Teaching and Understanding Culture Is Vital


By Carolyn Leigh Kellerman
I have often wondered about the meaning of “culture.” As an adult, I am still learning. As an educator, I must know. It’s a crucial topic to be taught today. It’s as important as learning mathematics. When children grow up appreciating each other’s differences, we are creating a generation of individuals who will have more respect for each other.

I grew up in a town just 15 minutes from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I was born and raised Jewish. I had my bat mitzvah in my adulthood. When I was younger, there were probably only two Jewish children in my grade. The town I grew up in is a beautiful town with excellent schools; however, there are few Jewish families.

I will never forget the moment in the lunchroom when I first felt excluded. I was sitting with my friends eating lunch when I felt something cold hit my skin. I looked up and didn’t see anything. Then it happened again. It was a coin. I looked around and found another coin on the ground. A bunch of boys were laughing and staring at me. I immediately thought, “Why on earth is someone throwing money at me?” It wasn’t until I spoke to my parents about what happened that I realized I was being singled out. Before lunch, I’d felt included. The minute someone threw a coin at me, I felt excluded. In one second a child’s well-being can change.

We need to change that as a community. We need to educate our friends, students and families so that we appreciate each other’s differences.
Of course, this wasn’t the only time in my life when I was treated unfairly due to being Jewish. There were many instances as I grew into my teenage years when I was criticized, laughed at, joked about and belittled for being Jewish. Someone I considered a friend even said to me, “I could never marry a Jew!” Once again, I wondered: Why do people think this way? What makes someone have these feelings? I believe the answer is that they are not educated properly about their own traditions. It’s our customs that make us all unique and special. Families need to take more time to do this.

Cleopatra had it right when she ruled Egypt as queen. Her native language was not Egyptian, but she believed a ruler should know her people’s language. She studied the Egyptian language and continued to learn several more.

What happened to George Floyd has brought national attention to the importance of teaching kindness and compassion toward others. It’s more important than ever to change the way we raise our children and educate our students about culture. My story is just one of many.

My parents are educators. My dad was a principal of a middle school and my mom taught elementary education. During my graduate studies, I substituted at my father’s school to earn extra money. Not always happy about waking up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready to head to Northern Burlington Middle School, I didn’t realize my time there would forever change my view about education. My father ran that school in and out. Everyone loved him. The school was warm and welcoming. The cafeteria workers loved my dad. As I watched him work hard, communicate and create a warm working environment for his staff, I knew at that moment the importance of leadership. His positive leadership led to a positive school environment, and a warm and embracing school culture. I was proud to be earning an education degree so that I could also make a difference.

In the summer I attended a workshop about culture. The workshop hit home because of my own story. I learned that your culture may change as you grow. We often make assumptions about a person’s beliefs based on just one thing, but culture is more than a single indicator. It is a combination of beliefs and values and groups we belong to. When educators create a classroom that is both culturally proficient and responsive, students thrive.

Sometimes we view someone’s traditions based on the food they eat, the clothing they wear, or the holidays they celebrate. But it is all larger than what we see. If I created a circle and wrote the word “culture” in the middle, the words around the circle would be “feelings,” “thoughts,” “attitudes,” “behavior,” “social groups,” “values,” “race” and “ethnicity.” Our heritage is not only where we came from but also determines who we choose to be as adults.

We need to ensure children learn more about this. Raising awareness about our differences is crucial. It can help a child succeed in school without feeling excluded. Making connections between peers and co-workers establishes that warm environment I felt at my father’s school. If culture had been a topic of discussion when I was a child, maybe my story would have been different.

Carolyn Leigh Kellerman got her master’s in education from The College of New Jersey and holds a certificate in early childhood. She is working on a special education endorsement certification and teaches in New Jersey.


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