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Teachers adapt to increasing student diversity

As students become more diverse - in every sense - their future teachers head out of state to prepare

Jun 22, 2018 at 5:00 am
    Stella Sumaili (left) and Jasmine Tran work on a puzzle during free time in their first grade class at Alexander Elementary in Iowa City on Friday, May 18, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    Before they can complete their teacher certification, aspiring teachers attending Iowa colleges must spend time working with “diverse groups” of students with “diverse learning needs,” according to the Iowa Code.

    In one of the least racially and culturally diverse states in the country, finding those classrooms can present a challenge.

    “There are certain areas of the state where, looking at that ethnicity and culture, you can walk in a classroom and there are all white faces,” said Julie Finnern, former dean of Buena Vista University School of Education and Exercise Science. “It’s just that geographical location.”

    For Buena Vista and other higher education institutions, finding a diverse set of classrooms for teachers training can mean commutes as long as 60 miles one-way, spring break trips to schools near Houston and classroom placements as far away as Spain.


    That’s where Taylor Scudder, who graduated from the University of Iowa in December, traveled to fulfill her certification requirements. She moved to Spain to work in a private school, where half the lessons were taught in English. That training came after practice teaching in a fifth-grade classroom in Marion, where most of her students were white and native English speakers.

    “By placing us at all the schools they do, we learned how to incorporate and celebrate diversity in our classroom every single day,” Scudder said. “I pride myself on being culturally competent, and that’s something I’ve learned from all the schools I was placed at during my time at Iowa.”

    The young teacher is one of many who recently entered the teaching workforce with purposeful, targeted training on how to educate all of Iowa’s students — who are, almost every year, becoming more diverse.


    Iowa still is one of the most monolithic states in the country. While demographics are shifting, most Iowans still are white. Few are first-generation Americans. Most speak English at home.

    But take only children and teenagers living in Iowa, and the picture shifts. The vast majority of young Iowans are enrolled in a public school, where almost 75 percent of students are white, according to the Iowa Department of Education. That’s still more than many parts of the United States, but it’s a notable difference compared to Iowa’s overall population, which is about 91 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

    There are pockets of the state — including Storm Lake in northwest Iowa, where Buena Vista University has its main campus — where student populations have become more diverse more quickly. Storm Lake is one of only eight school districts in Iowa where most of the students are not white.

    That demographic is a benefit to Buena Vista as it searches for school placements for its student teachers.

    “The schools are getting more diverse, which, actually, is helpful,” said Roberta Hersom, Buena Vista School of Education assistant dean. “That goes along with the population of the state as a whole.”


    While racially and culturally diverse classrooms often are the most difficult to find within Iowa’s borders, universities emphasize all kinds of diversity when placing aspiring teachers in classrooms.

    “Diversity isn’t just different racial groups in your classroom. Diversity is gender, it’s ethnicity. It can be cultural, it can be racial, it can be socioeconomic, cognitive diversity within classrooms, behavioral and even physical,” Hersom said. “There are a lot of different ways to describe diversity. Instead of concentrating on one, we try to help them understand that there is diversity in every classroom and in every school, and that as a teacher you’re expected to be able to deal with that.”

    To ensure teacher candidates are interacting with a wide breadth of students, most universities track and code each candidate’s school placement — monitoring the size of the classroom she works in, the socioeconomic status of students, ethnic makeup, English proficiency and other factors.

    “If I’m in Storm Lake … that works well,” Hersom said. “If I’m in Spencer, that’s a little bit different because the Spencer school district doesn’t have quite the diversity as far as race and ethnicity, but they have other types of diversity in their school population.”

    It’s a disservice to consider only race or ethnicity when looking for diverse groups, Finnern said.

    “But we can’t use that to block the need for understanding the ethnic and racial diversity piece,” she said.

    Graph by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

    Graph by John McGlothlen / The Gazette



    While Iowa’s student population — the vast majority of whom attend public school — becomes less white, its teacher workforce continues to be overwhelmingly white and female.

    Building a diverse teacher workforce still is a priority for most institutions, Finnern said.

    “Think of it like windows and mirrors,” she said. “We want new perspectives and to help teachers see new things, but we also want teachers to go into schools and for the children to see mirrors. Within curriculum, teaching methods and teachers that they see, we want them to see mirrors of people and ideas and stories that reflect their own experiences.”

    But the reality of Iowa’s teacher workforce remains. Every child here — regardless of his race, gender or family’s wealth — most likely will be taught by a white teacher.

    “I know Iowa’s got some challenges around diversity, got some work to do,” said Eddie Moore, a researcher with a doctorate from the University of Iowa and the author of “The Guide for White Women who Teach Black Boys.”

    Black children, for nearly all of American history, have been overrepresented in special education, disciplinary referrals and suspensions, while lagging behind in high school graduation rates, Moore noted recently during a stopover in Iowa City promoting his book.

    “I understand that every student comes from a different background...I think celebrating that in your classroom and figuring out ways you can bring that into your instruction is really important, so you can be more relatable to your kids.”

    - Taylor Scudder

    Substitute teacher, Alexander Elementary


    Even in Iowa, where the highest perc­­entage of high school students — about 91 percent — in the country complete their high school education, only 80 percent of black students graduate.

    Other racial minority groups, except Asian-Americans, similarly fall short of the state’s overall rate.

    The discrepancy, Moore is quick to point out, is not the fault of the children.

    “We’re really looking at some of these numbers and trying to provide some tools and support to help us (educators) do our job better,” he said. “We wanted to be really careful not to say these boys are bad, to blame black boys to make them out to be the bad person.”

    It’s not the fault of a mostly white teacher workforce either, he added.

    “We want to look at the system, the structure,” he said. “Something is going on in the process and the system that is playing a role in some of these gaps.”

    Being purposeful about training, preparing and equipping teachers to work with every student — not just those who have historically succeeded in traditional school settings — could begin to close stubborn achievement gaps, Moore believes.

    To that end, higher education institutions stress the importance of understanding students’ cultural backgrounds as teachers try to reach all students.

    “One of the goals for a teacher candidate is … to walk into a learning setting and know how to understand the cultural context of the school, the community, individual students where they are teaching,” Finnern said. “As they understand that cultural context, they can make changes and make wise changes about the pedagogy they use.

    “That doesn’t come automatically for a lot of people — to realize the same way of teaching does not work with every group of children or every individual learner.”


    To find diverse groups where their teacher candidates can train, Iowa institutions training the next generation of teachers have turned to outsourcing.

    Scudder headed to Spain, and other college students head to schools in Alaska, Chicago and the East Coast to learn how to teach all students.

    During spring break, students in Iowa State University’s College of Education regularly head to the Aldine Independent School District outside of Houston to experience the nearly 70,000-student school district, where almost 80 percent of children are Hispanic.

    “It offers something that we can’t necessarily offer here in Iowa,” said Daryl Sackmann, an ISU clinical experiences coordinator who specializes in out-of-state teaching experiences. “Our primarily Caucasian students are definitely the minority.”

    Clinical experiences — also called field experiences or student-teaching placements, depending on the university — are designed to get students out of their comfort zone.

    “Even if they stay in Iowa, we try to give them diverse opportunities,” Sackmann said. “Somebody from Cedar Rapids, for instance, sometimes they are coming from an urban school, but sometimes it’s way more suburban. So we try to give them that rural experience.

    “We take them out of their comfort zone so they’re well-rounded.”

    Teacher candidates can express a preference for a certain type of school, but, ultimately, teacher preparation programs default to a preference for diverse settings.

    “Being intentional about that and really tracking student experiences was very important,” Finnern said. “We could look and see this student has only been in small rural schools, and make placements in a large urban school.”

    Regardless of where a teacher ultimately lands a job, higher education officials believe they’re better for experiences elsewhere.

    “Students come back with diverse perspectives about how students learn, and can use that learning to really excel with the students you do have in your classroom,” ISU’s Sackmann said. “I know they all take something away from it, whether they’re coming back to Iowa or going somewhere else.”



    The cultural competency Scudder honed in college while teaching students of various ages, family incomes, cultures and home languages has improved how she teaches, she said.

    Since graduating, Scudder has worked as a permanent substitute teacher at Alexander Elementary in Iowa City where, on a given day, she could be working in any of the school’s kindergarten through sixth-grade classrooms.

    “It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done,” she said. “I can’t walk through the hallways without some student saying, ‘Ms. Scudder, Ms. Scudder!’”

    Her experience in college has been essential as she navigates multiple classrooms in a school where almost half the students are black, 30 percent are English language learners and 70 percent belong to lower-income families.

    “I understand that every student comes from a different background,” Scudder said. “It doesn’t have to mean their ethnic background. It could be familial, or the state they lived in before. I think celebrating that in your classroom and figuring out ways you can bring that into your instruction is really important, so you can be more relatable to your kids.”

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    This story appears in the June 24, 2018 edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Find it in The Gazette, or single copies and subscriptions are available for purchase at

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