How do you explain to people what your research is about?
“I generally start by telling them what culturally responsive teaching is: a vision of education in which having a migration background is not a problem, but rather a source that you can draw upon to learn. And I specifically looked at how teachers can use it to improve their lessons by working together with colleagues. Previous research has shown that working together makes it easier for teachers to apply new things.”
How does this vision work in practice?
“As a teacher, it’s important for you to know about different cultures and backgrounds. It’s not only about holidays or food, but also about how certain cultures have contributed to science or education. A teacher needs an open attitude towards other perspectives and experiences for this, as well as a positive view of diversity. Students speaking another language should not immediately be seen as a problem but as an opportunity to learn a new language, for example. As a teacher, it’s also important for you to be aware of your own culture and your standards and values.”
That sounds like something every school would want.
“On the contrary, I encountered a lot of resistance. I approached about 120 schools to ask whether they wanted to participate in my research. The thing is that not many people in the Netherlands know what culturally responsive teaching actually is. So the reactions went something along the lines of, ‘What’s that?’, ‘That’s not where my priorities lie’ or ‘We don’t want to look at differences between students, but at similarities’. And even if teachers did want to participate, a discussion tended to arise about the need for this topic. Even though it is already very well known in America and a lot of research has been carried out. Thankfully, I managed to find a number of schools that were willing to work with me.”
What were the main conclusions?
“Showing a deep interest in the individual home culture of pupils improves the relationship between pupils and teachers. This is important, especially if you consider that previous research shows that the relationship between teacher and pupils with a migration background is less good, relatively speaking, and that this affects the motivation and performance of these pupils.
“Regular and long-term collaboration between teachers led to less resistance among teachers and the school and to them finding culturally responsive teaching more relevant. Finally, teachers also developed culturally responsive competencies. This gave them more knowledge about the cultures of their students and made them more open to other cultures.”
How will society benefit from your research?
“A culturally responsive vision can help to reduce inequality of opportunity. It’s not the solution, but it is part of it. It can help people to have higher expectations of students with a migration background. To think less in terms of disadvantages and more in terms of building on what they can do. What can teachers do to make pupils perform better and feel at home at school?”
I read in your acknowledgements that your PhD process had a few setbacks.
“I have a sensitive subject, but in the beginning, I was very enthusiastic. I thought: this is what everyone wants. But when I approached schools, I ran into a brick wall. That was difficult. I really got to know myself and discovered that I am hugely determined. Sometimes, it felt like I was the only person who thought this was important.”
Would you have encountered less resistance if you had started your research now?
“I think so. But I also notice that diversity and inclusion are really a trend these days. Much more than when I started this research seven years ago. That’s good, but we have to be careful not to let it become commercial. I really want us to start doing something with it so that it creates opportunities for everyone.”
In one of your statements, you advocate taking more account of mothers who are completing a PhD.
“Personally, I’m a single mother of two young sons. Combining that with your PhD is not always easy, certainly compared to doctoral candidates who don’t have children. Sometimes, your child might be sick, for example, and during the coronavirus pandemic, I had to homeschool them. Fortunately, I have two supervisors who approached things in a very respectful way and took my situation into account. But this is certainly not true for everyone.”
I also read in your acknowledgement that your sons are very proud of you.
“Very proud and happy. They’ve seen how hard I’ve worked for it. We also kind of did it together. I would sometimes still be working while they were playing together. Having a supportive environment, such as family, is crucial. My parents were also very important during the whole process. It was amazing to see that they were even more nervous than me while I was defending my dissertation.”