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How training can prepare teachers for diversity in their classrooms

Teachers need support to make sure they deal well with diversity and conflict. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

How training can prepare teachers for diversity in their classrooms

Teachers need support to make sure they deal well with diversity and conflict. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Teachers have been shaping lives for centuries. Everyone remembers their favourite (and of course their least favourite) teachers. This important group of people even has its own special day, marked each October by the United Nations.

Teachers are at the coal face when it comes to watching societies change. South Africa’s classrooms, for instance, look vastly different today than they did two decades ago. They bring together children from different racial, cultural, economic and social backgrounds. This can sometimes cause conflict as varied ways of understanding the world bump up against each other.

How can teachers develop the skills to work with these differences in productive ways? What practical support do they need to bring the values of the Constitution to life in their classes?

To answer these questions, my colleagues and I in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University have put together four examples from modules within our faculty’s teacher education programme. These ideas are by no means exhaustive; other institutions also tackle these issues. What we present here is based on our own research, teaching and experience and is open to further discussion.

1. Working with multilingualism

English is only South Africa’s fifth most spoken home language. Teachers must remember this: even if their pupils are speaking English in the classroom, their home languages may be far more diverse.

Trainee teachers can benefit enormously from a course on multilingual education. In our faculty, for instance, students are given the chance to place multilingual education in a South African policy framework. They model multilingual classroom strategies like code switching and translation. They visit schools to observe how such strategies are applied in the real classroom. Students then report back on whether this approach helps learners from different language backgrounds to participate actively in the lesson.

There’s also great value in introducing student teachers to the notion of “World Englishes”. This focuses on the role of English in multilingual communities, where it is seen as being used for communication and academic purposes rather than as a way for someone to be integrated into an English community.

2. Supporting diverse learning needs

Student teachers must be trained to identify and support pupils’ diverse learning needs. This helps teachers to identify and address barriers to learning and development and encourages linkages between the home and the school.

This is even more meaningful when it is embedded in experiential learning. For instance, in guided exercises with their own class groups, our students engage with their feelings, experiences and thinking about their own backgrounds and identities. Other activities may be based on real scenarios, such as discussing the case of a boy who was sanctioned by his school for wearing his hair in a way prescribed by his religion.

In these modules we focus on language, culture, race, socioeconomic conditions, disability, sexual orientation, learning differences and behavioural, health or emotional difficulties. The students also learn how to help vulnerable learners who are being bullied.

And these areas are constantly expanding. At Stellenbosch University, we’ve recently noted that we need to prepare teachers to deal with the bullying of LGBT learners. They also need to be equipped with the tools to support pupils who’ve immigrated from elsewhere in Africa.

3. Advancing a democratic classroom

Courses that deal with the philosophy of education are an important element of teacher education. These explore notions of diversity, human dignity, social justice and democratic citizenship.

In these classes, student teachers are encouraged to see their own lecture rooms as spaces for open and equal engagement, with regard and respect for different ways of being. They’re given opportunities to express and engage with controversial views. This stands them in good stead to create such spaces in their own classrooms.

Most importantly, students are invited to critically reconsider commonly held beliefs – and to disrupt their ideas of the world – so that they might encounter the other as they are and not as they desire them to be. In such a classroom, a teacher promotes discussion and debate. She cultivates respect and regard for the other by listening to different accounts and perspectives. Ultimately, the teacher accepts that she is just one voice in the classroom.

4. Understanding constitutional rights in the classroom

All the approaches to teacher education described here are underpinned by the Constitution.

The idea is that teacher education programmes should develop teachers who understand notions of justice, citizenship and social cohesion. Any good teacher needs to be able to reflect critically on their own role as leader and manager within the contexts of classrooms, schools and the broader society. This includes promoting values of democracy, social justice and equality, and building attitudes of respect and reciprocity.

A critical reflective ethos is encouraged. Students get numerous opportunities to interrogate, debate, research, express and reflect upon educational challenges, theories and policies, from different perspectives, as these apply to practice. This is all aimed at building a positive school environment for everyone.

Moving into teaching

What about when students become teachers themselves?

For many new teachers these inclusive practices are not easy to implement in schools. One lecturer in our faculty has been approached by former students who report that as beginner teachers, they don’t have “the status or voice to change existing discriminatory practices and what some experience as the resistance to inclusive education”. This suggests that ongoing discussion and training in both pre-service and in-service education is needed.

At the same time, however, there are signs that these modules are having a positive impact. Students post comments and ideas on social media and lecturers regularly hear from first-time teachers about how useful their acquired knowledge is in different contexts. Many are also eager to study further so they can explore the issues more deeply.

Everything I’ve described here is part of one faculty’s attempts to provide safe spaces where student teachers can learn to work constructively with the issues pertaining to diversity in education. In doing so, we hope they’ll become part of building a country based on respect for all.

Author’s note: I am grateful to my colleagues Lynette Collair, Nuraan Davids, Jerome Joorst and Christa van der Walt for the ideas contained in this article.