Teaching Respect: How To Celebrate Different Cultures and Ethnicities in Your Classroom
Today’s classroom is increasingly diverse. In addition to having varied home lives, learning styles and emotional needs, students come from different cultures and ethnicities. As a teacher, you can set up your classroom to celebrate and embrace all of these differences.
While educators are well-meaning when it comes to promoting acceptance and inclusion, good intentions don’t always lead to measurable results. Use this guide to evaluate how you teach respect for ethnic and cultural differences in your classroom and to learn new ways to support your students.
Promote Differences and Ask Questions
In decades past, adults and children (and particularly white adults and children) leaned into the idea that they “don’t see color.” The goal was to promote equality, but this concept actually ignored the different lived experiences of people of color. From a young age, kids need to learn that it’s okay to be different and to discuss these differences in safe environments.
“Acknowledge differences,” write Jennifer Stallbaumer Rouyer and Patricia A. Davis at Children’s Mercy. “Kids notice them, so there’s no need to pretend they don’t exist. Emphasize the positive aspects of differences and be honest about the ways people are mistreated for their differences.”
Bringing discussions about racism to the classroom might seem too heavy if you teach young children, but you might be surprised by what your students understand and comment on. There are multiple resources online on how to have sensitive conversations about race with kids. And by talking about differences openly, you teach your students how to ask questions about different cultures and backgrounds as they get older.
“Sometimes, adults teach children that asking questions is rude and intrusive,” says Rina Joseph at Kidpillar. “Yet, it is actually an excellent way to teach and learn about differences that should be accepted and celebrated.” That said, Joseph encourages teachers to help students ask questions in thoughtful ways so that the question recipients don’t feel singled out.
Answering questions and having discussions are often preferred by people who are acutely aware of their differences, like someone who uses a wheelchair or wears a headcover for religious reasons. Too often, adults try to ignore these differences (making the individual feel invisible), while kids are left openly staring because the person they are looking at is unusual in their eyes.
“A culturally diverse classroom helps students develop their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills,” writes the team at educational publisher Continental Press. “Encountering new and different ideas and perspectives makes students evaluate their viewpoints.”
When kids feel like they can talk about different people, cultures and ideas, they are less likely to stick to one way of thinking or doing things. They won’t grow up with binary beliefs of good and bad and nothing in between.
Celebrate Diversity, Create Inclusivity
While celebrating diversity and highlighting differences is certainly important, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have created an inclusive classroom. Inclusivity refers to the safety students feel in an environment. An inclusive classroom is welcoming and safe for all students.
“An inclusive school culture is one where students feel comfortable being themselves, and protected from the harm that comes from disrespect and discrimination,” the team at Teach.com writes. “When educators, school counselors and administrators intentionally try to create a representative, respectful school culture, students’ socioemotional development can thrive.”
Every student in your classroom has inclusivity needs, whether they need a quiet space to learn on their own or are working to improve their language skills. Inclusivity works to acknowledge differences and provide support for them when needed.
“Over time, the concept of inclusion has broadened to recognize a range of other student needs—linguistic and cultural responsiveness, neurodiversity, and racial, gender and economic trauma and inequality—as well as awareness that individual students can be ‘twice or thrice exceptional,’ thus affected by more than just one variable,” says Denise Ahlquist, senior academic consultant at the Great Books Foundation. “In its most expanded sense, inclusion honors the varied ways in which we all learn, at times differently than how others learn, or from some presumed ‘norm.’”
It’s not easy to create an inclusive classroom. Kids are acutely aware of differences and are quick to label them as better or worse depending on their perceptions. As you work to make your students more inclusive, you will have to try to break down these binaries.
“Teachers and students need to understand that there is no such thing as being ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ someone or something,” writes the team at Edvantic. “It is okay to be different.”
The mission of the Great Books Foundation is to advance the critical, reflective thinking and social and civic engagement of readers of all ages through Shared Inquiry™ discussion of works and ideas of enduring value.