Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Jody McBrien

July 06, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 2 Episode 4
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Jody McBrien
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Jody McBrien talks to us about diversity and equity, support, kindness, and understanding for the students we teach, particularly those who come to our classrooms as refugees, and exploring viewpoints other than our own. Jody is known for her work in the areas of international and comparative issues of refugee students and their families, work she has done in North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australasia. Dr. McBrien is a Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. 

Lindsay Persohn:

Education research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. But the questions and challenges from teachers practice sometimes don't become the work of education researchers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. In a new episode every other week, I talk with an education researcher or a classroom teacher about what they have learned from their work in education, and what questions they still pursue. This week, Dr. Jody McBrien talks to us about diversity and equity, support, kindness, and understanding for the students we teach, particularly those who come to our classrooms as refugees, and exploring viewpoints other than our own. Jody is known for her work in the areas of international and comparative issues of refugee students and their families. She has done work in North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australasia. Dr. McBrien is a Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida, Sarasota Manatee. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink and join me your host, Lindsay Persohn, for Classroom Caffeine, research to energize your teaching practice. Jody, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Jody McBrien:

Thank you. My pleasure.

Lindsay Persohn:

From your own experiences and education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Jody McBrien:

Sure. I've actually been teaching for gosh, over 30 years now, in one way or another. I started as an English teacher. And what I've come to believe strongly is that teachers need a really strong grounding in diversity and equity. I've been become concerned that courses that I used to teach like social Foundations of Education, nationwide are being cut from requirements and teaching degrees. As an example, when I started teaching at the University of South Florida in 2005, my course Social Foundations of Education was a required course. And we couldn't offer enough courses to you know, for all the students that needed it. 10 years later, it was an elective, and two sections were enough for all the students that were taking it. This course taught very important ideas in terms of helping pre service teachers encounter their beliefs about race, about immigrants, LGBTQ students, children with special needs. As a uncomfortable example, I was pretty shocked a few years ago when my College of Education determined that an American history course, would cover the international requirement for pre service teachers, because, quote, The United States takes in immigrants, and I'm really concerned about the lack of information that teacher candidates will receive about their students as a result, that's simply not enough to cover the migrant experience.

Lindsay Persohn:

It really is shocking that American history, with all of the baggage that that brings along with it would stand in for a course about diversity.

Jody McBrien:

Yeah, and what's left out of American history so often is is very concerning to me. Certainly the history of Native American children, how they were taken away from their parents, taken by train hundreds of miles away from their families, and forced to abandon their language and their clothing and their customs. Those aren't things that are taught in American history, unfortunately, and they need to be, and obviously the same with treatment of Asian Americans, Black Americans, etc.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's one thing we know about American history is that it doesn't tell the story of everyone, it typically tells the story from a mostly white and mostly male perspective. So at least in my mind, and my beliefs, there's really very little diversity in those stories that are told.

Jody McBrien:

Yeah, I think it's time to do away with the little boxes in the in the history textbooks that are those pieces about a black man or a Native American woman or something like that they need to be incorporated into the main text. Then until it really happens, we have some problems.

Lindsay Persohn:

Your right driver perspectives have sort of always been this side note. And that's, that's not enough for us to understand I think, of course, particularly in education, particularly for teachers, how we serve every student who walks through our doorway.

Jody McBrien:

That's one thing that I've often told pre service teachers is that I honestly, I don't care what their beliefs or their values are, they can be anything. However, when they're on one side of the desk, and they've got a roomful of 30 children on the other, who may be Christian, white, brown, Muslim, Jewish, gay, homeless, disabled, they need to treat each of those children with equal respect and compassion.

Lindsay Persohn:

And so I know in my own teaching, I've always tried to approach students as individuals, and understanding who they are, what they bring with them. And I've worked in systems where that isn't always the case. That's not always how we look at students. And I think that that can be a real tension for teachers to round those viewpoints, their own personal beliefs, or like we're saying, even if it's not your personal belief, it is your your duty and your obligation to serve every child. But it's difficult to navigate systems where that's not always the the way the system is set up.

Jody McBrien:

Absolutely. And I think that teachers have such a difficult job now, particularly in the past, I'd say 20 plus years with standardization and high stakes testing accountability, where the stakes are so high. And sometimes they've even had scripted curriculum to the point that from nine in the morning until 915, they're supposed to do X. And it makes it very, very difficult to personalize education for the diversity of students in class.

Lindsay Persohn:

Right, even standardization is the opposite of personalizing and individualizing an education.

Jody McBrien:

Absolutely, yeah.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah. So Jodi, I know, you've done some very important research in your career, and I'm hoping that you will share what you'd like for teachers to know about your research.

Jody McBrien:

Sure, I'd love to. Since 2002, I've been working with refugee students and families. And I've done the work in, started in the United States in the southeast. I've also done some in Ghana and Uganda in Africa. Quite a bit in New Zealand, some in Australia, a little bit in Japan, a little bit in Greece, I'll be doing it in France all next year. And I've just learned so much from working with refugee families, and then extending that into broader examples of migration, migrant families. When I started the work, I quickly became just enamored with these refugee students. Unlike so many United States, students who kind of take education for granted so often, you know, oh, do I have to go to school, it's just the reverse with these kids. They know that they need a good education, they want to excel, they want to succeed. And so it's a joy to work with them, because they just want to get it. And they have a lot of challenges of course, language is usually one of the first. And so they need to be given the opportunity to gain language ability, especially with respect to academic language. Kids can become conversational really quickly, like within a year, but it can take them five years or more to become savvy with academic language. And the older they are, the harder it is. Because if you have a seven year old, the content knowledge and education is it's going to be very background, it's going to be general, more simple. The language is simpler. If you have a refugee or migrant students starting in ninth or 10th grade, there's that supposition of so much background knowledge. We're talking about history earlier. So you know, in elementary school, the kids are going to get backgrounds in history, they're going to know that Washington was the first president of the United States, but not, you know, that's expected knowledge in 9th, 10th, 11th grade. So it's that much more difficult for those children, the adolescents. But if teachers can support and be kind and have high expectations, these children can excel. I've worked with so many refugee students who have frankly surpassed US students in their academic achievements because of their incredible desire to excel. I've stayed in touch with two of my original students from my dissertation back between 2002 and 2005. And one of them is currently teaching at University in North Carolina and medical field. She won a four year scholarship to Agnes Scott college. And she was a researcher at the CDC, speaks many languages. Another one has taught in South Korea, in two other countries. And she's also won many awards for her educational excellence. And they're just wonderful people to get to know you can learn a tremendous bit about the world, about survival, about gratitude.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Jody, you've mentioned that most often what these students really need is the support and kindness of teachers and, and some understanding. To me, that sounds a lot like extending these students a bit of grace, to feel a bit more like they're a part of the community, and also to give them some time, just to to become accustomed to how schools work in this country, and what the language sounds like. And I'm hoping that you might be able to say a little bit more about that in order to support teachers who might have a student who's recently come into their classroom, either as a refugee or as a migrant, some sort of situation where they're finding themselves in brand new surroundings.

Jody McBrien:

Absolutely. And it's tough for US teachers because of privacy laws, US teachers are not really supposed to ask if you know the child is a refugee, or certainly undocumented or something like that. In comparison, when I worked in New Zealand, the teachers learned in advance of the children coming to school, who they were getting, but you know, how many children were in the family, where they were from what the situation was like. And so they, they had more of a sense of who the child was The refugee students that I've worked with in the United States have said that their best and their worst experiences have been with teachers. And some of the best have been, quite often with ESL teachers, helping them learn English, and having that compassion. Having that support. I've also heard, there was just a really painful story that a refugee girl told me where she said that the teacher asked that question, and she was the only one who raised her hand, she knew the right answer. But when she gave the answer, she mispronounced it. And she said the teacher was the first one to laugh at me. So then, of course, she never raised her hand again. So you know, I think some things that teachers can do I suggest, if you can learn to say hello in their language, it makes a huge difference. It will bring a smile to their face, make the effort to learn how to say their name properly, oh, always do that. So often, a child will say, Oh, just call me Sam or something. Because the pronunciation of the name is unusual for American, you know, English, ears. And I'll say, no, no, no, I want to know your name. It's a beautiful name. And I think that's important, being very aware of bullying by other students, so that you can stop that is very important. And not putting the child on the spot, like, you know, asking them to tell the class about their experiences, if they choose to do it, that's one thing, but don't put him on the spot for it. Because it could also be very traumatic. And I remember one time that there was a teacher told me this, there was a fire drill. And she didn't realize that she had a refugee student in her class. And the child went under the desk into a total panic and just didn't want to move, was terrified. And it reminded the child of a bombing situation, you know, before she was in safety. Had the teacher been able to know, she would have been able to say, we're going to have a fire drill. This is what it's like. It's not anything scary. The noise might frighten you. Stay right next to me, I'll walk out with you. And, you know, that's unfortunately, something that teachers may not know. But if something like that happens, maybe just be aware that there's a reason that that's happening so that you can protect that child.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's such great advice for teachers. Because I have a feeling that often some of the the challenges that these students are working through and doing really hard work to do that can be misconstrued as some sort of misbehavior at school or non compliance. And we know in American schools compliance is regarded as sort of the the end all be all. So I can imagine that often there's further traumatization that happens whenever a teacher mistakes a student's gut reaction to a situation as though they are being defiant or non compliant to an issue.

Jody McBrien:

I remember being in a school in Costa Rica once. And the kids were out for recess. And the way that they were playing with each other, they were having a great time, but oh my gosh, they were pulling at each other and, you know, on this concrete platform, and I thought to myself, if those children ended up immigrants in the US, and you know, they're just, this is their play, they would be sent off to the principal's office so quickly. And they wouldn't have a clue why. And there's also instances because cooperative learning is so important in many other countries, where teachers may think the students are cheating. And the students are not aware of that at all, and wouldn't have considered that they were cheating, but they were working together cooperatively, giving each other answers. So, you know, there, there are very different cultural patterns to children may have that teachers can be aware of.

Lindsay Persohn:

That, yeah that makes me think about, you know, whenever we do know, a student's background, when we get to know them well enough, we know the information isn't necessarily provided. But when we get to know the student, when we get to know the students family, when they offer information about where they come from. It really says to me that, that it's so important for us as teachers to do a little bit of background research into what school is like, and what in the in the schools that are coming from these students are coming from so that we can better understand what are the norms? And how are they different from the norms here? Because I think that, you know, kids, people, not just kids do so much better whenever there's some explanation as to why why does this look so different now than it then everything I've, I'm used to, you know, and really saying, so I understand that things might work like this, and you're old school, and I, you know, helping them navigate that, that this is it's different here. And this is how it's different. But that that just to me speaks back to the idea of support, kindness, and understanding and what how, you know, it really to be give some kind of nuts and bolts as to how we can approach those situations with support, kindness, and understanding.

Jody McBrien:

For sure. A lot of children come from countries where boys and girls are always segregated in school, there are separate schools. And it's not only a little disconcerting for the children, but even more disconcerting for their parents, you know, when they're suddenly going into co-ed schools, it's very uncomfortable for the parents. So support and compassion is important there too.

Lindsay Persohn:

Everything you're saying, Jody just reminds me of how important it is that we continue to learn about other people. I know that in America, we tend to, we tend to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. And it's just simply not the case, I think the more we can learn about other cultures, and different ways of thinking, different ways of doing, different ways of being, and continuing to expand those horizons that can really help us to support not just students who are refugees or immigrants, but students who have grown up with that US viewpoint that, you know, this is this is the only way it is because it's the way we do things. And I've seen that over and over again, with students I've worked with, whether they are elementary, middle, high school, or college students. You know, sometimes it just takes that difference that really makes the difference to say, you know, we do it like this, but there are other ways to do it. And, and I've seen that in an action or I've read about that, or even here's a video, you know, there's so many resources available now that can help us to explore other ways of doing things without, you know, without having to travel, or I should say, without getting to travel, because it certainly is something I love to do.

Jody McBrien:

Yeah, I always say you know, if you can travel and it's it's a tremendous way to learn about different ways of living. But you're right, and it's kind of ironic, this country has so much diversity, that we can open ourselves up to it. I've had assignments where I've had my students do a diversity assignment, which means they have to go to someplace they would never go except they have to for my assignment. You know, it might be a Greek Orthodox Festival or Hispanic Heritage Festival, or if they're pro life, they might go to Planned Parenthood or if they're uncomfortable with LGBTQ, go to an LGBTQ celebration or parade. I would say 95% of the time it's a very positive experience for them. And they say I want to do this again. I need to do this more because it does it opens, opens your eyes to other possibilities. And you know, the other ones I've done is, you know, if you're a Democrat go to Republican rally of your Republican agenda of a democratic rally. And if you're against guns, go to a gun training. Both, you know, both conservative and liberal, you know, to kind of broaden that horizon of just being myopic, is is really important.

Lindsay Persohn:

I love that. And I love that you have an assignment that, that that pushes students to think a little bit differently or to, I always say, to begin to think about the things they didn't know they were thinking with. Well, Jody, given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Jody McBrien:

I realize they need to be so incredibly strong. It is a difficult profession, it is an underpaid profession. You have to love what you're doing. And there's so many demands on a teacher's time. Oh, my goodness. So so many, and I just thinking back over this past year, having to suddenly teach your students in a completely foreign platform for you know, some of us who are at university, we've been teaching online, some, but gosh, K to 12, almost nobody, you know, had that experience. And so I think self care is something that is really important for teachers to think about. Because they are, they have a lot of stress, and a lot of pressure and demands. And I'm asking for more, you know, to be open and kind hearted and understanding of different children, diverse children, children who may not speak English very well, or who have no clue of what school culture is like in the United States. And that takes more patience and more time. So I guess, you know, a message I would like, teachers to hear is that they are supported, I would like to see them be more supported. And that they, they need to just really give themselves a huge pat on the back for everything that they do for children. Their jobs are the most important. They're creating the future doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, and, you know, we wouldn't have them without good teachers, so....

Lindsay Persohn:

You know, this conversation also makes me think about how different teaching is in other places. And I'm sure you have been in places where teachers are well respected and well paid, and really looked to as experts in the community.

Jody McBrien:

Yeah.

Lindsay Persohn:

And so I think a part of that learning about other cultures might also be learning about the way education is done differently in other cultures. And I know that that's an area of your your work as well. Right. Comparative studies?

Jody McBrien:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you go into a classroom in northern Uganda, and all of the children stand up immediately and say, Good morning, Mrs. McBrien, how are you today? You know, and? And I'll say, Thank you, No, I'm fine. How are you? And they all chant back? You know, we're fine. Thank you. And they don't, so many of the classrooms that children can't, well, certainly there are no, just free textbooks given out, you know, children have to buy their own textbooks, and many can't afford to. And so, so much of the classroom is repetition. The teacher will say two plus two is four, and the kids will say two plus two is four, this goes back and forth four times. And then the teacher will ask a child to stand up and say two plus two is four, because it just see only way they're going to remember because they don't have a book to go home and review it. Very, very different work in many parts of the world.

Lindsay Persohn:

And I think that those are also messages that teachers can work with to see other ways of doing this, again, the things that we don't know we're already thinking with, and to break some of those cycles or to find other ways to to identify ways that work better or make us happier in schools because I really believe that being happy in school is is a such an important aspect of going to school. I think I've mentioned it on the show before when I taught kindergarten, I would I would always say if kids leave kindergarten hating school, they have such a long road ahead of them. You know, not just in school, but in life and I you know, and teachers too, you know, no wonder teachers leave the profession in mass because it is challenging, as you said, teachers have to be strong. And we have to remember that, that self care has to happen. You know, we can't only be doing things for other people, particularly when we feel obliged to doing things we don't believe in, or things that we can't get behind. But we must complete the task. So I think this idea of looking to other cultures for information and for ways of understanding the world and for ways of teaching could really be a game changer for lots of people.

Jody McBrien:

Absolutely, yeah, I worry about that, too. I'm a dinosaur, but I loved school. You know, I just loved it. It was a joyous thing for me. And when I hear children and teachers talking about feeling so stressed, are getting physically ill because of fear of these tests, you know, it just breaks my heart, that they can't have that joyous experience, because of the high pressure being placed on very small children, and on the teachers who are there to care for them. So I agree with you so much.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah, stress, stress does a lot to a body. Yeah. Well, Jody, I can't thank you enough for your time today. And I thank you for the work you do in the world.

Jody McBrien:

Thank you. It's really been a pleasure. And I feel the same way about the work you're doing in the world. So thank you.

Lindsay Persohn:

Thank you. Dr. Jody McBrien is known for her work in the areas of international and comparative issues of refugee students and their families work she's conducted in North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australasia. Her 2019 book, Educational Policies and Practices of English Speaking Refugee Settlement Countries, brought together 21 scholars to write about this work from the perspective of seven countries. In 2005, she published an influential article in the Review of Educational Research titled, Educational Needs and Barriers for Refugee Students in the United States. She's also published in Social Studies Research and Practice, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Contemporary Journal of African Studies, International Journal of Child Youth and Family Studies, The Journal of Transformative Education, and Journal of School Public Relations. She received the 2014 Ian Axford fellowship in public policy to examine how policies in New Zealand affected refugee settlement, a 2019 Fulbright specialist award to review practices at the rebuilt Mangere refugee resettlement center in Auckland, New Zealand, and is an International Affairs Fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. McBrien works in interdisciplinary spaces and has taught courses for the College of Education, Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, and the Honors College. She is also a guest taught at Shortwood Teachers College in Kingston, Jamaica, at the University of Winnipeg in Canada and at Soka University in Tokyo, Japan. Dr. McBrien is a Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida Sarasota Manatee campus. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. Listeners are invited to respond to an episode, learn more about our guests, search past episodes, or request a topic or conversation with a specific person through our website at ClassroomCaffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please be encouraged to talk about what you heard with your colleagues, and subscribe and review this podcast through your podcast provider. As always, I raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.