A minority perspective from a primary school educator

With the melting pot of cultures in Galway, it is no surprise that we are known as the cultural heart of Ireland. Primary school teacher, Annie Asgard, observes that student diversity is clear to see when we look at our classrooms. Unfortunately, this multicultural shift in Ireland is not mirrored in teaching staff. “We as a teaching profession in Ireland are really homogeneous, particularly at a primary level,” she says.

In her experience, teachers tend to avoid addressing cultural differences altogether because of a fear of saying the wrong thing. This leaves the door open to misunderstandings which can negatively affect minoritised students and teachers. How do we bridge this diversity gap between our students and teaching staff?

Linking linguistic and cultural identity

Annie is one of the few minoritised teachers working in primary education in Ireland. She began her post in 2003 at the Claddagh National School, Galway. “I work directly with children who have recently arrived in Ireland and need to acquire English and later on, hopefully, Irish,” she explains.

Her involvement in linguistics has evolved into working with schools across the country to train teachers on how to work with multilingual students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“That means I keep my permanent job in my school and then I work for the Department of Education to go out and do teacher professional development. Training for teachers at schools in the area of English as an additional language, so linguistic diversity,” she says.

Annie shares that: “The fastest way to learn a new language is to scaffold new language learning onto your prior learning.” But when she began teaching children English this was not the approach initially taken.

“When I first started, there was more of a focus on acquiring English as quickly as possible but fortunately in recent years, the education system here has recognised the importance of home language and home culture,” she says.  

Born in Tehran, Iran, Annie and her family who were Azeri, an ethnic minority group in Iran, emigrated to America where Annie learned English and began her career in education.

“I was born in Iran so my first language and my mother tongue is Farsi.” Her status as a multilingual and minoritised member of the teaching profession would soon land her at the centre of advocating for cultural understanding in a largely white Irish teaching demographic.

“This is something that is a passion of mine, recognising the strong link between children’s cultural and linguistic identity and how that impacts their well-being and their sense of belonging in their school community and in their local community but also their ethnic or faith community.”

Diversity gaps and cultural misunderstanding

The Irish education system is making small steps to modify its curriculums to account for Ireland’s boom in cultural diversity. However, the lack of diversity in the teaching profession is difficult to ignore. In Annie’s experience, this, coupled with an absence of cultural literacy among many primary school teachers, negatively impacts both students and minoritised teaching staff.

“When you have such a homogeneous teaching profession and the students in these schools are so diverse, there is that kind of diversity gap. There can be a lot of misunderstandings that happen between the school community and the families and the teaching staff.”

She shares that for teachers of minoritised backgrounds “it can sometimes be difficult to navigate that space”. Annie believes the most productive way to build cultural understanding is to ask—which is the approach she has adopted in her professional career.

“That’s somewhat of a role that I’ve taken on,” she reveals. “I’ve developed this bank of cultural understandings, but the key point is if I don’t know, I ask.

“There is a need for those conversations to happen in our teaching professional communities. Which can be sometimes uncomfortable for school staff to have because they are often afraid of saying the wrong thing or offending someone or using the wrong terminology,” Annie says.

She emphasises the importance of cultural humility in these increasingly multicultural spaces. “I don’t know everything and when I don’t know, I feel comfortable to ask—and ask in a really respectful way and be okay with whatever the answer is too,” she stresses.

“I think that cultural liaison piece is really important and so this idea that, say, only a Traveller teacher can engage with Traveller families or only a Muslim teacher will understand Muslim families—that’s not correct.

“What I think is missing is there isn’t a space for us to have this conversation, like either between colleagues, within the institutions themselves, or in the larger space of teacher professional learning but also nationally, we don’t have a space to talk about this.”

Annie hopes that the future will see “some unity for minoritised groups in the teaching profession” and that teachers, regardless of their cultural background can expand their ability to communicate across cultures.

Click here for more stories.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.