When my son’s patka (small Sikh turban) was pulled off his head at school, my initial reaction was to educate the children about what the patka represents. So I shared the story of “A Lion’s Mane” with my son’s Kindergarten class.
I presented the story in smaller chunks to ensure their understanding. It was fun and interactive; a royal procession left the room at the end of the day with hand-made crowns atop glowing faces. I felt these children had learned something new and that this was just the beginning of their journey as little global citizens.
For months prior to the incident, I had been advocating for my son’s needs in the classroom. His bi-lateral hearing aids and his very visible Sikh identity combine to define his whole self. Had I not experienced brilliant teachers in action, I may never have noticed the exclusionary behaviour of this classroom teacher (also Vice Principal of the school), or his once happy personality shrink to silence. I was hoping that the bullying incident might have encouraged his teachers to become more culturally responsive. Instead, it just became a stepping-stone leading back to square one.
The teachers showed no initiative to introduce more inclusive books or lesson plans into the classroom. The bullying incident was never addressed; children were not educated about the Sikh or any other diverse identity and a teachable moment had been dismissed. So I took it upon myself to introduce a culturally appropriate book to the class.
Our own cultural conditioning often informs our decisions. These decisions create ideas of what “normal” and “acceptable” look like. For teachers, hidden biases influence the way they teach, including their instruction and the books they share. It’s especially important for teachers to re-evaluate their own biases to be more culturally responsive to all children in the classroom, including identities they may not be as familiar with. Affirming every child’s individual identity in the classroom, allows each child to feel like a valued member of the classroom community and larger society, something my son’s teachers failed to provide him.
When educators feel ill equipped to raise dialogue about race and differences in the classroom, it sends a powerful message to children. Jeanne Copenhaver writes in her essay “Silence in the Classroom: Learning to Talk about Issues of Race: “The social stigma attached to candid discussions of racial themes creates a silence preventing explicit talk about race, and this silence leads to further, subtle segregation—even within multiethnic, otherwise harmonious classrooms.”
In my son’s case, his whole self comprises a diverse cultural makeup—his visible Sikh identity with being deaf—two identities the teacher and his school were unable to respond to. The teacher, who did not recognize her own cultural conditioning, heard my son speak and assumed he was hearing just fine. When some people learn a child is deaf, they immediately assume that he won’t be able to hear and speak to those around him. For a child who is profoundly deaf in one ear and much the same in the other, my son’s speech is pretty amazing (biased Mum’s opinion). This teacher ignored the protocols put in place to help him succeed in his learning environment because she continued to use her surface knowledge to inform her instruction. As a result, she failed to understand the nuances of this culture and respond appropriately to my son. Language access was being denied every single day.
After witnessing the teacher’s failure to affirm my child’s identity in the classroom and knowing that silence is discrimination, I advocated even more strongly for my son. But when the teachers still failed to reflect on the resources and strategies used to teach, I suspected the problem was systemic. Our experience at the District level confirmed this. Our District had only purchased beige-coloured hearing-aid parts, sending the message that only one ethnicity suffers from hearing loss. By the end of our conversation with them, it was agreed that disability does not discriminate based on race and that two choices would be offered in the future—beige and silver.
I wondered if Districts, Teaching Colleges and Universities were taking steps to train pre-service and seasoned teachers in culturally responsive education? I am not talking about multiculturalism here—diversity and inclusion training goes way beyond that superficial gesture. Think about it as a child who can read really complex books like The Hunger Games but when it comes time to contemplate a deeper issue within the story, s/he draws a blank. This is much like a qualified teacher who has gone to school but graduates without the skills needed to navigate the culturally responsive classroom or inform his/her instruction. There are blanks in learning that affect understanding.
Prior to moving to British Columbia, I believed Heritage Months offered little value to a consistent understanding of diversity and inclusion since the learning focus disappears after this month. It irked me when I saw all the resources for a particular month emerge once a year, as if that excuses the exclusion of diverse literature and culturally responsive learning for the remainder.
Then Black History Month came and went in my son’s classroom and the silence was deafening. It would have been a perfect year for kindergarteners to springboard their journey as global citizens, with the 50th anniversary of The Snowy Day, but the theme of winter lingered on instead. Children are impressionable and exposure to the global world matters, especially through multicultural books. Some may argue that the majority population of the small country school my son attended is not ethnically diverse, so cultural competency does not really matter. My response? The world and faces seen in their immediate community are diverse. It matters that they don’t associate these different faces with common stereotypes used rampantly in this area. These attitudes will inform their future perspectives about the people they work or do business with and ensure we build a more equitable world.
Questioning the lack of diversity in books for children has some people wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, multicultural folktales and legends are pulled out every once in a while aren’t they? Festivals that roll around each year are celebrated with cultural food and dress, right? What more is needed and why? Well, throw a visible faith identity and a different ability into that equation, and suddenly, the attention and body language completely shift to “a more comfortable conversation.” These are the conversations that need to be challenged. Racism, prejudice and bias against a person or group of people are learned behaviours. Talking about race makes us confront our own insecurities.
Cultural incompetency went on to affect my son in many other ways. Bullies learn that their behaviour can continue if nobody intervenes. The bullying, related to repeated touching or pulling of the hair knot that identifies many children of Sikh identity, persisted. It was no wonder my son was shutting down. I attempted to look up bullying statistics based on faith identity but found none in Canada. (In the U.S., bullying statistics for Sikhs are accessible through a social advocacy group called The Sikh Coalition).
It was just before spring break when I made the decision to pull my son from this school. I had reached a wall within the hierarchy. My breaking point came when I witnessed my child excluded from the classroom circle that morning.
A parent had come in to share her new baby with the class. When my son looked up and saw all the children moving towards the carpet, he looked to me for direction. The teacher had not thought to turn her FM system on (a transmitter synched up to a person’s hearing-aids to enable direct communication). By the time he had put his book away and followed the others to the carpet, the circle was already formed and nobody thought to offer him a space. The teacher was at her desk and so, to make a point, I went to sit beside him at the back. While this mother shared her news, the teacher decided she would now set up the FM and whispered instructions into her microphone such as “wiggle your arms in the air” at which point my son turned to me in frustration and said, “There’s too much noise–I can’t hear anything.” She laughed. Suffice to say, that was his last day. She never apologized nor acknowledged her complete failure over eight months to include my son in a caring classroom community. She was oblivious to creating a culturally responsive environment and even further away from being willing to learn.
After much anguish, our son is finally in a classroom that nurtures and guides his needs in a direction that has already brought back his voice and contagious ability to make everyone smile. I advocated for things to change for him and now I’m raising my voice to ensure this does not happen to other children. As a teacher myself, I know there are great, even phenomenal teachers out there, who absolutely care and want to grow with every opportunity. Don’t be afraid to find them.