How teachers can develop an inclusive culture in the classroom
Do teachers really know how to be culturally sensitive? Source: Shutterstock

K-12 classrooms in many countries are made up of diverse groups of children from all kinds of different socioeconomic, religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

While many schools recognise this, many are not prepared or know how to create a learning environment that is inclusive and supportive of all cultures.

Teachers may even wonder if it’s even possible to do so as they often lack the proper training from school administration.

Even in multicultural countries like the US, Australia and Malaysia, teachers are often ill-equipped on how to be culturally sensitive and what to say/what not to say in the classroom.

Chances are that many students have a story or two to tell about their learning experiences in school, one in which they felt a teacher was not being inclusive or sensitive to the different cultures and ethnicities in the classroom.

Teachers can stand to learn a few things from Dr. Ken Springer, a professor of education and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southern Methodist University.

He recently held a webinar on EdWeb, called Culturally Responsive Teaching: Key Principles and Practices, whereby he offered some tips on how to create a culturally-inclusive environment in K-12 classrooms.

Here are what he advises teachers to keep in mind to be more culturally inclusive.

Observe, investigate, and don’t assume

Teachers must be able to observe diverse groups and make investigations rather than making assumptions.

According to Dr Springer, a culturally responsive teacher must effectively notice and respond to cultural diversity in class, rather than adopting a position of cultural blindness.

He said, “Cultural blindness is the idea that good teaching is good teaching regardless of context, and teachers differentiating teaching methods according to individual characteristics rather than their different cultures.”

For example, some details are so obvious regardless of cultural blindness, such noticing that an English language learner struggling to communicate or a student wearing a hijab.

But Dr Springer said the noticing doesn’t stop there. “For the student wearing a headscarf, the student is probably Muslim but not necessarily. A student might be wearing a headscarf as a show of support for other peers who have been discriminated against, or assuming the student is Muslim, it’s not the end of the process of noticing. How is the student being treated by other students?”

Other examples include checking if a student is physically uncomfortable if they are fasting for Ramadan or if accommodations have been made for them during meal breaks.

Reflect on yourself to avoid stereotyping

A teacher must continuously check and reflect on their own thoughts, feelings and actions in the classroom when dealing with children from different backgrounds to avoid reinforcing stereotypes.

Dr Springer said, “We are all human. Each of us brings our own cultural and individual biases to the educational setting. Teachers must always be reflecting on how they feel about students from different backgrounds, races, etc. It’s not enough to simply say, I’m liberal, I respect everyone. Sometimes more reflection can be revealing.”

For example, a teacher must be checking if they are still having high expectations for students despite them coming from poorer schools.

Other ways teachers can reflect is when they talk to parents. They must remember to phrase questions to parents in ways that are sensitive to bridge the gap between home culture and school.

As Dr Springer explained, “In a conversation to a parent from a relatively poor background, the teacher must be careful not to make comments that assumes they have the same resources as other parents. Don’t recommend extra-curricular activities if parents can’t afford them. Don’t recommend a parent to take their child to a local library if they don’t have the time or transportation to do so.”

Ultimately, teachers should keep in mind to treat students as individuals, as well as members of different cultural groups, and recognise the differences that make them unique.

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