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‘Driving Change’ panel: Cultural competency of teachers affects students’ ability to thrive

Minnesota’s demographics are changing, creating a broader tapestry of cultures on Minnesota’s campuses.

Karen Hynick has become an advocate for re-thinking developmental education — the basic courses that many entering college students must take before moving on to college-level work.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

MinnPost has assembled a panel of experts and scholars who are rotating in commenting on each of the articles in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today, Troy Gonzalez, Ed.D., comments on “Beyond the basics: Karen Hynick and a better developmental education model.”

Troy Gonzalez
Troy Gonzalez

As the director of the master’s program in special education at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Troy Gonzalez knows that good teachers understand and appreciate the varied backgrounds of their students.

For instance, the teachers-to-be in Gonzalez’s program spend a lot of time working on identifying their own biases toward people of different ethnicities or cultures. The idea is to develop an awareness that can lead to creative teaching strategies.

“One thing I strongly believe in is moving away from the ‘deficit model’ – looking at learners and thinking that the problem always resides in them,” he said. “I go back to the individual teacher and how they see things.”

Each student in the special-education program, which is on St. Mary’s Minneapolis campus, goes through an “intercultural development inventory” to see how they interact with people who are both similar to and different from them, Gonzalez said. Then, the students, based on the inventory results, embark on a tailored plan – which can include up to 90 hours of study and training – to help them raise their “cultural competence.”

Describe, interpret, navigate

The students also are encouraged to immerse themselves in another culture and to undertake a so-called DIN activity in which they “describe,” “interpret” and “navigate” a setting different from their own. To accomplish this, many of the dozen students or so students in the program need to only cross the street, where they can take in the surroundings at a Somali shop.

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Gonzalez spoke of his department’s cultural initiative in response to a MinnPost profile of Karen Hynick, the system director of college transitions for MnSCU. In that post, Hynick has become an advocate for re-thinking developmental education — the basic courses that many entering college students must take before moving on to college-level work.

Part of her mission is to make sure that high-school students have a clear idea of what will be expected of them in college; another is to ensure that students get the support they need once they arrive on campus. It’s a growing challenge as Minnesota’s demographics change, creating a broader tapestry of cultures on Minnesota’s campuses.

Hynick, who got her start as a high-school teacher in Massachusetts and later worked as a teacher in that state’s prison system, served as a dean at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, one of the state’s most culturally diverse colleges, before coming to MnSCU. In that capacity, she looked deeply at many of the obstacles that keep students from succeeding in those tender initial years of college.

Allowing for differences

Gonzalez, also an assistant professor, sees value in the kinds of outreach Hynick is involved in, such as conducting workshops for teachers and facilitating meetings between high-school and college teachers regarding various disciplines. Even the students in the graduate classes he teaches, he said, can benefit from techniques that allow for differences among students. For instance, for some impromptu writing assignments in his classes, students are given extra time to articulate their thoughts and put them on paper, free of the pressure to finish within a strict time frame. The result can be that both fast writers and slow writers turn in exceptional work.

The St. Mary’s graduate school campus is south of downtown Minneapolis along Park Avenue.  (The school’s undergraduate branch is in Winona, while off-campus sites in Rochester and several Twins Cities suburbs host classes). Later this semester, the school, which holds social justice and diversity as part of its mission, will host a conference on intercultural competence through the special-education program.

Gonzalez said research shows that students of color are “over-represented” in special education, which provides help for secondary students with physical, mental or psychological needs. In other words, students of color are placed in special education in greater numbers than is warranted.

He believes college educators should guard against the same trend in developmental education. “Anyone can have any (teaching) tool that you give them, but it begins with the educator and their own biases toward kids of colors,” he said.