When people hear the term “culturally responsive education training,” they may think it’s a matter of making sure the classroom is decorated with posters of diverse historical figures or using textbooks that reference events from more than a European perspective.

Those things may be part of being a culturally responsive school district, but the philosophy goes much deeper and speaks to how everyone involved in educating children can remain open and receptive to the voices and experiences children bring to the school setting.

Dr. Joseph Morris and Dr. Mary Z. Anderson with Western Michigan University’s Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology are entering their second year of working with Kalamazoo Public Schools to help the district develop its culturally responsive education training.

“It’s about how we respond to children,” Morris said. “We want people to be as respectful as possible to different ways of seeing the world.”

KPS Superintendent Dr. Michael F. Rice said, “Culturally responsive education professional development helps our staff members — our administrators, teachers and support staff — better understand and appreciate the diversity of our students. With the most diverse student body in this part of the state, this work is vital to effectively engaging our students and educating them successfully.”

Morris and Anderson began their work with the district in the summer of 2015, developing a multifaceted, yearlong plan that began with training district personnel to be facilitators working with secondary staff on developing and implementing culturally responsive educational practices throughout the district.

This year, the WMU professors incorporated elementary school staff into the training. More than 1,000 staff members were trained.

On a basic level, one might think being culturally aware means acknowledging the races and cultures that cross a school doorway on any given day, Morris said. Those cultures may manifest themselves in situations such as a child not making eye contact if that’s what they’ve been taught at home, or speaking more loudly in the classroom if that is what they hear in the neighborhood, or feeling uncomfortable being touched on the shoulder if their culture shuns physical contact.

But, he said, there is no way to prepare for, or to have knowledge of, all of the cultural mores present in a classroom setting. What school personnel can do, however, is realize that they may need to adjust their strategies for working with children depending on their cultural influences.

“Many people haven’t been taught that you should make adjustments in your strategies or methods,” Morris said. “They are taught a template for how to work with children. Generally, they aren’t taught much about the importance of culture and how you sometimes have to adjust what you’re doing to fit the student population that you’re working with. I think that’s the No. 1 thing.”

At the root of the culturally relevant philosophy is not a simple recognition of historical figures and facts about various cultures, but a deeper appreciation of who students are and what they bring to the educational experience. And, from that appreciation, Morris said, students and teachers can build stronger relationships.

Strong relationships are the foundation of any positive educational experience, Morris said.

“We can all use the same strategies to teach reading, but we have different relationships with students and that makes the difference,” he said. “I can’t tell you about all of the differences between all of the Native American tribes or all of the Latin American cultures.

“But I can talk to you about attitudes that facilitate building relationships, which will increase the potential for the child to learn. You must be willing to listen and to let them teach you.”

What makes Kalamazoo Public Schools’ approach to culturally responsive education training unique is the district’s long-term commitment to the process, Morris said. Other districts initiate this kind of work through a one-day workshop and leave it at that, but KPS has trained facilitators to lead discussions and is committed to having those facilitators and experts work with the staff to set goals, implement changes and evaluate the results of their work.

The district has acknowledged that the work must be ongoing and long-term, he said.

As cultural diversity continues to grow in this country and racial minorities become a larger part of society, it will become imperative that society’s educators and other school personnel have an understanding of what it means to be culturally responsive, he said.

“Twenty years from now people will look at this training and say, ‘Of course, they did this. Why wouldn’t they? It’s just logical,’” Morris said.

Linda Mah is a communications specialist for Kalamazoo Public Schools. Contact her at (269) 337-0066 or mahls@kalamazoopublicschools.net.