611. About a Balancing Act

As we teach our children, we try to get them ready for the part of the world they’re probably going to end up living in. We tend not to teach children a lot about farming unless we think they’re likely to become farmers. We spend more time teaching them how to use the language and dialect they’re most likely to need to use than we do teaching them other languages and dialects. And we try to teach them what will enable them to get along all right in the schools they’ll probably attend.
If parents want to teach their children ways that are different from the ways their local schools teach, they try to do that. They may send them to different schools, home-school them, or find other ways to counteract some of the influence schools have. It can be difficult to provide alternatives to regular schooling, but to some parents, the availability of alternatives is pretty important.
I remember parents who kept their children out of school around Halloween, lest their children feel pressure to participate in a holiday that, in these parents’ view, glorified what deserved no glory. I remember parents who objected to my suggestion that their child had perceptual difficulties that, if confirmed, warranted some special instruction; they believed that their child “saw spirits” that distracted him, and we should stay out of this. There are all kinds of objections parents have to what goes on in school.
Teachers have a responsibility to try to convey respect for differences; if parents request reasonable modifications because of cultural or religious differences, teachers ought to make efforts to incorporate those modifications into their curricula. A lot of that goes on in school. In fact, I remember learning about some cultural differences by being asked to make modifications. For example, a parent once asked me not to say to a child, while reprimanding him, “Look at me when I talk to you!” In that child’s culture, looking down at the floor was a sign of respect. So my angry demand must have been confusing for him.
But children are probably going to spend a lot of time surrounded by whatever culture is dominant where they live. Like everyone, children from non-dominant cultures gradually learn how much of themselves to keep and how much to adjust in order to make it in the world they live in. This learning is about both culture and individuality.
So teachers have another balancing act to manage – to be sensitive to differences as they appear, and yet to teach children how to get along in the dominant culture. Many times, teachers have to ask themselves which way to think about specific behaviors, skills, or subjects. Whether you think a teacher is being insensitive to your child by emphasizing his or her uniqueness or by failing to help her/him learn how to fit in, it may well be that that teacher is struggling with the balancing act I’ve just described.

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