Chief among an educator’s countless responsibilities is helping students feel at home in the classroom. But in this increasingly global culture, the attributes that were once used to signal a person’s heritage—like manner of speaking, style of dress, and color of skin—are becoming more and more subtle. A high school teacher, for example, might be less likely to realize that a Hispanic student needs help with reading if he speaks “just like everyone else.” Similarly, in the absence of stereotypical characteristics, how would a guidance counselor know that one of her quietest students has amazing stories about growing up in South Africa? In this interview with Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, you’ll find advice on detecting cultural differences among students.
Hobsons: Who are Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) and Third Culture Kids (TCKs)?
Ruth Van Reken: A CCK is a person who lives in—or meaningfully interacts with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years. Third Culture Kids are a subset of CCKs who grow up interacting with various cultures as they move from place to place. However there are many other types of experiences by which people grow up cross-culturally including international adoptees, the children of cultural minorities, and immigrants. CCKs can have more than one type of cross-cultural experience at a time.
Hobsons: What basic knowledge do educators need in order to effectively identify and teach CCKs?
Ruth Van Reken: Culture is learned from our surrounding environment. CCKs, who experience a multiplicity of cultural norms, practices, values, and beliefs, don’t necessarily fit into traditional stereotypes. Educators should avoid relying on expectations or evaluations of students which are based on traditional groupings and investigate, rather, the individual stories of their students.
Hobsons: How does the CCK approach apply to educators and students in higher education?
Ruth Van Reken: Unlike a student who learns culture in a stable, self-affirming cultural environment, a CCK jumps from culture to culture with each plane ride, so it’s easy to understand how common issues of CCKs carry over into college. Sadly, while many universities offer international programs, they are not designed to meet the needs of other CCKs—like domestic transplants or military children, for example—and so those students’ special experiences often go unrecognized. Even at the collegiate level, recognizing hidden diversity can go a long way to helping break down stereotypes.
Hobsons: How should educators and counselors frame their discussions with parents of CCKs?
Ruth Van Reken: Ask simple questions on the entrance form such as, “Where has your child attended school before?” Also, make sure the parents know that your door is always open to discuss any concerns they have. When they bring their concerns, before giving a quick answer, explore what assumptions from other places might be underlying some of their concerns. All parents want their children to succeed. So do educators and counselors. With good conversation and mutual respect, a student can grow beautifully from the very richness of a multi-layered cultural soil.
Ruth Van Reken has made a career of teaching counselors and educators to identify the unique benefits and challenges associated with cross-cultural kids. Her many published works include Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds (2001), which she co-authored with David C. Pollock.