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Diverse Student Populations Are in the Classroom

Are you prepared to meet their needs?

First-year math teacher Linzy Bingcang can usually blend in with the student body at San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall High School. On this day, the former California Teachers Association-Student Program member moves nimbly about a classroom crowded with desks and equipment in jeans and a buttoned down blouse with rolled up sleeves. At age 24, Bingcang isn’t much older than her students and is just 5-feet tall, but when she stands in front of the classroom, the “responsibility of being the teacher” can be weighty; still, they know who’s in charge.

Beyond her youthful look and casual attire, Bingcang, who is Filipino-American, suggests that in many ways, she and her students exist a world apart. She describes her upbringing as “lower-middle class.” By contrast, many of her students come from families living on the economic margins. In school, Bingcang was considered the smart, “model minority.” Today, as a teacher in an urban, largely Hispanic school, she struggles to dispel that myth about Asians, while working to shatter perceptions that paint her students “as less than capable” of excelling.

Thurgood Marshall High is “a hard-to-staff school,” Bingcang says, but it’s where she chose to begin her teaching career in 2015. Bingcang admits that she is “surviving” her first year as a teacher and must remind herself that she “will get better” with time. Still, Bingcang is confident in knowing that she arrived better prepared than most of her peers, to teach students from cultures other than her own. What sets her apart are the skills and experiences she pursued and gained early to help better connect with diverse and low-income students—those who often have the greatest needs and usually have the least support.

Such preparation is critically needed in today’s classrooms. Here’s why: Public schools are facing a surge of students from low-income and homeless families. At the same time, nearly every rural, urban, and suburban community in the U.S. has surely and steadily become racially and ethnically diverse. And diverse students have become the new majority in the classroom.

The year 2014 marked a milestone: For the first time in the nation’s public schools, the majority of students came from racial and ethnic minority groups. According to findings from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 49.7 percent of students who entered public schools that year were White, compared to 50.3 percent of students who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native; or other non-White group. In addition, a majority of these students come from low-income families, concluded a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that will have profound implications for education and the nation.

Take a look at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, N.C. Students there reflect a rainbow of colors, cultures, and languages; but, on most days, poverty is the tie that binds many of them, says school social worker Keith G. Pemberton.

“Sometime our children experience so much before they even get to Oak Hill in the morning,” he adds. “They’re thinking where will my next meal come from, or will our lights be back on today?”

That’s why Pemberton regularly rallies a village of helping hands for Oak Hill students. He connects to concerned educators, parents, clergy, and community leaders who deliver the basics, like new underwear, toothbrushes, or warm winter coats. Together, they also work to narrow the opportunity gap that can keep low-income students from accessing quality schools and teachers, resources and achieving academic success. At Oak Hill, that can mean linking boys and girls with caring, adult mentors, securing trauma counseling; and planting the school’s motto: “Ascending from Good to Great,” in the minds of young believers.

The Essence of Cultural Competence

At the school in San Francisco where Bingcang teaches, student needs are also great; more than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In California, like in 20 other states, at least 50 percent of all public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to research released a year ago by the Southern Education Foundation. Recent immigrants, Bingcang says, make up another “large majority” at their school.

After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles with an undergraduate major in psychology and a minor in education studies, Bingcang trained— before becoming a teacher—for more than a year in California schools that reflected demographics and cultures that were unlike hers. Before becoming a full-time teacher, Bingcang tapped into the essence of culturally responsive teaching. In that training, she learned to support and acknowledge students’ cultures, languages, and differences; and how to build and leverage relationships with those she taught and mentored.

Cultural competence, say education experts, should be part of the training for any educator who desires to be an effective, compassionate practitioner with the skills to serve all students. Still, too many new teachers leave college unprepared to work with low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse students. That was the consensus of a 2015 Congressional roundtable discussion of teachers and teacher educators hosted by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) that focused on strategies for strengthening the teacher workforce.

Bingcang agrees. “If I had started teaching right out of undergrad, I would have been absolutely unprepared. I definitely would not have had the confidence to lead a group of high school students, and I definitely don’t think I would have had the wisdom that comes from age and experience,” adds Bingcang whose entry into the teaching profession benefits greatly from working with diverse students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as a part of the City Year Corp and from participating in a yearlong teacher residency program.

During City Year, Bingcang realized that the immigrant and underserved students she taught and mentored needed quality teachers and strong advocates. To step into those roles, she “searched for teaching programs” that provided her with exposure to students, experience in the classroom, and an introduction to the community and cultures. The San Francisco Teacher Residency—a unique partnership of the LAUSD, Stanford University, University of San Francisco, and the United Educators of San Francisco—was Bingcang’s way forward.

Prepare to work with all students

Kali Davis, a fifth-year teacher at Melrose Elementary School in Florida, shares Bingcang’s fire. Davis entered the profession to give underserved students what she had, and what she says they deserve—a great teacher and opportunities to succeed. Davis, 28, is a White woman. In the U.S. that makes her the norm in a teacher workforce that remains overwhelmingly White, female, and middle class despite significant changes in public school student demographics.

While a graduate student at the University of Florida (UF), Davis worked hard to secure teaching internships on Gainesville’s East side “where the highest poverty neighborhoods and schools are located. I tried to immerse myself.”

Her efforts paid off. Davis landed her first job at Williams Elementary School, where she interned. When the principal couldn’t afford to hire her as a teacher, she accepted a “paraeducator/teacher assistant” position there. A year later, she became a fourth-grade teacher at Williams Elementary.

For Ester de Jong, director of the School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida (UF), demographics about who’s in today’s classrooms point to what teacher preparation must do to ready its graduates for the students in classrooms now.

At UF, “our goal,” says de Jong, “is to prepare our students to be sensitive to work with all students and to recognize their differences. We want them to be eager and able to teach in the schools where students need them the most.” Davis made the connection, even when no program was in place at UF to expose her to diverse students. Today, the university offers Advancing the Development of Preservice Teachers or Project ADePT as a “a blueprint for training future educators” to work especially with groups of students who “have shown patterns of underachievement.”

For Angela Waiters Jackson, Ed.S., president of North Carolina’s Guilford County Association of Educators and a former teacher of English language learners (ELL), “Those are the only children that I know and have worked with. That’s where my passion lies.”

Teaching is Jackson’s second career. Seeing “too many students who weren’t learning,” propelled her from a corner office in corporate America to a bustling classroom in a high-poverty school. Jackson, who is Black, has spent most of her 14 years in education teaching ELL. At first, Jackson recalls her “struggle” and discomfort to reach them. What changed was her interest and desire “to know” her students, their families, and learn about their cultures. Exposure and experience, the things that Jackson says taught her the most as a new teacher working with diverse students, are also what she wishes more colleges offered their teacher candidates.

Most teacher preparation programs provide at least some coursework in diversity; a few educators even receive preservice cultural competence education; other educators are exposed to these issues through in-service training. But, these times demand that new and veteran educators know how to navigate issues of diversity, institutional racism, social justice, and culture at school and in the classroom. Without such needed support and training, educators can flounder in today’s diverse classrooms or decide to flee the profession, suggest Jackson, who also delivers cultural competence training for NEA educators.

“Including cultural competence and social justice in the teacher preparation curriculum,” says Jackson, is among the essential first steps to preparing educators to meet the needs of all students.

Preparing to Teach the New Majority of Public School Students

Bingcang and Davis Offer Advice


“Spend time in schools that serve the new majority of students. Gain as much experience as you can by working with this student population to make sure you want to be there. Students deserve teachers who are committed to them in the long-term.” —Linzy Bingcang

What to Read

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov. “I am currently reading the new version, Teach Like a Champion 2.0. Another book is Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement by Eric Jensen. —Kali Davis


“It’s so important to know something, anything about your students. I can tell my students appreciate it when I mention something that I noticed about them. It shows them that I am paying attention and care about more than just their ‘math-selves.’” —Linzy Bingcang

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