Teachers bring with them their individual and societal cultural baggage. The onus is on the teacher to navigate through this diversity in order for teaching and learning to take place. The teacher can choose to ignore the diversity, or acknowledge it and use global teaching practices to enrich the classroom.
Ignoring the racial, religious, economic, linguistic and social diversity in the classroom is not an equitable approach to teaching and learning. Acknowledging cultural diversity increases equity and provides tools to make lessons more relevant and engaging for students.
The power of cultural inheritance
Teachers as educational practitioners bring with them their individual and societal/cultural baggage. Paulo Freire succinctly observed that we cannot doubt the power of cultural inheritance, nor should we doubt its ability to make us conforming beings. This knowledge is the very factor that should make us capable of overcoming the strength of cultural inheritance.
Teachers should meet students at their levels, acknowledging student cultures, welfare, ages, backgrounds, parental support, social and community well-being, and how these affect learning. This frame of reference leads teachers to contextualize their teaching to the students’ perspective – after all, learning is about students’ needs, not the teacher’s.
Parker Palmer noted that real learning does not happen until students are brought into relationships with their teachers, with one another and with the subjects being taught. Good teachers bring students into living communion with the subjects they teach. For this to happen, students must relate learning to their cultural experiences, environments and aspirations, and must contextualize this within their cultural realms.
How can you develop empathy to student cultures?
- Practice culturally relevant teaching by using prior knowledge, frames of reference, cultural knowledge and cultural and linguistic diversity.
- Use examples and teaching aids that are culturally relevant to the students. For example, teaching religious holidays in the classroom including Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions can highlight differences, but can also highlight the importance of tolerance in diversity.
Guide the class through each lesson, showing cultural differences and similarities without creating hostility.
Global teaching practices
To make learning more relevant and effective for students, practice culturally relevant teaching. Cultural diversity should not be an excuse for low performance. Teachers with culturally responsive teaching practices hold their students in high esteem and demand high performances of them. They empower students to use diversity as a resource and not as an excuse for failure and mediocre performance.
Teachers cannot hold their students to high standards and expectations unless they are in a symbiotic cultural relationship with them. Teachers ought to effectively communicate expectations to students. This should happen with language that is culturally sensitive and conducive to teaching and learning.
Classrooms are not culturally neutral; they are mosaics of different cultures, genders, ages, races, religions, economic situations, etc. Geneva Gay observed that culture is at the heart of all we do in the name of education, be it curriculum, instruction, administration or performance assessment. Teachers have to navigate through all these in order to reach the students at a level where learning can take place.
Use students’ previous knowledge to demystify myths and misconceptions. “I saw it online” is a frequent justification for viewpoints, and such discussions should be indicative of student inquisitiveness.
- Use the internet to deconstruct myths and the misconceptions based on stereotyping and lack of exposure. Seek parallels for student problems. Find solutions using cultural resources for common problems.
- Use the power of different – not good or bad. Some people love broccoli, others hate it. Some people love mustard, others hate it. This does not mean either is bad, it means our tastes are different. So are customs, and you can use this to explain differences students hear and observe daily.
- Use language differences as a resource. Teach that language is a tool of culture and learning different languages helps us understand different cultures. This may lead to encouraging students to take language classes they might have ignored otherwise.
- Start online exchange programs with schools from other countries – the more student see others going through similar educational experiences, the more they will understand their common destinies.
In pedagogy, discipline, gestures, projects and response to questions introduce cultural relevance and teach from students’ cultural experiences.
Using differences as a resource
Here are some tips for using differences as an educational resource.
- Involve parents and the community. Parents can be an important resource, so invite them to visit your classroom dressed in national or traditional clothing. Let them talk to the students about their culture and life experiences.
- Celebrate events of the different nationalities in the class, including your own. Invite students to bring their traditional foods (being sure to clear this with parents and your administration), national flags, artifacts, songs and clothing.
- Prepare your own cultural exhibits. Emphasize commonalities without ignoring differences. Teach a song, game or phrase from your own culture. Have displays from all the cultures in the classroom.
If all your students are from same culture, which is rare, use regional variances of cultural differences. The key is to use the known to explain the unknown. Always conclude with relating activities that offer some aspect of the current lesson.
Agents of change
Teachers can be agents of cultural diversity and change. Start with acknowledging cultural diversity in the classroom. Develop cultural empathy with students, and learn to use their students’ culture as a resource, letting them take pride in their culture. Use culturally relevant materials in lessons to explain complex concepts. Engage parents and the local community in celebrating the cultural diversity in the classroom and school – you will not be disappointed.
Interested in more ways to share cultural diversity in the classroom?