CORVALLIS - Jean Moule says that many of the graduate students she teaches in the Oregon State University teacher education immersion program come to her straight out of college, full of idealistic enthusiasm for entering Oregon's K-12 schools.
"Then," she says, laughing, "the reality of the classroom hits them."
Moule is an assistant professor of education who co-directs an immersion program at OSU that takes teacher education students into culturally diverse classrooms. She also is co-author of a new book called "Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators" that lays out the challenges and rewards for teaching in an era in which classrooms around the country are rapidly diversifying.
Oregon is no exception. Moule points to a recent survey that found 25 percent of the children in the state's K-12 classrooms were students of color, yet only 4 percent of the teachers were of color.
An African-American woman, Moule says her goal isn't necessarily trying to even the disparity between students and teachers of color - though she'd like to close the gap by enticing more minorities into education. Rather, she says, she would like to equip all of her students with the skills necessary to teach students from all backgrounds.
"If you understand that students come with different gifts, and they learn in different ways, you'll begin to learn to take care of all the children in your classroom and teach to their strengths," she said.
OSU has 18 students in its immersion program - a one-year graduate program that places students in diverse schools and encourages them to live in those communities. All of the students in the program are seeking ESOL - English for Speakers of Other Languages - endorsements to add to their teaching licensure and are placed in various schools between Portland and Salem.
Seven students work in Salem's Grant Community School, student teaching in a dual immersion bilingual program. Three students teach at Mary Eyre School in Salem. Four students are in Portland's Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, a predominantly African American school with which OSU has partnered for years. Four others are placed in other northeast Portland schools.
Last year, Moule said, OSU had one student of color in its grad student cohort. This year, five of the 18 students are minorities: two Latinos, one Latina, and two African American women.
"Their voices add so much to the cohort," she says.
Eileen Waldschmidt, the other co-director of the immersion program, says the OSU students also benefit from guest educators and other lecturers who come into the classroom and provide cultural knowledge and perspectives that "you just can't get out of a textbook."
Aurora Cedillo and Veronica Burns, bilingual specialists from the Salem-Keizer School District, gave presentations to the OSU students this fall on Latino cultural attitudes, beliefs and practices, Waldschmidt said. Their colleague, Martha Buenrostro, is a school psychologist who spoke on bilingual special education.
"Our immersion students really enjoyed learning about 'La Llorona' - the 'Weeping Woman' story commonly shared in Latino culture - and about 'Las Curanderas,' healers who use herbs and other remedies for ailments," Waldschmidt said.
"They also were interested to hear that Latino students are still too often misidentified for placement in special education programs because evaluators do not speak Spanish, or because they don't have the cultural knowledge needed when interviewing family members," she added. "This knowledge of the Latino culture better prepares our student teachers to respect their students' culture and it helps them integrate cultural aspects into the classroom curriculum."
Moule says her book is an attempt to help all teachers understand what cultural competence means, but she acknowledges that there is no substitute for classroom experience.
"Most of the teacher education students in Oregon are white and come from middle class backgrounds," she said. "They may not have awareness that there are other types of educational environments than that which they experienced. But they quickly learn.
"When they see the children at school, they may have no idea that their families are at the poverty level because their parents and caretakers work so hard to provide for them," Moule said. "But the students they end up teaching often come from fractured families. In some cases, their parents may be incarcerated and they are being raised by their grandparents.
"Then there are the cultural differences," she added. "Just the difference between an urban classroom and a suburban classroom is huge, even if both are diverse. The urban kids know how to be safe in situations our (college) students never even considered. They are, in a word, streetwise. This is the reality of many classrooms."
Moule says teaching in those situations requires different strategies. In a Corvallis school, if teachers see a student sprinting down the hall, they might rhetorically ask, "should you be running?" Moule points out.
"In the city," she said, "you have to tell them, 'STOP RUNNING!'"
The OSU education students often express surprise at the "community-nature" of many schools that are comprised predominantly of students of color, Moule said. At Grant Community School, each of the graduate students works with two different K-8 classrooms and gets to know 50-60 youths.
The school often becomes like an extended family, Moule added.
The OSU educator says she is increasingly trying to steer her graduate students to schools that also have faculty and administrators of color so they can soak in their perspectives and observe how they act as role models for the school children.
The most challenging part of the program takes place when conversations about the students' classroom experiences intersect with issues of poverty and racism, Moule said.
"The students who are attracted to the program here have to be pretty committed," she said. "We make sure up front they know what they are getting into. Some students come to class with tears in their eyes because their experiences have shaken their life view. They come out of the program different than they were when they came in.
"But they will leave this program extraordinarily prepared as first-year teachers," she added. "More work needs to be done, but we see much hope for the future."