ìBack Home, Nobodyíd Do Thatî:
Immigrant Students and Cultural Models of Schooling

M. Gail Hickey

Immigration is changing the composition of U.S. classrooms. Social studies and other teachers are encountering students from other cultures whose worldviews are substantially different from those of most teachers and native-born students. The problems that result from differences in cultural models may impede studentsí educational progress.

To avoid this outcome, what must teachers know about ethnic backgrounds so that they may facilitate instruction for immigrant students? Where do U.S. cultural values and specific ethnic values diverge? How can teachers increase their own understanding of their studentsí cultures? These are some of the questions addressed in this article through firsthand accounts from my research study of recent immigrantsí experiences in U.S. society and schools. Those interviewed were students of Asian and Hispanic heritage, who represent the fastest-growing groups in the immigrant student population nationwide.

Asian Cultural Models

Recent South Asian immigrants to the United States in this study include students from India and Pakistan, while the countries of origin of Southeast Asian immigrants include Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. In the 1990 census, 19.3% of the Asian American population was Filipino, 8.5% Vietnamese, and 2.1% Laotian.

The dominant religions in South Asia include Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Both South and Southeast Asian peoples have been influenced by these value systems, which include group orientation, an emphasis on family relationships and familial responsibility, respect for authority and reverence for the elderly, self-control and personal discipline, the placing of a high value on educational achievement, and the use of shame to control behavior.1

Respect for Family and Elders

Responsibility toward oneís family and emphasis on family over individual interests were prevalent themes in Asian immigrant interviews. Vellore, a recent immigrant from India, explains:

Putting it in one sentence, the family comes firstóbefore anything else. Because if the family value system breaks down, we believe you have lost the foundation of being a good citizen. Family is a foundation of Indian culture. . . .

Tristan and his large family escaped Communist Vietnam as ìboat people.î When his family experienced dire financial straits in the United States, Tristan put the familyís needs ahead of his own strong desire to complete his schooling. He explains that, in times of family trouble, Asian children feel more compelled to contribute to the familyís welfare than to further their own wishes:

My family need money. And my brothers . . . they work, [but still earn] not very much money. . . . I think as I sit here, ìI learn English, but my family need help. . . . I cannot sit here to study.î So, I think about make money for us. Then, I go to school later.

Daniel believes ìOne big difference [between the United States and Sri Lanka] is the strength of the extended family.î Daniel says parents receive all types of assistance from extended family members; aunts, grandmothers, or older cousins, for example, take over child-care and housekeeping when both parents must be absent from home. ìIn my home country,î he adds, ì things like [employing baby-sitters] are just unknown.î

Respect for oneís elders in Asian cultures is closely related to family allegianceóchildren first learn to respect their parents and older siblings, then older adults in the community and all those with wisdom and experience.

The belief that oneís elders must be respected may pose special problems for U.S. social studies teachers, as immigrant students may not feel free to express negative opinions about political leaders and other authority figures. This characteristic can make it awkward for them to participate in classroom debates and compare-contrast assignments. According to Mahesh from India: ìThe freedom of this country is nice. But you see [on] . . . the ëTonight Show,í Leno slapping [President] Clinton all the time. I mean, every night he does it! And back home, nobodyíd do that.î

Nida contrasts the typical U.S. parent-child relationship with that of her native Pakistan:

. . . here, kids and adults are more like friends. If [an adult] comes into the house over there, [a child] should always ask them if they need something, or want something. You have to be very formal.

Saman, who grew up in Sri Lanka, believes children in the United States are ìmore forwardî than children in his birth culture. ìTeenagers here donít have respect, and donít show it to authority. In Sri Lanka, elders get a lot of respect!î Delia explains that, in the Philippines, adults as well as children address their elders as ìmaíamî or ìsir.î

Emphasis on Education

Asian childrenís academic success elevates personal and familial status, while academic failure brings shame on the entire family.2 ìThere is a lot of pressure on children in Singapore to do well in school,î Pepsy states. Student scores from competitive school entrance exams are published in the Singapore newspapers for all to read. ìStudents want to do well on the exams so they do not embarrass themselves or their families,î she concludes.

School failure is viewed as a lack of will, and is addressed by increasing parental restrictions.3 Isabel insists that in the Philippines: ìSchool is so important that ... a person is not allowed to date until they are finished with school; school is to be your sole focus. This means no jobs, as well. School is to be a childís only work.î

The impression immigrants often have of the role of the teacher is hierarchical. One Vietnamese immigrant recalled a typical day in her Vietnamese village school.

We had tables with benches rather than individual desksó10 students per table, with an average of 50 students per classroom. Each student received paper, pen, one pencil, and a number line. There were no books for the studentsóthe teacher held the only book in the classroom and taught orally from that book. Students were expected to copy lessons into their notebooks and memorize them each evening in preparation for the next dayís lessons. If you could not recite the lesson exactly, speaking fluently and error-free, you were struck with a stick and asked to sit down. This was a great humiliation. You were expected to recite the lesson perfectly the next day. The pattern was repeated for each subject, each day, throughout the school year.

Many immigrants of all countries studied clearly have an assumption that the learning process is teacher-directed rather than one requiring student initiative.

Learning English

Immigrants from almost every part of the world speak of the difficulty they had with English after arriving in the United States, and the Asian immigrants interviewed are no exception. Yet, because of some Asian immigrantsí educational and occupational successes, U.S. teachers may expect these students to be ìmodel minorities.î Researcher Esther Lee Yao argues against such stereotyping:

Not all of them are superior students. . . . Some have learning problems; some lack motivation, proficiency in English, or financial resources; and some have parents who do not understand the American school system because of cultural differences, language barriers, or their own single-minded quest for survival.4

Tristanís family knew no English when they arrived. He and his siblings enrolled in school to learn enough English to get jobs and help support their large family, but: ìNobody can find job. We have no income. We just sit in school. We cannot study. We donít know English. What the teachers say, I donít understand at all! So . . . I feel bad.î

Tristan decided to quit school and work for McDonaldís, where other young Vietnamese had found employment. He hoped daily exposure to English-speaking customers and coworkers would improve his language skills, but he was not permitted to work at the front counter where he would deal with customers:

So, I have to work in the kitchen. All they teach me, ìjust say ëOkay.íî . . . So, every time they say ìTwelve Big Macs!î I just make twelve Big Macs for them. They teach me what they want me to do. Thatís all.

Shahnaz also hoped to improve her English skills by working at McDonaldís, but says she learned more by watching TV soap operas: ìNo, seriously, minus all the dirty talk, the people on the soap opera have normal talk. They teach what to say when you meet someone, or go to the store, or when you serve tea.î

Hispanic Cultural Models

Although most of the populations of Mexico, Central America, South America, Cuba, Puerto Ricoóand many people of the Southwest United Statesóhave ancestral roots in Spain, there is considerable diversity among Hispanic peoples. In fact, most Hispanics like to be identified by their country of origin, such as Mexican American or Cuban American, rather than by such ethnic terms as Hispanic or Latino.5

Some basic Hispanic values and behavioral styles differ from those commonly associated with U.S. culture. A major influence is the long dominance of Catholicism in Hispanic cultures, which place a strong value on traditional family and gender roles. Although the diversity of Hispanic cultures and socioeconomic variations make generalizations difficult, certain cultural values that have persisted over time offer valid comparisons.6 These values include an emphasis on personal relationships, especially within the extended family, along with respect and responsibilityósometimes known as the ìThree Rísî of Hispanic values.

Emphasis on Family

Loyalty to family is expected from all family members in Mexico. Saving for a trip to visit family members, for instance, would likely take precedence over buying a band uniform or sports equipment.

Hispanic females are closely supervised in their relations with males to ensure they do not bring shame on the family or spoil their chances for a good marriage. Juanita understands the difference between U.S. and Mexican cultural models and the variation in social restrictions those differences entail. She explains that Mexican girls cannot date until they are about seventeen years old.

Respect also has different meanings to Mexican and U.S. students, according to one study.7 Euro-American students define respect as the admiration of someone superior to oneself, being treated as an equal, and granting others equal treatment, whereas Mexican students associate respect with showing affection, loving someone, and giving and receiving protection.

For Mexican Americans, responsibility relates to the good of the group. Oneís actions are considered responsible when one works cooperatively with members of the group, rather than for individual gain.8

Gisella feels the word family means ìvery closeî in Peru. An element of cultural change that offends her is ìhow liberal kids are here, how they can just move out of the house by the time theyíre 16 or 18, or as fast as they can.î In Peru, she says, you move out of your parentsí house when you get married. Even then, married children do not move far from their parents and visit them often.

Respect for Elders

Like Asian immigrants, Hispanic immigrants show respect for their eldersóespecially for parents. According to Graciela:

There is no way that a kid in Mexico is going to turn around and call their mom ìstupidî or ìdumbîóthere is no way! . . . When a parent asks their kids to do something, even if you are not super excited, you never talk back to your parentsóyou just go ahead and do it.

As a teacher, Amalia feels children in the United States generally show less respect for their teachers than most Hispanic children:

There are children [here] who donít know how to respect a teacher, an adult. Like in Honduras, a child would not call an adult by their first name. Even if itís my best friend, somebody that comes to my house every day or every weekend, my child would not call her or him by his or her first name. Thatís very disrespectful.

Emphasis on Education

Academic attainment in Hispanic families is valued with a particular emphasis on its potential for enhancing the family as a whole. As illustrated in the words of a Spanish proverb, La escuela instruye, mientras el hogar educa (ìThe school instructs, while the home educatesî), family and responsibility to family are accorded a very high priority.9 Education is not always possible if a familyís circumstances require that students leave school to work. Raphael speaks with pride of how his father gave up school after eighth grade in Spain to help his parents on their farm.

According to Gisella, some parents in Peru discourage their children from attending school even now. She describes Peruís bipolar economic class system, then suggests:

The upper class encourages kids to go to school for a better future; because they are educated people, they know what they want, and they know what it takes to make a living. Now, poverty, I donít think that encourages kids to go to school. That encourages them to go to work on the street.

Education may also be considered less a priority for females than for males. Angel believes the fact that she is now living in the United States had a lot to do with her decision to continue school after marriage:

I donít think if I lived in Mexico I would have the same education as I have now. I think maybe I would have made it to maybe third or fourth grade. Unless you are [from] a wealthy family, education just isnít something that is as [important for females] as it is here in the United States.

Learning English

As with other immigrants whose first or second language is not English, many Hispanic immigrants struggle with the language. This challenge is especially hard to take when the immigrant has already spent time learning English. Raphael took English lessons in Spain, for example, only to be told he ìhad to learn better Englishî before he could attend kindergarten in the United States. Amalia had a similar experience:

In Honduras we take English classes twice a week, but in the lesson we learn ìthe table,î ìthe bowlî [laughing]. So when I came to New York, I didnít know any English, basically. . . . So the only [job] available for me was to work as a nannyóa baby-sitter. I lived in a family three months after I arrived, taking care of a little girl. . . . She was my best teacher. I was with her every day, and I learned with her.

When Juanitaís mother went to high school in the southwestern United States after her family arrived from Mexico, she was forbidden to speak Spanish in public, even in the hallways or just socializing.

Juanitaís motherís experience was a quarter of a century ago, but, as Amalia explains, the attitudes shown by her teachers then are present in some institutions even today. In her current position as an elementary school Spanish teacher, Amalia hopes Hispanic parents will encourage their children to maintain Spanish language skills after coming to the United States:

In the education system, [some students] have been told not to use Spanish. They are ìin America.î They ìneed to learn English.î [The mother of one of my students] told me that when he was going to a preschool day care, the teacher told him, ìYou donít speak Spanish in this class. You need to learn English.î And he told me he didnít want to use his Spanish anymore [after that], and he forgot all his Spanish. Heís just beginning to use his Spanish here in the classroom.

Analysis and Recommendations

These interviews lend support to an important aspect of multicultural educationóthat teachers in diverse environments must understand their studentsí backgrounds to communicate with them.10 Since the most effective means of teaching new information is to build on what students already know, it follows that the most effective social studies teachers in the United States are those who use what children have learned at home to teach new social studies knowledge and skills. A better understanding of immigrant parentsí and studentsí cultural models of schooling enhances U.S. social studies teachersí abilities to effectively guide their studentsí learning.

The ability of social studies educators to teach Asian and Hispanic immigrants will be enhanced by an understanding of their original culturesí attitudes toward educational achievement. Parents of Asian immigrant children, for instance, may believe their childís failure to do well in school is the result of laziness or lack of character. These parents may respond to academic problems by placing even greater restrictions on the childís time outside of school and/or by isolating them from other children and family members in an attempt to use shame and guilt to increase academic success.11 Parents of Hispanic immigrant females may believe their daughtersí place is in the home and that she does not need to do well in school to be a successful wife and mother.

Research on South and Southeast Asian children also has implications for U.S. social studies educators. These children typically do their most efficient work in quiet, well-structured settings when they have set specific goals that they understand. Asian immigrant students may be reticent about their opinions when asked, and even when they know the answer to a question, they may prefer to sit quietly. Asian students also tend to seek the teacherís approval and to make decisions based on what they believe the teacher wants. Such behavior can cause Asian students to become more and more dependent on their teachers for guidance and assistance with schoolwork.12

If a teacherís predominant instructional techniques depend on studentsí verbal experiences, he or she may jeopardize the learning success of children whose first language is not English. Engaging limited-English Hispanic or Asian students in social studies projects without clearly defined goals and expectations (such as some inquiry or discovery activities), and then failing to overtly communicate desired outcomes for these experiences, may cause confusion and frustration for students and their parents.

In class discussions, teachers may face the problem that in the countries of origin of a number of immigrant students, it may be considered rude or offensive for young people to make assertive statements that contradict the views of older people. Females in particular may be discouraged by their families from the strong expression of views on social or political issues. Expecting students whose culture encourages respect for authority figures to participate fully in class discussions or debates may be futile, especially for new arrivals, and expecting them to participate in verbal exchanges that, to them, would jeopardize their reputation (and therefore their familyís reputation) is potentially psychologically harmful. With guidance and encouragement by the teacher, students can develop skills of self-expression and active participation over a period of time. Achieving this goal will be easier for teachers who correctly identify their studentsí inhibitions and develop a plan for overcoming them than for those who do not.

To work more effectively with Asian and Hispanic immigrant children, teachers may wish to:

1. Learn a few key words from your immigrant studentsí native languages. When you show an interest in their languages, you set the tone for other students to do so, creating a classroom environment conducive to good communication.

2. Collaborate with your studentsí ESL teachers to help make their experiences with cultural change easier and more positive.13

3. Try to modify confrontations with conflicting beliefs and/or practices, whenever possible. For example, before using ìJeopardyî-type review exercises following a social studies unit, show a film clip of the TV show to help Asian and Hispanic students understand the type of competition they will experience in the exercise. Because immigrant students may be motivated to perform in ways that enhance the good of the group rather than the individual, consider having students form teams or pairs to complete the review.

4. Learn more about immigrant studentsí familial support system. One teacher was stunned when she invited a Vietnamese studentís parents for a conference and the boyís father berated him, struck him, and forced him to kneel before the teacher in apology.14 Another teacher reported a studentís parents to social services for neglect, not understanding that a relative cared for the student while her mother worked three jobs for money to bring the rest of the family to the United States.15 Both of these situations could have been avoided had the teachers tried to learn more about individual studentsí cultural backgrounds before making a judgment.

5. Understand that diet and eating practices may be very different for immigrant students, and make allowances for differences when possible. Some students do not eat red meat and others eat no meat at all, yet school cafeterias commonly serve meat dishes several times a week.

6. Avoid making assumptions about studentsí experiences with holidays and celebrations. Some immigrant students may never have experienced a birthday party or gone trick-or-treating at Halloween. Others need to stay home on special religious days or their religious beliefs may prohibit them from participating in school activities.

7. Understand immigrant studentsí reluctance to engage in impromptu discussion or debate, perhaps even to articulate pros and cons in a compare-contrast activity. These feelings stem from their strong respect for the opinions of the teacher and from their respect for other adults and authority figures (including political leaders). Model appropriate responses for immigrant students, especially new arrivals, and team them with others willing to engage in discussion or debate until they understand that such behavior will win approval from you as the teacher.


1. See P. Tsui and G. Schultz, ìFailure of Rapport: Why Psychotherapeutic Engagement Fails in the Treatment of Asian Clients,î American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 55, no. 4 (1985): 561­69; and D. Chung, ìAsian Cultural Commonalities: A Comparison with Mainstream American Culture,î in S. M. Furuto, et al., eds., Social Work Practice with Asian Americans (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1992), 27­44.

2. See Larke Nahme Huang and Yu-Wen Ying, ìChinese American Children and Adolescents,î in Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, Larke N. Huang, and Associates, eds., Children of Color: Psychological Interventions with Minority Children (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989), 30­66; and Stanley Sue and D. W. Sue, ìTraining of ëThird Worldí Students to Function as Counselors,î Journal of Counseling Psychology 20 (1973): 73­78.

3. Jianhua Feng, Asian-American Children: What Teachers Should Know (Urbana, IL: Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1994).

4. Esther Lee Yao, ìAdjustment Needs of Asian Immigrant Children,î Elementary School Guidance and Counseling 19, No. 3 (1985): 222­27.

5. Verna Hildebrand, Lillian A. Phenice, Mary M. Gray, and Rebecca P. Hines, Knowing and Serving Diverse Families (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 74.

6. Hildebrand, 81.

7. Rogelio Diaz-Guerrero and Alonzo Peck, Psychology of the Mexican: Culture and Personality (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1976).

8. Hildebrand et al., 86.

9. Ibid., 83.

10. Duane E. Campbell, Choosing Democracy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 26.

11. H. Kitano and R. Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1989).

12. Yao, 226.

13. Betsy West, ìThe New Arrivals from Southeast Asia: Getting to Know Them,î Childhood Education 60, No. 2 (1983): 84-89.

14. Ibid, 85.

15. Ibid.

M. Gail Hickey is an associate professor of education at Indiana UniversityóPurdue University Fort Wayne, where she teaches social studies methods.

Research Methods

In 1993, I began conducting oral history interviews with immigrants living in the midwestern United States. These interviews now span a five-year period and represent more than 120 immigrants from thirty countries, yielding information about contemporary immigrantsí cultural models of schooling, child-rearing practices, and basic value orientations.

Those interviewed were of Asian and Hispanic heritage because they make up the faster growing immigrant student populations. Census figures showed that Asian immigrants increased from 3.5 million in 1980 to 7.3 million in 1990. Hispanic immigrants increased from 14.6 million in 1980 to 22.3 million in 1990.

Excerpts used here are drawn from interviews with 21 immigrants or immigrant children from 11 countries who arrived after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act (P.L. 89-236). Eight immigrants are from South Asia, 5 are from Southeast Asian countries, and 8 are Hispanic.

Interviews were conducted with an open-ended, semistructured questionnaire. Participants were voluntary informants in an individual, semistructured, tape-recorded interview of two to three hours. The interviews, in the language of the informantsí choice, were later transcribed and translated into English when necessary. Holding the interviews in either the informantís home or place of business facilitated his or her comfort level during the recall of possibly traumatic events. The primary researcher and two research assistants analyzed the transcripts and identified emergent themes and subthemes.