Imagine you're trying to create standards for effective preaching.
You watch a Southern black Baptist preacher engage his congregation with a sermon that relies on rhythm, gesture, emotion and humor as much as words. He expects and encourages his members to call out in response.
You also watch a white Episcopal minister deliver an intellectual, tightly-structured sermon with little humor or emotional tone. His congregation raptly follows his words, but doesn't respond aloud.
"Suppose we set out to evaluate and certify ministers nationally," she writes. "(W)hat could we do with the plethora of cultural styles of preaching? Can we try to evaluate, for example, Bishop Sheen, Billy Graham, and Reverend Ike (a Southern black Baptist minister) within the same conceptual construct? Or would we be better off asking what good preaching looks like in different cultural settings and for different audiences? After all, Bishop Sheen would not be much of a hit in most black Baptist churches, and Reverend Ike would not be likely to impress the denizens of Harvard Square."
I ordered the book after it showed up on the recommended reading list of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison. Delpit's chapter on "Cross-cultural Confusions in Teacher Assessment" struck me as particularly helpful in trying to understand what Morrison means when he talks about the need for educators and the community to become more culturally competent.
Delpit is an African American who has spent her adult life in white-dominated academia and done research in schools for Native Alaskan children. The book explores the differences in those three cultures and talks about the harm done to children and teachers of color when the middle-class white communication style is treated as the standard for everyone.
African American children, especially those from low-income families, are raised to be sensitive to body language and nonverbal messages. They may be more motivated by their relationship with a teacher than by a need to achieve, she writes. Teachers expecting them to respond to words alone may judge these children as low achievers or behavior problems. Teachers of color who display emotion openly or spend time trying to build relationships may be judged as out of control or disorganized, Delpit says.
Job interviews and teacher evaluations can also be derailed by cultural differences, Delpit writes. For instance, Native and Anglo Americans have different patterns of storytelling, with Native Americans expecting to take longer turns speaking, with longer pauses in the midst of a story. If a Native American begins an answer, pauses and is interrupted by a white person, both may end up frustrated. The white person thinks the Native American has given a pointless response, while the Native American finds the white interruption rude.
Delpit acknowledges that it's no simple task to tease out cultural differences while zeroing in on standards that are important to successful education. But she insists we've got to do better than, in essence, letting Bishop Sheen's board hire the minister for Reverend Ike's congregation -- and then blaming the congregation when it's a bad match.
"We must consciously and voluntarily make our cultural lenses apparent," she writes. "Engaging in the hard work of seeing the world as others see it must be a fundamental goal for any move to reform the education of teachers and their assessment."