image of Illinois State University Board of Trustees member Anne Davis

Anne Davis

For Illinois State University Trustee Anne Davis, the key to embracing diversity in the classroom is respect.

As an elementary school teacher for more than three decades, Davis developed a keen awareness of the importance of building a strong rapport – between both teacher and student, and between the students themselves. “Building that rapport creates a foundation of respect that opens children to acceptance, and an understanding of diversity,” she said.

Davis has viewed the classroom from many sides. A 1964 Illinois State alumna, she spent 35 years as a classroom teacher in Harvey, Ill. After her retirement she served as president of the Illinois Education Association (IEA). In 2011, Davis was nominated as a member of the Illinois State University Board of Trustees. Yet no matter her role, for Davis, it all comes down to what can be done in the classroom.

“In many ways, I still think of myself as a classroom teacher,” said Davis, who has been named to Who’s Who in Teaching.

Recently David spent a day visiting the University’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline, which prepares candidates to teach in urban areas. She listened intently to a young woman training to be a teacher, who came from a small town to live and work in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. The student relayed a story about a child complaining how tough it was

to get to school in the mornings. “When she replied that she understood, because she lived close by, that child’s mouth dropped open,” said Davis. “Right there, she gained automatic acceptance, automatic rapport. Her experiences will help her immeasurably when she steps into her own classroom.”

We might assume that children of different cultures have a complete understanding of their own backgrounds, but that is not always the case. —Anne Davis

The vital role respect plays in the classroom was an early lesson Davis learned as a teacher. She began teaching in what was then the predominantly black neighborhood of Harvey. “For many of the students, the only exposure they had to students of other races or cultures were through sports,” she said. “I found that the key to bringing about acceptance is learning in a diverse setting, and creating an inclusive environment.” While she encouraged acceptance at the sporting events, Davis pulled lessons on diversity into the classroom.

Before students could open themselves to other cultures and ideas, Davis found the children first had to discover their own self-worth. “I started to work with each child to make sure they felt worthy and build their self-esteem,” she said. “If students cannot develop a positive self-confidence, and take pride in who they are, then they will not be able to embrace each other’s differences.”

In her classroom, Davis’ instruction materials reflected the diversity she hoped her children would appreciate, from classroom posters to books and lesson plans. Social studies incorporated units on languages, food, art, music and dance of other cultures. “Children gravitate to music and movement quickly, so it is an easy and fun way to teach about ethnic differences,” she noted.

As time went on, more Latino students began to move into the area, so Davis made sure the units on Hispanic culture were expanded. “I knew it was important for the children to have a concept of who they are,” said Davis. “We might assume that children of different cultures have a complete understanding of their own backgrounds, but that is not always the case.”

Davis hoped to bring those lessons with her when she became the head of the IEA. She helped to implement multi-cultural diversity training. “I’ve noticed that teachers who have gone through the training have a much higher comfort level in the classroom,” she said.

While growing diversity in some area offers great opportunities for children, it can also offer surmounting challenges to teachers. One teacher with whom Davis spoke worked in the northeast suburbs of Chicago. She confided she had 20 different languages spoken in her classroom. “Twenty! You want to try and give each child a sense of self, but to try and cover all 20?” said Davis. The teacher often relied on visuals and hands-on materials. “She did what she had to, to help her students learn.”

Infusing students with a sense of respect is becoming a more difficult task for teachers as respect for the teaching profession itself has diminished, Davis noted. What once was seen as a noble profession is now viewed much more as a low-paying job. The result is more students of ethnic diversity choosing to take jobs outside teaching. “As opportunities open up for African-American young people, they are choosing careers such as medicine and engineering – noble careers – but it is leaving fewer and fewer minority teachers,” said Davis. At times, a lack of ethnically diverse teachers can mean it is tougher for children of ethnic diversity to connect in the classroom and feel that sense of rapport.

Giving teachers and teacher candidates the opportunities to experience other cultures makes them stronger teachers, said Davis, and prepares them to relate to the children they will teach. As a trustee of Illinois State, Davis is seeing new avenues open up for teachers to build rapport, such as the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline and the STEP-UP programs. “When people talk about bringing students into the profession, especially minority students, that program is second to none,” she said.

When it comes to diversity in the classroom, Davis said children will always be open to new ideas and cultures as long as teachers give them paths to appreciate them. “I am a firm believer in celebrating who we are, inside and outside the classroom,” she said.

Davis added a celebration of diversity also comes with understanding similarities. “All children have more in common with one another than they have different,” she said. “All children have the same desire to learn, to belong to their group of peers, to achieve in sports, spend time socially networking. We have to let them know to celebrate their differences, and embrace their common ground.”