Teaching Culturally: Encounters With Immigrant Students

by Sarah J. Graham, D.M.A., Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, Idaho

He earned straight As in school since coming to the United States and was well liked by his teachers and classmates. Adopted at age nine from a small west African country, and having only been in the United States for six years, there were still many cultural things he did not grasp as easily as his classmates who were born and raised here. His family lived in a community that lacked ethnic diversity so he was fairly conspicuous at school and everywhere else he went. He was quiet and kept a low profile so as not to attract attention. In Economics, the teacher moved around the classroom, helping students and observing their progress during class, as effective teachers do, but it made him uncomfortable and anxious. The anxiety made him even more hesitant to approach his teacher or ask questions in class- so he never did, nor did he attend before or after school sessions to improve his test scores or get help, even when his teacher suggested that he do so.

Meanwhile, his younger sister, at 9 years of age, was tall, and looked older and more mature than most of her classmates. She bristled with discomfort at the frequent comments about her height and looking older. She was quiet and did her best to blend in with her classmates when adults were present. She found joy in singing and she began singing in her school choir, though she was the only chorister that would not look at the director during performances, instead, staring at the ground.

Consider the two students in the above narrative. What conclusions might one make about each of them? One might see a black teenage boy who is quiet and lazy, never asking questions, and doing the minimum he needs to do to pass the class. One might see a little black girl with self-esteem issues, who just does not have the confidence to look up and ‘watch the director.’ After a year of encouragement and being told to watch the director, one might decide that she is simply choosing not to watch the director and that her attitude and motivation is lacking. There are as many ways to interpret student behavior, as there are people interpreting those behaviors; sometimes our interpretations are versions of assumptions based on stereotypes or past experiences with similar students.

Over the last 40 years, there has been a great deal of movement made towards broadening curricula to be culturally inclusive. In “Effective Multicultural Curriculum Transformation Across Disciplines,” Christine Clark notes that while many practitioners continue to question the value of a multicultural curricula, most have moved through the debate regarding its value and on to looking at best practices for incorporating multicultural elements into the curriculum.

In the realm of music education, there has been a rise in the use, study, and performance of multicultural and ethnic music over the last thirty-plus years. In our own organization, an ‘Ethnic Music Repertoire and Resources’ area was first introduced in 1979 as the ‘Ethnic and Minority Concerns Committee,’ led by Eugene Simpson. The committee was the result of discussion at the Symposium for Black Choral Conductors, which occurred in September of 1979 at Glassboro State College in New Jersey. Included in the recorded proceedings of the symposium are goals for the committee, as well as the recommendations to ACDA regarding the involvement of minority members at both national and division conventions. In 1992, the committee’s name was changed to “Ethnic and Multicultural Perspectives,” which remained until the recent restructuring of ACDA committees into ‘Repertoire and Resource’ areas. From its inception, this committee has largely dealt with the inclusion of minority populations and the promotion of ethnic and multicultural music in performance and practice, which is somewhat consistent with the progression in educational philosophy and practice as well.

Educational practice has shifted in the last twenty years from simply including multi-cultural components in the curriculum to identifying culturally responsive, relevant, or sustaining teaching practices, identified by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1995. Originally, she focused on traditionally under-achieving urban classrooms with large numbers of African-American students, though she notes more recent research looking at various generations of immigrants who have settled in specific areas of the United States and understanding the unique cultural implications of each (Ladson-Billings).

While inter-country adoption numbers have decreased over the last 15 years, the number of refugees who have entered the U.S. in this period has increased (Admissions and Arrivals; Inter-country Adoption). As a result, America’s schools continue seeing a large influx of students from increasingly diverse ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. This aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is usually explored in English Language Learning circles, as in the case study by Griselda A. Tilley-Lubbs, published in the October 2011 issue of the World Journal of Education. Her study involved preparing educators for teaching immigrant and non-English speakers through participation in service-learning opportunities in immigrant communities.

Given the number of immigrant students in American classrooms, regardless of the means of immigration, it is increasingly important for teachers to be competent in cultural issues beyond language. Many of the immigrant students in our classrooms spent a good deal of their childhoods in their country or culture of origin, therefore having a worldview and educational background entirely different from students who grew up in the U.S., even if they hail from an English-speaking country. While it is nearly impossible to be culturally competent in all cultures, one might begin by looking at how children are perceived, raised, and treated in other cultural systems.

While working with teachers in Hannah Town, a section of inner city Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid-1990’s, this author observed teachers using canes- or large sticks- to physically punish students for both major and minor infractions. On a visit to a teacher’s college in Kingston, the conversation with the students in teacher education was primarily about positive alternatives to physical punishment in disciplining students. This idea did not seem viable to them since it was so foreign from they way they have always done things and it did not take into consideration the cultural implications of the power paradigms of the family and community. The practice of corporal punishment is common in many developing and third world countries, as is the practice of the school personnel automatically serving in loco parentis (Mitchell & Bryan 2007). Caribbean children have expectations placed on them, such as showing respect for parents, adults and other authority figures by not disagreeing with them, obeying them, not offering unsolicited advice or opinions, and by demonstrating a high level of academic achievement (Gopaul-McNichol 1993). There are similar trends in expectations and treatment of children in other parts of the world, such as the West African country of Ghana.

In general, there are several things educators can do to prepare for effectively working with students from other cultures and ethnic traditions in their classes. They include, but are not limited to the following:

1. Travel. While traveling requires money and planning, there is no substitute for experiencing other cultures first-hand. Will your choir tour experience to Europe prepare you for having immigrant students in your classroom? Perhaps not directly, but it will instill the experience of being immersed in in a culture that is foreign from one’s own culture, where the language is often different, and customs and cultural norms are different. On a very basic level, one learns that there are many ways of living.
2. Exercise intellectual curiosity about non-western cultures. Watch the travel channel for shows about non-western places, or find cultural reading material that stimulates this curiosity.
3. Attend cultural festivals. Many large universities will have festivals for and by their International student populations. Communities with large immigrant populations often have festivals celebrating important holidays that are significant to them.

Acquiring cultural competence is a process, and often happens one experience at a time. Seeking cultural competence about a particular student is much more easily focused if one is presented directly with information about the student. In this case, one might consider the following suggestions:

1. Research the student’s country of origin. This is easy with the prominence of the internet- look on the state department’s website for information to get started. Find out what typical educational systems are like for students there.
2. Seek out individuals in your community who might be from the same country, or geographical area and communicate with them about culture, customs, and educational practices.
3. Talk to the student’s family. The family may be a great resource as to the student’s educational and cultural history, as well as any issues that may inform the student’s ability to perform, cope, or function in your classroom.
4. Take great care when talking to the student about his or her culture, programming repertoire from his or her culture, or asking questions about his or her culture in class. Some students, particularly adoptees or refugees, likely have trauma-related issues attached to their country of origin.

Now, consider the following story about the two students from the opening narrative and think about how the experiences in their country of origin might have implications for their behaviors. Additionally, think about how some of the suggestions in this article might help the educators who encounter these students?

In a small West African village, the teacher paced around the room of young children, cane in hand- waiting to discipline anyone who was out of line. The boy’s small pencil that had been hand-whittled to reveal a sharp point of lead slid off the paper and onto the desk, spoiling the paper and soiling the desk. His heart began beating faster and he shifted his eyes back and forth to see if the teacher noticed, as her cane came down- “Whap!” on the desk. He knew she saw his mistake. He made sure to keep his eyes averted- one learns from birth never to make eye contact with elders, nor to ask questions or speak- unless spoken to. She pointed the cane to the front of the schoolroom and shouted at the boy in his native tribal language. The too-thin, seven-year-old boy stood and shuffled his bare feet along the dirt floor to the front of the room. Once there, he bent over and put his hands on his ankles and the teacher proceeded to whack him hard several times on the back of his upper legs. His early educational experiences taught him to fear elders and anyone in positions of authority from a very young age. He also learned that even small mistakes would get him caned. A couple of years later this boy would find himself in an orphanage, where he would encounter a young girl, age unknown, though she looked to be two or three years old. Every time she soiled herself, she would be caned. The boy saw this and took on the role of parent, caretaker, and protector, always cleaning up her mess before it was discovered. The girl learned to trust him, and him alone because she never knew her mother or father, and all adults proved to be unsafe. Like the boy, she learned never to speak to adults or authority figures, nor to make eye contact with them.

Does the opening narrative take on a different meaning when one has an understanding of the student’s culture of origin? Perhaps knowing the specifics of a student’s background are not necessary, but having an understanding of the cultural expectations of children and adults in the student’s country of origin would aid educators in making the assimilation process at school much smoother, enabling our immigrant students to be more successful.

Works Cited and Consulted

“Admissions & Arrivals.” Retrieved June 27, 2017, from

Gopaul-McNicol, S. (1993). Working with West Indian families. New York: Guilford Press.

“Inter-country Adoption, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Department of State.” Retrieved June 25, 2017, from

Kauffman, J. M., Conroy, M., Gardner, R., & Oswald, D. (2008). “Cultural Sensitivity in the Application of Behavior Principles to Education.” Education and Treatment of Children, 31(2), 239-262. doi:10.1353/etc.0.0019

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). “Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: A.k.a. the remix.” Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74-84,135.

Mitchell, N., & Bryan, J. (2007). “School-Family-Community Partnerships: Strategies for School Counselors Working with Caribbean Immigrant Families.” Professional School Counseling,10(4), 399-409.

“Repertoire Ethnic and Multicultural History.” ACDA website, retrieved June 25, 2017 from

Saltzman, Royce. “President’s Comments.” The Choral Journal, December 1979, p. 4, 23.

Simpson, Eugene. “Proceedings of the Symposium for Black Choral Conductors,” September 8, 1979, Glassboro, NJ.

Tilley-Lubbs, G. A. (2011). “Preparing Teachers for Teaching Immigrant Students Through Service-Learning in Immigrant Communities.” World Journal of Education,1(2).