The Culturally-Sensitive Teacher and the Student from Iraq

th[9]When assisting an Iraqi student in an American school, it is helpful to consider the student’s cultural perspectives. According to the Hofstede Scale, Iraqis exhibit an extremely high preference for hierarchical order and centralization. Iraqi culture is classified as a collectivist society, with loyalty to the group being of paramount importance, and it is a strongly masculine culture that emphasizes competition and achievement. Iraqi citizens typically exhibit a high avoidance of ambiguity and a strong concern for the establishment of absolute Truth. They usually prefer short-term rewards to long-term rewards, and emphasize work rather than leisure activities. Furthermore, unlike American society, Iraqi cultural norms emphasize considerable restraint and a preference for rigid codes for belief and behavior (Hofstede, 1980).

If the student is a recent immigrant to the United States, consider what they left behind. Besides a familiarity with their own language, cultural customs, traditions, foods, clothing, music, art, religious practices, and so on, this student would have left behind a life dominated by considerable social turmoil, random violence, political corruption, and the demolition of its infrastructure. In addition, the general health of the population has declined due to the destruction of hospitals and either the flight or the execution of most of the country’s medical personnel. To a large degree, this chaos is a direct result of the 2003 Gulf War and subsequent US military activity (Lefko, 2014).

In 1982, Iraq was lauded by UNESCO for eliminating illiteracy within its borders and for developing an educational system considered one of the best in the region (Lefko, 2014). Since then, educational opportunity, and therefore literacy, has steadily declined. Many schools were damaged or destroyed, leaving behind deplorable building conditions and extremely limited resources such as textbooks and classroom supplies. In the face of never-ending war and insecurity, many parents kept their children at home out of fear for their safety, and large numbers of these children went to work to help support their families. By 2007, Education International estimated the literacy rate in Iraq had fallen to 65%, with just 54% of the women and 74% of the men receiving a basic education (Lefko, 2014).

Knowledge of these basic circumstances becomes the basis for recognizing the instructional needs of the Iraqi student and for guiding the instructional practices of the culturally-sensitive teacher. In general, the teacher librarian should work conscientiously to build trust with the student. Be aware of the student’s heightened need for personal safety, and be particularly observant of any possible health issues. Recognize that there may be gaps in the student’s knowledge base which could be a reflection of the disruption of his or her formal education.

The teacher should also strive to incorporate strategies into the instructional program from all four stages of the culturally-responsive leadership scale: the contribution stage, the additive stage, the transformational stage, and the social action stage (Summers, 2010). Where possible, expose the Iraqi student to relevant reading materials about Iraqi culture in both print and electronic versions, and integrate additional resources such as images, music, movie clips, posters, art prints, databases, and web sites into the curriculum. With regards to language acquisition, attempt to secure some resources in the student’s native language and some in easy-to-understand English. Suggest works by Iraqi authors, and ask your school’s librarian to create visually appealing book displays of relevant books.

When designing lessons, keep the student’s cultural preferences in mind (Farmer, 2012). For the Iraqi student, collaborative learning activities would be welcome, but when assigning group work, use Kagan-style strategies that require each student be responsible for a clearly-defined task that contributes to the whole. Make sure learning objectives are explicit, especially if teaching a concept through games or play. Whenever possible, emphasize the structure of the learning task, even if there is flexibility with the outcome or finished product.

Working knowledgeably, responsively, and diligently, the culturally-sensitive teacher can help the Iraqi student navigate the American education system successfully.


Farmer, Dr. Lesley. (2012). “Culturally-Sensitive Learning Practices.” Educational Media and Technology Yearbook, Vol. 36, p. 161-172. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Hofstede, Geert. (1980). Model of Cultural Dimensions.

Lefko, Claudia. (June 26, 2014). “The Human Narrative in Iraq Still Missing.” Common Dreams.

Summers, L. (2010). “Culturally-Responsive Leadership in School Libraries. Library Media Connection (Mar.), 10-13.

Reflections about Heroes: Twelve Courageous Educators who Have Earned the Title

superteacher_colorIt seems to be a universal practice in classrooms to ask students to think about, talk about, and write about the topic of heroism. Teachers frequently ask, “Who are our heroes?” “What are the qualities of a hero?” “What actions are considered heroic?” Often, a common response to these questions is a hero is an individual who goes above and beyond the usual, the expected, or the required, and that a heroic act involves significant courage, risk, and sacrifice.

In my next book, Chalkboard Heroes, which will be available in about three months, you will find the stories of twelve courageous teachers in American history who took considerable risks and made substantial sacrifices. For example, there are the countless teachers who protect our country by serving in the armed forces and the National Guard. If the times call for it, they valiantly march off to war. Henry Alvin Cameron who fought in World War I and Francis Wayland Parker, a Civil War veteran, are but two of these soldier teachers. There are the social reformers, the chalkboard heroes who endanger their personal safety to bring about improved conditions and better lives for America’s disenfranchised citizens. Teachers like Dolores Huerta, the champion of migrant farm workers; Robert Parris Moses, the 1960’s civil rights activist; Prudence Crandall, who defied prevailing social convention to open a school for African American girls; Carrie Chapman Catt, the suffragist; and Zitkala Sa, who campaigned tirelessly for the constitutional rights of Native Americans. There are the courageous pioneers who take great risks to blaze a trail for others to follow. Educators like Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space; Willa Brown Chappell, the pioneer aviatrix who taught Tuskegee airmen to fly; Etta Schureman Jones, the Alaskan pioneer who landed in a POW camp in Japan during WWII; and Olive Mann Isbell, who immigrated to the West and established the first English school in California—while the Mexican American War raged all around her. And then there are the teachers who lay down their lives to protect the students whose safety has been entrusted to their care. Teachers like Dave Sanders, the chalkboard hero of Columbine High School.

These twelve are but a few of the countless heroic teachers in American history. Their stories are perhaps all the more remarkable when we consider that in our society, teaching is usually considered a safe profession, classrooms are typically considered safe places, teachers are not usually recognized as risk-takers. The accounts of the twelve chalkboard heroes presented here show us that these perceptions are not at all a reflection of reality.

Teacher Prudence Crandall: The Female State Hero of Connecticut

In 1831, well-known and highly-respected schoolteacher Prudence Crandall opened a boarding school for young ladies in Canterbury, Connecticut. By the end of the first year, she had earned the praise of parents, community members, and students throughout New England. Then one day an African American student named Sarah Harris asked to be admitted to the academy. Sarah said she wanted to learn how to be a teacher so she could open her own school for black students. Prudence knew admitting an African American student would generate some resistance from her neighbors, but after some soul-searching, she decided her conscience would not allow her to refuse the request. Prudence had severely under-estimated the resistance. Figuring the complaint was that she was operating an integrated school, the intrepid teacher closed her academy for white girls and re-opened as an academy for “misses of color.” That just made the situation worse, causing ripples all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulting in Prudence’s brief incarceration in the local jail. Years later, however, her fearless stance became the reason she was named the Female State Hero for Connecticut. Read the gripping account of this valiant teacher in the book The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students by Suzanne Jurmain, available on amazon. I have also included a chapter about this courageous teacher in my soon-to-be-released second book, Chalkboard Heroes.