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As classroom demographics change, teachers learn to bridge the gap

Demographic changes in America's classrooms require preparation for teachers in training.

In classrooms across the United States, former minorities are becoming the majority. Some 53 million students, from kindergartners through high school seniors, currently attending America's schools are more diverse than ever, with white children no longer making up the majority in many schools.

But while the student demographics have been rapidly shifting, the teacher population has stayed the same: Around 80% of them are white, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

At Towson University's College of Education, Laurie Mullen is dedicated to bridging that gap. Since taking over the position of dean last year, Mullen has put diversity front and center of Towson's mission in teacher training.

"There's growing research that shows that [preschool through high school] students will do academically better if they have teachers who have similar cultural, racial, social experiences as they do," Mullen said.

Recruiting a more diverse workforce in teaching is an important part of the remedy, and Mullen's department has been actively doing so through a new scholarship program and by exploring partnerships with Baltimore City Schools.

But another part of the remedy is simply making the teacher-training curriculum more culturally relevant, enabling teachers to be more effective at educating any classroom demographic regardless of their own backgrounds.

"We can't change who people are and where they come from. But what we can do is address the curriculum while they're here and make sure they understand who they are as people — which includes understanding your race and what that means for you as an educator," Mullen said.

Often, Mullen explained, the difference plays out when teachers employ examples to help illustrate a concept. If the examples they use are unrelatable, the lesson falls flat. While an anecdote based on going to the mall with friends might seem universal, Mullen cautions that many children would not be able to share that experience.

"Our examples are based on who we are and our experiences growing up. If we grew up white and middle class — like many teachers did — we have to be careful that we're aware of that and use a variety of examples that all children might be able to access," she said.

Much of this goes back to a core value at the College of Education known as the learner-centered approach.

"When I went through teacher training in the early '80s ... I was taught the strategy as a teacher, and if the student didn't get it, it wasn't my fault," Mullen said. "Luckily, over the years that's changed. Teachers are now responsible for every learner in the classroom to excel."

That means if students are making mistakes on exams, for example, those mistakes should direct the teacher to where the instruction needs to go fill the knowledge gaps. One strategy for teachers trying to get the point across is to devise a variety of ways to illustrate concepts.

"Really excellent teachers know their content so well that if you didn't understand it when I explained it one way, I have four other ways to describe that same scenario," Mullen said.

While there have been great strides in the approach to education in America, Mullen said there are still institutional barriers — such as standardized testing — that are holding students back.

"Oftentimes schools aren't structured in a way to allow us to access student learning. ... We can really begin to break down how the school structure inhibits the opportunities for kids to learn, which is terribly ironic," she said.

"We know that all children can learn. It's just that we have constructed schooling in a way that makes it looks like they can't. And this is simply not true."

—Leah Soleil for Towson University

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