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Teacher as Cultural Broker

Teachers communicating in Spanish with native speakers. Photo by Natalie Elders
Teachers communicating in Spanish with native speakers. Photo by Natalie Elders

Understanding and interpreting the cultures of second language learners in our schools is growing increasingly difficult as our student population becomes more diverse. Teachers are challenged to unravel the cultural puzzles of the students they teach, while providing cross-cultural understanding among all students. During a weeklong renewal seminar at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), teachers were introduced to the culture of Latino and Hispanic students in North Carolina, in a seminar entitled “Our New Neighbors: Latinos in North Carolina.” Consisting of 19 different countries each with a unique heritage, our neighbors to the South have distinctive notions of home, family, and community that impact their learning in the classroom.

Throughout our week together, we explored cultural norms and nuances, art, music, spirituality, health care, and Latino folk medicine. We looked in-depth at the complexities of immigration laws and why and how people immigrate to the United States. Teachers listened to a soft spoken and articulate Mexican immigrant who shared his experience of illegally crossing the border in pursuit of a better life. Teachers were deeply moved by his personal story of struggle and the challenges he faced in his new country, evoking empathy and understanding that prompted tears as well as deep respect. Now a successful business man with a wife and two children, he provided a personal story to the struggle that many immigrants face in this country.

During this seminar teachers used the spring 2007 issue of YES!, to deepen their understanding of human rights issues for immigrants. Several articles were aimed specifically at immigration and the challenges of illegal border crossings. Losing Rights at the Border explores how economic globalization is driving workers across the border, and how once in the United States, these much needed workers face numerous challenges: discrimination, lack of health care, proper housing, as well as deportation. In Humanity for the Crossing, author Catherine Bailey talks about efforts to provide water and resources for those attempting to travel across the searing heat of the Sonora Desert. These articles provide yet another lens to view the challenges and realties of immigrants.

Reading these articles, in addition to hearing a first-hand account of the perils, sorrow, and hardship of one man’s illegal border crossing provided a breadth of information and a glimpse in to the challenges of fellow humans. Teachers were able to explore their own cultural identity, while deepening their appreciation for another culture through direct experience and insightful journalism, and left NCCAT with a renewed conviction to promote social equity and improve the quality of life for Latino students. As one teacher said in our closing session, “Every teacher in North Carolina should be required to take this seminar.”


Jane Dalton is a Fellow at the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching. She can be reached at daltonj [at] nccat.org.

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