In the United States, students spend the majority of their day in the care of adults who are not their parent or guardian. Those school-based adults assume the responsibility of caregiver for children who are not their own. The cultural upbringing of the teachers and the cultural upbringing of the students form an intersection that is critical to the academic success of the students and the professional success of the adults.
It’s imperative that students and teachers know each other beyond the subjective cultural experiences that each may bring to the classroom, and that educators possess an understanding of diverse cultures but not stereotype people into a one-size-fits-all cultural mold. Students need to be related to as full, complex, multidimensional people.
To achieve this desired objective, school leaders and classroom teachers should view their school or classroom spaces as culturally inclusive classroom communities where everyone is welcome.
Fostering a Sense of Inclusion in the Classroom
When we talk about the dynamics of creating a culturally inclusive classroom community, the typical focus is on the diversity of the students in the room or school building. All too often the culture and diversity of the adults are on the periphery. But in order to navigate the intersection of student and adult cultural diversity, we must first acknowledge and understand our adult beliefs and practices.
This thinking requires educators to be willing to explore and analyze our own history and its effects on our behavior. First we must consider our historical and current living situations and conditions. When we examine our childhood, young adult, and present-day lives, we examine how our experiences influence us today and how they might have an effect on our work with children and families who have vastly different experiences.
While culture refers to a collective worldview, schools as culturally inclusive communities must relate to individual students first in addressing the distinct needs of the students who make up the those communities. I’ve used several relationship-building approaches that I feel could help educators and students successfully navigate the cultural intersection of the school community.
1. Learn your students’ names and learn to pronounce them. Our names are our identities. Students feel valued and acknowledged when teachers and other school-related adults take the time to learn their names.
Name recognition is so personal that mobile assistance programs like Siri for the iPhone have a pronunciation feature so that the device can correctly pronounce the name of the owner. If mobile technology can recognize the importance of name recognition, it seems that the same can be said for the classroom community.
Intentionally mispronouncing someone’s name is a passive-aggressive form of disrespect.
2. Set aside time for relationship housekeeping. Teachers can set aside a short time each class period for students to ask questions, share brief short stories of their lives, and just check in and transition into the new class period, or the second half of the day for elementary students.
As humans we are relational. Children and adults desire a connection with those they trust.
3. Have one-on-one conversations, discussions, and informal meetings with students. Remember: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. These conversations should occur early in the year and routinely during the year. Don’t wait until there’s a problem or the student is in trouble to talk with him or her.
4. Connect with parents. Conferences, phone calls, and brief emails are ways to bond with parents or guardians. These interactions should start early, prior to any problems that may occur, and they should be used simply as a means of getting to know your students and their families.
5. See yourself as the students see you. What type of facial expressions do students see? What does your body language tell them about how comfortable you are around them? What tone of voice do you use to show your students that you respect them as individuals? What biases and perceptions do the students have of you based on how you look, dress, and talk?
Let your students get to know you. Do they know your favorite color? Do they know your pet peeves? Do they know what you like to do for fun? In any relationship, both people come to know each other—a teacher-student relationship is no exception.
6. Know your content. Students want teachers who are well versed in their content. Teachers should be able to demonstrate their content knowledge by anticipating student misconceptions and have the ability to explain the content in a variety of ways.
To create culturally inclusive classroom communities, both teachers and students build relationships with each other. Students are motivated by teachers they respect. Teachers show genuine care and concern for students by holding them accountable and by acknowledging their good work. And teachers who show that they care are more successful in reaching students.
An elementary-school-age student may not be able to articulate his or her specific needs as they relate to learning and safety. However, student behavior may indicate which path the teacher should take to address what is in the student’s best interest. So the student is the navigator and the teacher is the driver at this cultural crossroad.