Culturally Responsive Teaching

4 Ways to Build Relationships With Students Whose Backgrounds Differ From Yours

Care, respect, and a thoughtful approach that appreciates the diversity within the classroom work together to promote strong relationships.

July 13, 2023
Cienpies Design / Alamy

When I first started teaching, I found myself in a lively middle school classroom unsure of how to connect with my students. While we shared similar skin tones and cultural experiences, our backgrounds were different due to our places of birth being over 1,000 miles apart. I grew up in a small bayou town in Louisiana, and here I was in a city with a population of 5 million people. Having moved to the area only two years prior, I was unfamiliar with the unique challenges and opportunities the children in that environment faced and how their surroundings shaped their educational experiences. 

Meaningful relationships with my students blossomed when I began to understand their perspectives and empathize with their lives outside of the classroom. Some simple acts allowed me to establish a nurturing classroom environment that created a community of mutual respect and care. Relationship building with my students created a foundation of high expectations and supported effective classroom management. 

1. Start the school year with a visit 

It’s hard to see someone’s perspective unless you can see the world through their lens. As a teacher who never lived in an urban environment, I knew there was no better way to truly know my students than by visiting their communities. This visit could include meeting parents during their child’s extracurricular activities or simply engaging parents in conversation on the sidewalk outside of their homes. I contacted parents through email, text, or phone and scheduled a convenient time and location for them. It was important that parents saw this outreach as support and an introduction to the entire family. 

The conversations were more informal than parent-teacher conferences, and I focused on being social and relatable as a new person in the community. Although it might not be true for all teachers, I’ve personally found it easier to relate with parents as a mom and to use that experience to empathize with tracking students’ education journey.  

These meetings showed my commitment to student/parent engagement and relationship building. They also developed a sense of trust, where I was seen as an extension of the student’s network of care, and led to a crucial change in the parents’ connection to the classroom. These meetings were key for classroom management because students knew that their parents were “on my side” and supported my efforts in their yearlong learning journey.

2. Learn About cultural Differences

In my first years of teaching, I had a few mishaps when it came to culture. I had to improvise and differentiate lessons to cater to individual students’ needs. As a social studies teacher who loved game-based learning, I created a lesson where children pretended to be the president for the day. 

In the game, students drafted laws and reviewed the government’s checks and balances. While circling the classroom, I realized that a student was not working. After inquiring about the issue, they let me know that they couldn’t participate in the game because their religious views prohibited them from running for political office or voting. In an instant, I had to come up with an alternative activity that would still enrich this student’s learning experience. After school, I called the mother for clarity and a plan of action moving forward regarding the incident. It helped me to bridge a disconnect that I didn’t know existed and provided an opportunity for my students to learn about tolerance, diversity, and the importance of understanding one another.

As a reflective teacher, I gained some important insight—that lesson plans cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach. I needed to be flexible and prepared to create lessons that reflected the population of my classroom and allowed them to more deeply engage in learning. 

3. Appreciate an aspect of your students’ culture or background 

When it comes to appreciating and understanding different cultures, there’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. As a teacher working in a diverse environment, you need to show interest and respect. During my time teaching elementary school, the majority of my students were Hispanic and Black. The school celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month to reflect those groups within the school’s population. Every class was required to create a performance for each cultural celebration—a dance, a song, a poem, a play, or any variation of performing arts.  

I approached my class’s performance for Hispanic Heritage Month with care and reverence. The first step I took was to seek input and contributions from Hispanic students and their parents through classroom discussions, informal conversations, and self-guided research on the diverse Hispanic community of the school. This allowed everyone to express the aspects of their culture that they wanted to highlight while ensuring that non-Hispanic students could show their appreciation in the most appropriate way. The school body enjoyed the performance, and I valued the opportunity to teach my students the history of Hispanic Heritage Month. 

4. Reach out to other educators at your school

Studies show that minority teachers usually work in environments where the community matches their own cultural identity. If you discover that you’re in an environment where you don’t share the same background as the community or neighborhood, there’s a good chance that someone in the building does. It’s best to reach out to that teacher, counselor, secretary, or foreman and ask if they can offer guidance for connecting with the community. They can not only act as a buffer but also help you bridge any communication gaps that arise with parents and students, as cultural barriers can hinder effective communication. 

My first year of teaching was in an affluent African American community where most of the parents had an expectation of communication through email. When I moved to a Title 1 school later in my career, parents weren’t very responsive to email for a variety of reasons. When I casually pointed this out to a veteran teacher, I learned that the community preferred to communicate through text messages and phone calls. The realization that meeting people at their preferred communication level is vital for nurturing teacher-parent-family relationships was a turning point for my career that led to the practice of connecting outside of the classroom.

It’s important to remember that creating relationships with your students is going to take time and consistent effort. It will require interest and understanding and should be a priority for the beginning of the school year. Be willing to be reflective and humble in your approach so that you remain respectful to your students and the school community. This will create an environment of mutual support and respect that can result in successful academic outcomes.

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