement levels of children in diverse communities. The fact that urban schools show a downward trend in achievement levels among their student populations speaks to the gravity of the situation and brings to the forefront the need for more culturally responsive teachers in urban settings.

The challenge confronting urban schools results from a number of issues. Urban settings are historically more economically disadvantaged than suburban districts and therefore do not have the ability to offer competitive compensation packages to teachers. Urban schools also serve a student population that is characterized largely by poverty, and that is overwhelmingly minority (many non-English speaking). One of every three school-age children is from a minority background (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2000), yet most are taught by white classroom teachers (National Education Association, 1997). The incongruity that exists between the student population and the curriculum being taught also speaks clearly to the need for more culturally responsive teachers (Gay, 2002). Furthermore, urban schools often experience a large turnover in their teaching staff from year to year, and so are unable to attract and retain highly qualified personnel (Oakes, Franke, Quartz, & Rogers, 2002). As a result, many urban classrooms are staffed with teachers who are new to the teaching field. Although these teachers' commitment to working with minority groups in urban settings may be strong, they often lack knowledge and understanding of the students' varied cultures (Gay, 2002; Sleeter, 2001).

Teacher candidates tend to view multicultural teaching primarily as planning "special events" outside of the everyday curriculum. For example, they might celebrate Black History Month in February by studying famous black Americans. Such a narrow view tends to distort children's understanding of culture as something separate and distinct from everyday life, reinforcing the notion that culture occurs outside of the classroom.

Teacher candidates need an understanding of urban cultures, as well as the pedagogy and skills that will help them implement a meaningful curriculum for urban students (Gay, 2002). They need to be more cognizant of the fact that a commitment to teach in urban settings goes beyond knowledge about the curriculum and how children learn and touches a much deeper issue--that of how to connect the curriculum to children's everyday lives. Teacher candidates need to make the classroom and the curriculum more congruent and more meaningful for children (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). A culturally responsive teacher uses the children's cultures and background experiences as instructional vehicles to make learning more effective. Research illustrates that connecting curriculum to culture can lead to improved academic achievement among diverse populations (Gay, 2002). Teachers cannot be expected to be culturally responsive in the classroom, however, if they are not adequately prepared with the necessary knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

Most universities require teacher candidates to take at least one course on multiculturalism (Artiles & McClafferty, 1998), sometimes at the beginning of the teacher education program. However, these courses may offer no more than a general awareness of the differences among cultures. It is difficult to determine accurately the impact of these courses, since studies regarding teacher candidates' particular beliefs and attitudes remain inconclusive (Sleeter, 2001). Nevertheless, it is clear that individual beliefs and attitudes are more likely to undergo change following in-depth investigation, dialogue, and continued support throughout the teacher education program (Villegas & Lucas, 2002).


In light of these challenges, the authors designed a project to address the need for more culturally responsive teachers. The teacher candidates in our program had limited background experiences in urban settings, making clear the need for a curriculum that provided a broader and more comprehensive view of what it means to teach in urban schools. In addition, candidates needed restructured field experiences, to help them decide whether or not they felt capable of meeting the challenge of teaching urban children.

Twenty early childhood education majors (18 female, 2 male; 19 white, 1 African American) enrolled in a 3-hour clinical experience conducted in a public school setting. During the fall semester, students completed an initial survey (see Figure 1) designed to reflect their attitudes, beliefs, and values towards teaching in urban settings. Upon their return in the spring semester, students were asked to volunteer for assignment in a rural school (control group) or an urban school (experimental group).

Figure 1

Pre/Post Questionnaire

Preparing Preservice Teachers for Diverse Communities

Directions: Please address each of the questions below and answer as completely as you can.

1. Describe, in detail, the students, classroom, school, and neighborhood where the major segment of the student population would be considered part of a minority group.

2. How do you think children's cultural backgrounds affect achievement?

3. How would you modify instruction to meet the academic needs of children from diverse backgrounds?

4. How do you think students' physical and emotional needs affect achievement?

5. How would you address these physical and emotional needs in the classroom?

6. If you were offered a position to teach in an urban school, tell why you would or would not accept the offer.

7. Describe the learning experiences that you have had here at USCS that you feel prepared you for teaching in an urban setting.

During the course of the spring semester, the students assigned at the urban school participated in two workshops given by a diversity expert in a school setting. Participants viewed, responded to, and reflected on two videos that were designed to raise social consciousness, and they read and reflected on two books covering diversity. Students assigned at the rural school received no additional training and support. At the conclusion of the semester, students in-both groups revisited the initial survey.

The experimental group was assigned to an elementary school that is predominantly African American (98 percent). The school was selected for participation after researchers received a modest grant from the state department of education for developing partnerships. Funds from the grant were used to buy books, provide the diversity speaker with a stipend, and give classroom teachers a small stipend for their participation. Many of the teachers at this school had taught there for a number of years, and therefore were experienced with the norms of the culture in this community. A strong commitment to education was evident in the large number of after-school activities and parent activities that were held at the school.

A diversity expert from a neighboring school district was asked to conduct two workshops at the school site. Since our preservice teachers were mostly white middle-class candidates, we hoped the workshops would help them become more knowledgeable regarding the impact of culture on learning, while providing them with opportunities for discussion and reflection.

The two books selected for use with the experimental group were And Don't Call Me a Racist! (Mazel, 1998) and White Teacher (Paley, 2000), both chosen for their contributions to understanding diverse issues in and out of the public school arena. Teacher candidates were asked to respond to a series of questions based on each of these books (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Questionnaire Related to And Don't Call Me a Racist! and White Teacher

Please respond to the following: What about the books: Surprised you? Made you upset/angry? Was humorous? Made you uncomfortable? Made you proud?

Two selections also were made from the video series Teaching Children Tolerance. Teacher candidates were asked to view and respond to "A Time for Justice" (Guggenheim, 1992) and "Starting Small" (McGovern, 1997). Again, candidates were asked to respond to a series of questions based on each of these videos.


Initial Survey

Students' responses to the initial questionnaire indicated that our teacher candidates held stereotypical attitudes and beliefs regarding minority children and minority neighborhoods. Typically, they described a minority neighborhood as being low-income, and populated by people of color and people who spoke a language different from theirs. They described the children as underachievers, having behavior and learning problems, and living in homes where the parents did not care about their learning. Schools were described as old and dirty with boring classrooms, insufficient resources, and ineffective learning programs. They believed that what was being taught in the school may not be reinforced in the home. The 20 candidates' opinions mostly dovetailed, and tended to support other research findings regarding white preservice students' attitudes (Sleeter, 2001).

Almost all of the students agreed that the home played a significant role in children's learning, as it is the foundation for creating the strong positive belief system needed for achievement. Many students reported that language was another important aspect to consider. However, they offered few specifics regarding how to modify instruction to meet the urban children's needs.

When asked about the effect of children's physical and emotional needs on learning, most of the students agreed that these areas were important, but again gave no specific suggestions as to how to address these needs. The general consensus was that children's most basic needs could be met by giving hugs, offering snacks, and being loving. Most of the comments were teacher-centered and addressed a need for teachers to become more involved in those interpersonal activities with children that broaden communication. Beyond that, however, they showed little evidence of having strategies in mind that would improve instruction.

When asked about making a commitment to teaching in an urban school, about half of the respondents said they would accept a position; they reasoned that teachers can make a difference in the quality of schools and in the lives of children, and what better place to be than where they are needed. Others appeared more interested in receiving a salary and stated that teaching in an urban setting was better than not teaching at all. Some respondents said they would decline the opportunity to teach in an urban setting, citing their opinion that the children there are poorly behaved.

When asked to identify experiences from our program that may have prepared them for teaching in an urban setting, the teacher candidates were ambivalent. Some mentioned previous practicum experiences, a course in children's literature, and language classes. At least three candidates believed that this part of their education was lacking and reported having had no learning experiences that helped prepare them for teaching diverse populations.

Responses to the Assigned Books

White Teacher. This book chronicles Vivian Paley's experiences as a white teacher in a predominantly black school. Teacher candidates were asked to read a selected chapter in the book and make a connection to their past experiences. Classroom management surfaced as a primary concern. Many students wrote of Paley's frustration regarding a perceived inability to be an effective classroom disciplinarian. The teacher candidates discussed, at some length, how children tend to carry "baggage" from home that makes it difficult to teach them and effectively manage classroom behavior. Teacher candidates also recognized that their lack of understanding of cultural terms and ethnic words and phrases contributed to the challenge of teaching.

And Don't Call Me a Racist! Teacher candidates were asked to read and respond to this book, which contains quotes (some historical) from famous and influential people regarding race. Students discussed what in the book made them angry, surprised, and proud. The comments varied widely, but many students were surprised about how often African Americans felt compelled to hide their color to get along in a white world. Many said they were impressed with the resilience, perseverance, and fortitude that African Americans exhibited in advancing the movement for racial equality.

Much of the rhetoric in this text--comments about selling slaves, blacks being inferior to whites, blacks being unable to think for themselves, the United States as a racist nation--angered the candidates. Several ideas in the readings made the candidates uncomfortable, chiefly: 1) being white affords you privileges unobtainable to minorities, 2) reverse discrimination is a way to make up for past atrocities, 3) the educated black person as a social monstrosity, and 4) some African Americans appear to suffer from a constant burden that never seems to go away. Several aspects made the candidates proud, beginning with the realization of all the gains regarding integration and equal opportunities that exist because of the civil rights movement, and that with a renewed emphasis on diversity, racism has a chance to be reduced further. Others thought that resisting old traditional viewpoints on an individual basis helped to reduce racism as a whole. However, what seemed to be most significant were the mentions of inspiring African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Maya Angelou.

Responses to the Videos

A Time for Justice. The students watched this video chronicling the civil rights movement, and were asked to respond to a questionnaire about the video and discuss it in a group. Several aspects of the video disturbed the candidates, including the images of white police officers going unpunished after beating civil rights protesters, the killing of white men who advocated for civil rights, churches being bombed, children needing the escort of the National Guard to enter public schools, and separate public facilities and restaurants for white and blacks. One candidate remarked, "I didn't know it was that bad."

Students also were asked to indicate how watching this video gave them hope. Many of the respondents were impressed by the dedication and commitment from those involved in the civil rights movement. The bus boycotts and sit-ins also impressed upon the students the importance of following through on a commitment.

Finally, students responded to questions about what they envisioned their role to be in eradicating discrimination. Candidates responded that guiding children to appreciate others and accept differences was paramount. They also mentioned the importance of teaching history and awareness of the civil rights movement as part of the curriculum, establishing a just and fair classroom, and using multicultural reading materials. The teacher as a role model seemed to be at the forefront of the students' ideas as the primary way to reduce discriminatory behavior and actions among school children.

Starting Small. The teacher candidates also viewed Starting Small, which shows a number of kindergarten settings around the United States where teachers are engaged in instruction focused on gaining understanding of one another's cultural differences, as well as appreciating how people are alike. Candidates responded to another questionnaire (see Table 3). Their discussion centered around the activities that were presented in the video and how these activities would enhance curriculum. The candidates found the video offered valuable information specific to activities that could be done in early childhood classrooms to incorporate the students' cultural backgrounds. Most of the students believed that teaching tolerance and a respect for diversity should be the foundation of the curriculum. They added that one way to accomplish this goal would be to bring speakers from the community into the classroom to discuss their cultures, and by having the children share artifacts from their home cultures that are connected to curriculum areas (e.g., a quilt from a Native American group showing mathematical patterns).

Figure 3

Questionnaire Used With Starting Small

At the end of this exercise, please respond to the following questions:

1. Identify at least one classroom activity that can enhance the understanding of diversity among children.

2. Do you feel you have grown from participation in this project in your knowledge and understanding regarding diversity? Please identify one way in which you feel this is true.

3. In your opinion, is teaching tolerance an important part of the school curriculum? Explain your answer.

4. After having participated in this project, would you be more or less likely to take a teaching position in an urban community, if one were offered to you? Please comment on why, or why not.


At the end of the spring semester, all 20 participants responded to the same questionnaire that they had been given in the fall. Their responses indicate that most had broadened their definition of what constituted an urban setting where the segment of student population was minority. Now, they recognized that all parents want the best for their children and that the circumstances of being at a low socioeconomic level do not necessarily indicate that children have poor ability or that schools are dysfunctional. At least one student indicated that some teachers have a preconceived notion regarding the achievement level of minority students that may negatively affect a teacher's expectations regarding achievement.

Control Group

When asked about the impact of culture on achievement, students from the control group seemed to confuse cultural background for socioeconomic status and they continued to believe that culture and academic success were connected; in other words, they seemed to consider that children from a lower socioeconomic base are not as likely to reach the same achievement levels as children from higher socioeconomic groups. Those from a lower socioeconomic base are not likely to have the same knowledge foundation to build on; a lack of valuable home learning experiences and learning materials for children to use before coming to school would therefore have a negative impact on the child's ability to perform in school.

When asked about how they would meet the academic needs of children from diverse backgrounds, the control group stated that many activities should be created to address these differences, but gave no specific ideas for instructional strategies. In addition, the control group appeared more aware that trying home circumstances make it difficult for children to achieve in school, and that children might seek fulfillment through less acceptable means. The control group recognized the need for teachers to maintain a positive attitude and be approachable, and stated that teachers should be helpful and not penalize students. They suggested that lesson plans should facilitate children's growth and development, and that seeking a one-to-one relationship with a needy child and seeking assistance from school personnel were positive steps to take.

When asked whether they would accept a position to teach in an urban school, most of the participants responded "Yes," citing that all children need someone to care for them, that they wanted to make a difference, and that it's an opportunity to have a positive impact in the lives of children. One respondent said, "Yes, I am a teacher." We viewed these responses as altruistic, stemming from the idea that a teacher is a professional who has a duty to perform. However, two respondents replied "no"; one stated, "No, [I wouldn't accept the position] unless it was the only one offered."

The control group participants believed that previous practicum programs gave them the opportunity to learn about diversity. Both settings were primarily in schools populated by African American children.

Experimental Group

Students in the experimental groups also appeared to have a much broader sense of what constituted teaching in an urban setting where the segment of the student population was minority. The respondents overwhelmingly noted that a child's background can affect achievement, and that minority children often have fewer learning experiences and less formally educated parents to help them at home. When asked about strategies needed to modify instruction, the experimental group offered clearly defined ideas, including: utilizing real-life scenarios that would make learning experiences more meaningful; presenting materials to accommodate different learning styles; utilizing multicultural and diverse literature to focus on issues supporting the minority experience; knowing more about the children and designing instruction to facilitate learning that includes their cultural background; modifying and adjusting instruction as needed; and providing one-on-one instruction and involving parents as classroom assistants, as well as keeping them informed about what is going on in the classroom. One respondent pointed out that "doing what benefits everyone" is key to any successful instructional strategy.

Most of the students agreed that children suffering from emotional distress because of their home circumstances will find it difficult to concentrate and focus on the task at hand while at school--they will be easily distracted, and may distract others as well. Teachers need to remember that when children come to school worried about family problems, their motivation to learn will be impaired. One respondent indicated that if teachers were aware of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and designed instruction to facilitate emotional development, students would be more likely to perform better.

The experimental group stated that teachers need to include activities focused on enhancing and building self-esteem among children, allowing time for talking about problems, and using play as a means to respond to problems. They mentioned safety as an important issue and stressed that children should feel safe coming to school and living in the community. They also stressed the importance of working with families by identifying community resources. Many of the suggestions centered on stressing to time family the need to seek help in solving a problem before the child is enrolled in school.

When asked about making a commitment to teach in an urban school, the experimental group reported overwhelmingly that this was what they wanted to do. This group showed a clear change in perception, expressing confidence in themselves with such comments as, "Yes, I have what it takes" and "Yes, because I expect to be the best," while the control group's support for acceptance of a position was the result of feeling it to be their responsibility as a teacher. Some respondents continued to be unsure, stating that they needed more experience, or that they felt as though they were not up to the challenge of teaching in an urban school.

The respondents credited previous methods and practicum experiences with providing them opportunities to learn about diversity issues. Even more so, they gave overwhelming credit to the workshops, mentors, and diverse activities provided through this project as a very significant part of their overall experience, and as the key to their growing confidence and desire to teach in urban settings.


In this project, the authors sought information that would serve as a guide in preparing a stronger undergraduate program for teaching in urban settings. We recognized that a well-designed teacher education program is vital for increasing the number of culturally responsive teachers in schools, and it is our goal to ensure the readiness of teacher candidates as effectively as we can. We also recognize that due to candidates' limited experiences, we need to restructure field experiences to include opportunities for candidates to grow in the strategies needed to be successful in urban settings.

At the same time, we wanted candidates to examine their own beliefs and attitudes regarding teaching in diverse settings, and to be able to refine these same beliefs. We hoped that they would identify strategies that could be incorporated into their teaching styles and enhance their ability to teach in urban settings. Ultimately, we hoped to increase the percentage of participants who would feel comfortable accepting a teaching position in an urban setting.

We believe the experimental group very clearly found themselves to be better informed due to the opportunities built into the project. Research states that merely placing promising candidates in urban settings is not enough to ensure their success, or that their confidence and skills will grow. They also need opportunities to openly discuss their beliefs and actions with expert teachers in the classroom. The experimental group stated that they had learned more about how to deal with the community and cultural norms of the school population, citing specific ways in which children's needs should be met (e.g., providing food, keeping children safe). Their responses demonstrated a child-centered approach, whereas responses from the control group focused on teacher-centered actions (i.e., don't penalize, be positive, remember that teachers are there to be helpful).

The experimental group showed a change in perception about themselves as opposed to the control group, whose purpose was mainly the result of feeling that this was their responsibility as a teacher. The experimental group demonstrated a more sensitive disposition to the needs of children in urban settings and the project helped them make the choice to seek a position in an urban community.


Artiles, A., & McClafferty, K. (1998). Learning to teach culturally diverse learners: Charting change in preservice teachers' thinking about effective teaching. The Elementary School Journal, 98(3), 189-211.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-117.

Guggenheim, C. (1992). A time for justice. America's civil rights movement [video]. Montgomery, AL: Teaching Children Tolerance.

Mazel, E. (Ed.). (1998). And don't call me a racist! Lexington, MA: Argonaut Press.

McGovern, M. (1997). Starting small. Teaching tolerance: A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center [video]. Montgomery, AL: Teaching Children Tolerance.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). Digest of educational statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

National Education Association. (1997). The status of American public school teachers, 1995-96. Washington, DC: Author.

Oakes, J., Franke, M., Quartz, K., & Rogers, J. (2002). Research for high-quality urban teaching: Defining it, developing it, assessing it. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(3), 228-235.

Paley, V. (2000). White teacher (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sleeter, C. (2001). Preparing teachers for culturally diverse schools: Research and the overwhelming presence of whiteness. Journal of Teacher Education, 52(2), 94-106.

Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. (2002). Preparing culturally responsive teachers: Rethinking the curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(1), 20-33.

Valerie Duarte and Thomas Reed are Associate Professors, School of Education, University of South Carolina Spartanburg.
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Author:Reed, Thomas
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 6, 2004
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