Return to Headlines

Teachers learn "cultural competency"


Want to be effective in the classroom? Get to truly know your students and then make instruction relevant to their lives, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco told teachers from two CMSD high schools on Tuesday.

Students across the District had the day off Tuesday while teachers gathered for training. Faculty from East Tech and Glenville high schools spent the day learning about “cultural competency,” a skill that requires teachers to clearly understand their students’ backgrounds and circumstances.

Look past the stereotypes and narratives about urban students’ behavior and see the person, Patrick Camangian told his audience at the Barbara Byrd-Bennett Professional Development Center in Bratenahl. He cautioned the teachers not to regard culture as a “proxy for race.”

“It’s linguistic, it’s experiential, it’s complex,” said Camangian, whose specialties include teaching in urban schools. “It changes from site to site, person to person.”

Camangian pushed the teachers to reflect on their own cultural identities and how those identities have affected their careers. The conference room buzzed loudly as pairs of teachers exchanged views and then rotated to other partners.

The group quieted as Camangian recounted his tumultuous adolescence and early adulthood in Los Angeles. He said he was kicked out of three junior high schools and briefly spent time in jail after he was caught driving with a loaded handgun and marijuana in 1996.

A gang member he met in jail asked him to look around, then added: “If you look closely, you’ll see we’re doing exactly what the system wants us to do.” That was a message Camangian wished he had learned from a classroom teacher.

“I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ said Camangian, who was in his early 20s at the time. “I learned what I needed to learn from a person I was not supposed to learn it from in a place where I was not supposed to learn it.”

Camangian, who had dropped out of school, obtained the equivalent of a diploma, then studied to be a teacher. He taught high school for seven years in Los Angeles, where he was named "most inspirational teacher" by then-Mayor Richard Riordan.
Research shows that children in high-poverty areas are 2 ½ times as likely to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers returning from war, Camangian said. He said a large number of the children regularly witness violence.

Camangian said the teachers should take their students’ experiences into account and “bring who they are into the classroom.” Teachers have to help students connect their learning to the outside world so they can develop a sense of control over their lives and, ultimately, a sense of hope, he said.

“So many children in our classrooms have internalized the narrative that they are the problem,” Camangian said. “Help them see a future beyond the one they see in front of them.”

When Camangian excused the teachers for lunch, the room applauded. The group returned in the afternoon to discuss the challenges their schools face in developing a culturally relevant curriculum and brainstorm on solutions.

Glenville and East Tech are in their first year as “Investment Schools,” targeted by CMSD for intensive intervention designed to improve the climate and raise achievement. Many of the teachers are new to their schools. Tuesday's training was the first in a four-part series for the two schools.

Glenville Principal Jackie Bell said Camangian’s message was important for the entire staff, regardless of their experience level. She said that once the teachers form a relationship with the students and open a line of communication, “then you’ll really start to pour knowledge into them.”

Steve Dantzler has been teaching an Army Junior ROTC class at Glenville for 12 years. He said he will continue to emphasize personal responsibility to students but after hearing the morning talk, he said, “I’m going to approach it in a different manner.”

Glenville science teacher Ben Manwaring, a first-year educator from New York state, said Camangian drove home a point that teachers need to “focus on students like human beings instead of vessels of learning.”

Glenville Spanish teacher Matt Grimes, also from New York, has been teaching for 2 ½ years but is new to CMSD. He said cultural competency has value across the country.

“It’s the change that needs to happen in every urban district,” he said. “These conversations need to happen.”