A Cultural Autobiography: Teacher-Supported Transformation

Angela V. Clevinger

How people culturally identify themselves plays a crucial role in how they interact with the world. I have great hope that people can grow in this arena of their lives, and teachers can have a profound effect on this growth. I personally have changed my outlook on many social issues and how I view the world and I credit my 5th-grade teacher for supporting my transformation.

My father was a very prejudiced man. He was a Kloaker, a regional leader, in the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that advocates extremist reactionary positions, such as white supremacy and anti-immigration. My father brought me to KKK meetings as a child, but when I was in 5th grade I realized how much I disagreed with the organization’s values and begged not to participate in these events any longer. I came to this decision because of my interactions with my 5th-grade teacher Mr. Hocker, an African American.

Just days before parent-teacher conferences, my father had been on the news dressed in his KKK sheet. I remember driving us to the conference because he had been drinking some, and I was scared for him to drive. When my father walked into the classroom, Mr. Hocker met him at the door, shook his hand, and treated him with great respect—respect that I felt he did not deserve. As I watched Mr Hocker, I learned a little bit about who I wanted to become as a person. I realized that hatred of people because of the color of their skin was unjust. 

Mr. Hocker saw potential in me. He believed in me and gave me the courage to hope that I could become more than my background might suggest. I have come to value greatly the following quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “We all create the person we become by our choices as we go through life.” While your experiences and background may tell who you are, your choices will determine who you become. Mr. Hocker, and teachers before and after him, have instilled within me an understanding about the importance of making good choices in my life.  I take full responsibility for my choices and the consequences that accompany them. This can be a valuable lesson for us all.

I have always been a deep thinker, which can be challenge at times. My hardest times have been when my ideology and actions do not match. And so I strive to act in ways that reflect my beliefs, a quality I value in others. As I’ve gotten older and learned life lessons, my beliefs and actions have become more aligned. While I would not go so far as to say I am wise, I can safely report I am wiser.

I found self-assessment to be a valuable experience and one that expanded my cultural thinking to a global scale. As our world becomes more connected, global cultural awareness and cultural competence/proficiency will be a necessary skill for leaders and people in general to have. The ability to cooperate and work collaboratively will become a vital skill for problem solving.

As a high school student, I belonged to a group called APPALKIDS. We performed Appalachian ballads, storytelling, and skits that set out to dispel stereotypes about the Appalachian people. These activities gave me a great deal of pride. I looked at my environment and customs through a cultural lens as I traveled throughout the southern Appalachian region performing at festivals and colleges. I learned that people just like me went to college. I learned that while I was poor economically speaking, I belonged to a rich cultural heritage. I also learned that other people from other places did as well. This experience profoundly shaped how I saw the world.

I went to college because my teachers had encouraged me. They saw talent in me that my test scores did not reflect. While my test scores indicated that I probably wouldn’t do well in college, those tests were not made to measure the aptitude of poor kids. My teachers again had a profound effect on my life, writing to Radford University on my behalf.

I have survived many hardships in my life. I lived by myself for three years beginning when I was 15. I learned to drive at 9 and would drive my father when he was drunk and could not drive safely. By the time I was 9 years old, I looked like an adult and so received a lot of unwanted attention from my father’s drinking buddies. My mother had severe mental health issues and still does; she was in and out of mental institutions throughout my childhood. I don’t tell these things to make you take pity on me. There are far worse stories out there than mine, and mine has a very happy ending. Education and caring teachers helped me find that happy ending.

My experiences have equipped me to meet the needs of diverse learners, and so I can now play that role of supportive and encouraging teacher to children seeking their own happy endings. I have come to look at the experiences of my often horrific childhood as trials that have provided me with the unique understanding of what my students may be going through. I know firsthand the anxiety that comes from living in a broken and violent home. As an educator, I have comforted and helped many children who have come from similar experiences as mine.

I come to the profession of teaching with passion and purpose. I have examined my own educational experiences with vigor. What my teacher did for me worked. I must figure out what contributed to my success so I can help others achieve their own. That is my ultimate goal as an educator and future leader.

I have also learned that no matter the nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, generation, or locality, people want the best for their children. When they give us their children to educate, they are giving us what is most precious to them. This is an awesome responsibility. We must do our absolute best to create a bright future for these children. We must strive for equity and I will continue to grow because I will not cease researching best practices in order to provide the best education to ALL children.

I think a curriculum that celebrates the cultural diversity of others is needed. If the legislature won’t put one in place, then it is necessary for leaders and teachers at schools to make it a priority. We do not lose our own cultural identity because we celebrate the cultures of others. In fact, we learn more about our own cultures and come closer to self-actualization when we have had the opportunity to learn and celebrate cultures different than our own.

When I was in school, students were encouraged to do projects on topics that intrigued them. My teachers often encouraged me to write that song about multiplication or that poem about algebra. They nurtured me and I felt safe in my learning and was not scared of failure. As a leader, I will encourage teachers to do these kinds of things. Engagement learning is good for all students, regardless of their background.

Relationships are important, too. Smiles are the same in all languages. So is love. Love must be our guide in all we do. Love bridges the gap from not understanding to advocating. As a leader, I will continue to advocate for all students.