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The Dilemma of Cultural Responsiveness and Professionalization: Listening Closer to Immigrant Teachers Who Teach Children of Recent Immigrants


by Jennifer Keys Adair, Joseph Tobin & Angela E. Arzubiaga — 2012

Background/Context: Many scholars in the fields of teacher education, multicultural education, and bilingual education have argued that children of recent immigrants are best served in classrooms that have teachers who understand the cultural background and the home language of their students. Culturally knowledgeable and responsive teachers are important in early education and care settings that serve children from immigrant families. However, there is little research on immigrant teachers’ cultural and professional knowledge or on their political access to curricular/pedagogical decision-making.

Focus of Study: This study is part of the larger Children Crossing Borders (CCB) study: a comparative study of what practitioners and parents who are recent immigrants in multiple countries think should happen in early education settings. Here, we present an analysis of the teacher interviews that our team conducted in the United States and compare the perspectives of immigrant teachers with those of their nonimmigrant counterparts, specifically centering on the cultural expertise of immigrant teachers who work within their own immigrant community.

Research Design: The research method used in the CCB project is a variation of the multivocal ethnographic research method used in the two Preschool in Three Cultures studies. We made videotapes of typical days in classrooms for 4-year-olds in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings in five countries (England, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States) and then used these videos as cues for focus group interviews with parents and teachers. Using a coding framework designed by the national CCB team, we coded 30 focus group interviews. The coding framework was designed to facilitate comparisons across countries, cities, and categories of participants (teachers and parents, immigrant and nonimmigrant).

Findings/Results: Teachers who are themselves immigrants from the same communities of the children and families they serve seem perfectly positioned to bridge the cultural and linguistic worlds of home and school. However, our study of teachers in five U.S. cities at a number of early childhood settings suggests that teachers who are themselves immigrants often experience a dilemma that prevents them from applying their full expertise to the education and care of children of recent immigrants. Rather than feeling empowered by their bicultural, bilingual knowledge and their connection to multiple communities, many immigrant teachers instead report that they often feel stuck between their pedagogical training and their cultural knowledge.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Bicultural, bilingual staff, and especially staff members who are themselves immigrants from the community served by the school, can play an invaluable role in parent–staff dialogues, but only if their knowledge is valued, enacted, and encouraged as an extension of their professional role as early childhood educators. For the teachers, classrooms, and structures in our study, this would require nonimmigrant practitioners to have a willingness to consider other cultural versions of early childhood pedagogy as having merit and to enter into dialogue with immigrant teachers and immigrant communities.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 12, 2012, p. 1-37
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16719, Date Accessed: 10/31/2014 6:53:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Adair
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER KEYS ADAIR is an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin. Using comparative ethnography, her research focuses on the cultural nature of early childhood education and how communities and nations see pedagogy and the nature of childhood in different ways. Her recent publications include Advocating for Ethnographic Work in Early Childhood Federal Policy: Problems and Possibilities (Adair, forthcoming); Confirming Chanclas: What Early Childhood Teacher Educators Can Learn From Immigrant Preschool Teachers (Adair, 2011); and Meditation, Rangoli and Eating on the Floor: Practices From an Urban Preschool in Bangalore, India (Adair & Bhaskaran, 2010).
  • Joseph Tobin
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH TOBIN is the Basha Professor of Early Childhood Education in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. His research interests include cross-cultural studies of early childhood education, immigration and education, children and the media, and qualitative research methods, especially video-based research. Among his publications are Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited and Good Guys Don’t Wear Hats: Children’s Talk About the Media. His newest project is a study of deaf kindergartens in Japan, France, and the United States.
  • Angela Arzubiaga
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    ANGELA E. ARZUBIAGA is an associate professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She received her PhD from the University of California at Los Angeles. She has been a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient and an awardee of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development (ISSBD). Her research focuses on sociocultural perspectives on family life and home-institution connections, comparative understandings of difference, the education of children of immigrants, and immigrant families’ adaptations. Dr. Arzubiaga’s work emphasizes the importance of culture within all human practices. In an article for Exceptional Children, she contends that the cultural presuppositions in a field’s habitual practices as well as the sociocultural location of the researcher need to inform our research. Her review of research on children in immigrant families in Review of Research in Education is leading current research on the contested issues of diversity and difference surrounding the education of children. She was Spencer and Bernard Van Leer investigator on the Children of Immigrants in US Preschool: Parent and Teacher Perspectives and the Children Crossing Borders (CCB) studies.
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