Crossing Cultures in the Classroom: A Primer

Another school year has begun (at least in my part of the country), and as students return to school, my thoughts drift to the teachers who will greet their multicultural classrooms. Are they prepared to navigate cultural difference? Below, I offer five considerations to help them get started.

Culture

First, consider that culture tells us what we should value, how we should communicate, and how we should behave. On the outside, it can look like the categories of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, class, etc., but inside, it tells us who we are and how we belong. This impacts how the teacher constructs the learning and how the child engages. Students in mainstream cultures often find that expectations at home and school match, but students from minority cultures may confront a different cultural landscape. This divergence can create a disequilibrium for both the student and the school.

Teachers should keep in mind that challenges – especially ongoing ones that seem to rear their heads across situations, or that appear resistant to typical resolutions – may be rooted in cultural difference.

Complexity

And yet, culture isn’t everything – and isn’t deterministic. Individuals still have their own personalities, abilities, experiences, feelings, and perspectives that shape who they are and how they learn. For example, a student may not verbally participate in class because she is from a culture where this is considered rude – or she may just be shy. Or, she may not be able to hear the conversation. Or, maybe she has an active imagination and needs help staying on task. Or maybe she has trouble following the lesson because she is not reading at grade level.

Teachers should keep in mind that while culture may be a contributing factor, it is not necessarily the most salient one in any given situation. It would also be counterproductive and harmful to stereotype students and create self-fulfilling prophecies about how certain groups can or can’t learn.

Compassion

If culture and individual characteristics are present in every student, and teachers face a classroom of students from diverse backgrounds, what are they to do? Unless they consistently work with students from the same culture, it is probably not possible to become an expert on any one. However, where expertise falls short, compassion can step in. Students don’t need anthropologists, they need kindness. They need support. They need consideration, validation, encouragement, and room to grow.

By exercising compassion and engaging empathy, teachers can go beyond accommodation to create an atmosphere of acceptance that provides students with the emotional foundation they need to thrive.

Communication

Along with compassion, students also need clarity about what is expected of them and how school works. What may be obvious or common sense for the teacher may be counterintuitive and confusing for those from different cultures. Teachers should be explicit and consistent, using straightforward language, so that students and their parents have a fair chance of figuring out the system. However, remember that communication goes beyond issuing directives from the top down. It also includes dialogue, listening, reading between the lines, clarifying and confirming comprehension, and experimenting with delivering information in a variety of ways to get the message across.

By expanding their communication repertoires, teachers will demonstrate to the students that it is possible to learn new ways of doing things – and will experience for themselves how tall an order this truly is. They will also develop confidence in discovering that more effective communication is possible!

Collaboration

Finally, teachers should remember that – although it may feel like it sometimes when they are standing in front of the classroom – they are not alone. Trying to navigate cultural conflicts inside one’s own head is very taxing. It is much more effective if teachers reach out to their network and utilize all of their resources. These can be other teachers, administrators, counselors, or a school resource specialist. It can include professional development organizations, materials such as teaching magazines, and local experts such as cultural coaches and representatives from the communities that students come from. Whatever support and training they need, it is very likely that someone can provide it.

Teachers should feel comfortable admitting that they do not necessarily know about every culture – and that’s okay. Other people do – and if teachers reach out, they will be eager to help.

Conclusion

Today’s teachers face an uphill battle as society and government expect more while paying less and providing fewer resources. In this context, dealing with a student’s culture can feel like just one more burden. While this is understandable, I encourage teachers to remember why they entered the profession (it probably had something to do with touching young lives and preparing them for successful adulthoods). By following this basic template, teachers can continue to do this, even when students come from cultural backgrounds that are different from theirs. It’s not always easy, but it is possible, and as the world gets smaller, there is no time like the present to start on the journey towards intercultural competence.

Are you interested in learning more about how you can bridge cultural differences and incorporate your students’ cultures into your classroom? Please let me know how I can help. Note: This article was written for U.S. teachers, and may need to be modified for other cultural and educational contexts.

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