30 Ways to Become a Culturally-Sensitive Educator

cultural diversity

Image by Tina Kugler

When it comes to personalized learning, there’s one area we tend to neglect whether we realize it or not, and that area is cultural background. Despite the fact that students are constantly engaged in a complex transformation of culturally influenced identity–which in many cases can have a major impact on academic performance–instructors seldom respond to cultural needs the way they respond to psychological, behavioral, or social characteristics.     

If you don’t know the term “culturally responsive instruction,” you should add it to your repertoire. Gay (2000) defines it as the process of using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them. By this definition, culturally responsive instruction also has the following characteristics:

  1. It helps students understand that individuals’ experiences, values, and perspectives influence how they construct knowledge in any field or discipline.
  2. It acknowledges the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, both as legacies that affect students’ dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning and as worthy content to be taught in the formal curriculum.
  3. It builds bridges of meaningfulness between home and school experiences as well as between academic abstractions and reality.
  4. It uses a wide variety of instructional strategies that are connected to different learning styles.
  5. It teaches students to know and praise their own and each others’ cultural heritages.
  6. It teaches the whole child by recognizing not only the importance of academic achievement, but also the maintaining of cultural identity and heritage.
  7. It approaches individual growth as an active, cooperative, and social process intended to develop strong skills, academic knowledge, habits of inquiry, and critical curiosity about society, power, inequality, and change.
  8. It guides students in understanding that no single version of “truth” is total and permanent by making authentic knowledge about different ethnic groups accessible to all.
  9. It aims not to incorporate traditional educational practices with respect to nontraditional students but to use the cultures and experiences of these students as resources for teaching and learning.
  10. It empowers marginalized groups and transforms individuals by helping them develop the knowledge, skills, and values needed to become effective social critics.

There are a number of multicultural issues that should be taken into account during the planning process for any class. Becoming comfortable with your lack of knowledge about certain groups and seeking ways to inform yourself are absolutely essential in maintaining your professional development as an instructor.

Common Assumptions Placed On Students From Other Cultures

An important first step in developing this competency is to raise your awareness of issues that are multicultural and how they might manifest themselves in class. Start by considering assumptions that you may hold about the learning behaviors and capacities of your students. Below are a few common misconceptions held by instructors, identified by researchers Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia of the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan:

  1. Students will seek help when they are struggling with a class.
  2. Students from certain groups are not intellectual, are irresponsible, are satisfied with below average grades, lack ability, have high ability in particular subject areas, etc.
  3. Students from certain backgrounds (e.g. students from urban or rural areas, students who speak with an accent, students from specific racial or ethnic groups) are poor writers.
  4. Poor writing suggests limited intellectual ability.
  5. Older students or students with physical disabilities are slower learners and require more attention from the instructor.
  6. Students whose cultural affiliation is tied to non-English speaking groups are not native English speakers or are bilingual.
  7. Students who are affiliated with a particular group (gender, race, ethnic, etc.) are experts on issues related to that group and feel comfortable being seen as information sources to the rest of the class and the instructor who are not members of that group.
  8. European American students do not have opinions about issues of race or ethnicity and members of other groups do have opinions about these issues.
  9. All students from a particular group share the same view on an issue, and their perspective will necessarily be different from the majority of the class who are not from that group.
  10. In their reading, students will relate only to characters who resemble them.
  11. Students from certain groups are more likely to: be argumentative or conflictual during class discussions, not participate in class discussions, or bring a more radical agenda to class discussions.

Instructional Strategies

The cultural inclusiveness of a learning environment will depend upon the kinds of interactions that occur among you and your students. These interactions are influenced by course content; prior assumptions and awareness of potential multicultural issues in educational situations; planning of class sessions, including the ways students are grouped for learning; your knowledge about the diverse backgrounds of your students; and your decisions, comments, and behaviors during the process of teaching.

Below are recommendations for instructional delevopment in this regard:

  1. Anticipate possible responses to controversial topics. Students should be encouraged to openly share their views during discussions, but be prepared to correct stereotypes and challenge students’ assumptions when comments are exchanged. It can be a difficult task to reconcile the tension between challenging offensive speech and not suppressing free speech. You should also consider your own response to emotion in the classroom and use this awareness to inform the planning process.
  2. Establish agreed upon guidelines early in the class. This will help keep discussion etiquette in check and save time during class. If guidelines are established early, though, students will need to be reminded periodically of the rules throughout the semester, especially if their behavior suggests that they are ignoring them.
  3. Use a variety of methods to create learning groups. Group composition can have a significant impact on group functioning, which is why it’s always wise to have a variety of methods on hand. Try assigning students heterogeneously across race, gender, or class, or mix them up randomly and see what happens.
  4. Be ready to challenge assumptions that groups will either be aided or hindered by having certain kinds of students in their group. Men in math or science classes may feel they have to help the women along; white students working on a project on “rap music” may be eager to have an African American student as part of their group. Spend some time informing the class that each individual brings a different combination of strengths and weaknesses into the group work context. Group exercises that identify the specific resources that each group member brings can be useful in the early stages of group formation. It is also important to inform students of your availability to discuss problems that the groups themselves have been unable to successfully address.
  5. Get to know your students by having them write mini autobiographies. The autobiography can be as short as two pages, and can be framed in ways that are relevant to the course content. For example, if you are responsible for math or science courses, you can ask students to share their early experiences (formal and informal) with math and science. This kind of assignment could help you to explore, early on, some of the assumptions you might hold about your students and their experiences. It may also help students feel that real interest is being taken in them.
  6. Examine course content for inaccurate information and the absence of relevant perspectives. Prepare for each class session by reading upcoming assignments in order to identify omissions, misleading interpretations, and intentional or inadvertent expressions of personal opinion by the author. You may then alert students to problems with the text and encourage students to read critically themselves.
  7. Be careful about the comments made during class lectures, discussions, recitation sessions, etc. Be aware of the fact that comments that are not fully explained may inadvertently invoke stereotypes or promote inaccurate conclusions. Similarly, skewed examples of religious, historical, or other events have the potential to lead students to believe that inaccuracies are truths.
  8. Create a classroom climate that encourages and expects questions about and critiques of course content. Such a climate will help to create a norm of critical thinking that will facilitate the learning process for all students. As students share their critiques with the class, other students will benefit by being exposed to different interpretations, perspectives, and concerns regarding course material. This climate can also provide an opportunity for students to add to the course content by correcting inaccuracies or misrepresentations related to the history or experience of their own groups.
  9. Make decisions about when to devote unanticipated time to class discussions to deal with issues raised by students that pertain to content or process. These issues, which may deal with the history or culture of a group with which you are unfamiliar, are an equally important part of the course content. It is best to be honest about your lack of knowledge, acknowledge the students’ point, and make efforts to secure information about the students’ point to share with the class in a future session.
  10. Be open to students’ reactions to course material, even when you feel uncomfortable with the manner in which they are expressed. Be prepared for students to publicly challenge inaccurate information about particular groups that appears in class readings, films, etc. Students may react strongly upon hearing what they perceive to be inaccurate and negative information about their group. Giving serious consideration to students’ views that are in the “minority” will encourage students to respond honestly about issues while also encouraging students to think more broadly about issues.
  11. Give serious consideration to students’ requests for alternative materials when materials currently used inaccurately represent aspects of students’ social identity groups or cultures. Changes should be made when justified. If you receive criticisms about materials, you should make clear to students that the criticism can be accompanied by specific recommendations of alternative materials.
  12. Invite all students to contribute to class discussion, even if you assume that the discussion is more relevant to some students than others. Students (irrespective of background) do not like being forced to serve as the spokesperson for their group. Students also do not appreciate being expected to know everything about issues relating to their group or the assumption that all students from their group feel the same way about an issue.
  13. Be sensitive to the experiences of visibly underrepresented students in your class. Students with identities that are underrepresented and visible or known may face certain challenges that unfairly compromise their learning environment. Students from underrepresented groups may feel a self-imposed pressure always to portray themselves in a good light so they do not reinforce stereotypes about their group. Whereas “majority students” can slack off from time to time when working within groups, occasionally show up late to class, or be absent without peers attributing their behavior to membership in a particular group, students from underrepresented groups often sense that their behavior is interpreted as a reflection on their group.
  14. Be aware of gender dynamics in classroom discussions. Even when women are in the majority, men may sometimes consciously or unconsciously dominate class discussions or interrupt women. Monitor the occurrence of this behavior and encourage women to speak up.
  15. Be careful not to respond to comments in ways that students might interpret as dismissals. You should give sufficient attention to (a) students’ comments that differ from the majority of students’ views or your own views, (b) students’ views that are based on experiential knowledge, and (c) women’s views in predominately male classes or traditionally male fields. Be aware of differential feedback given to students who differ on some aspect of their social identity (gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, etc.). For example, you should attend to whether you speak down to women or “brush off” their questions, yet give men responses that are informative and detailed.
  16. Respond to classroom conflict in a manner that helps students become aware of the “learning moment” this conflict provides. Students appreciate tensions between groups in the class being recognized and effectively addressed.
  17. Recognize student fears and concerns about conflict. Students enter a class with different levels of experience and comfort with conflict. It is important to normalize the experience of conflict in the classroom, particularly in classes that focus on controversial topics. This can be accomplished through explicit discussion of student experiences with conflict and the use of structured discussion exercises.
  18. Maintain the role of facilitator. One of the challenges of teaching is maintaining the role of instructor under a variety of conditions. Examine your typical responses to conflict and find ways that you may admit your limits with respect to content areas while maintaining responsibility for the group process.
  19. Include multiple perspectives on each topic of the course rather than focusing solely on a single perspective. For example, if the topic is “The Great Depression in the USA” the content should not focus solely on the experiences of European Americans. Americans of African and Asian descent, American Indians, Mexicans, etc. had experiences and views that should be acknowledged. It would also be important to include the experiences and views of people with different socio-economic statuses in this example.
  20. Include, as much as possible, materials written or created by people of different backgrounds and/or perspectives. If all the authors or creators of materials in a course are male (or female), white (or another group), liberal (or conservative), etc., instructors will be sending a message about the voices that are valued and will be devaluing the scholarship of others who have written or created materials on the topic. On a related note, it is important to include works authored by members of the group that the class is discussing. For example, if the course deals with topics related to Muslims or Islam and the syllabus does not include materials written by Muslim authors, the message sent to students may be that you devalue the contributions of and scholarship produced by Muslims.
  21. Include materials (readings, videotapes, etc.) that address underrepresented groups’ experiences in ways that do not trivialize or marginalize these groups’ experiences. Books that include a section on some aspect of diversity at the end of the text or books that highlight women, people of color, people with disabilities, gay men, lesbians, etc., in boxes and not in the body of the text can be seen as examples of the marginalization of these topics, groups, and group members’ contributions. When it is important to use such books for other reasons, instructors have a responsibility to make students aware of the texts’ limitations at the beginning of the course and to facilitate students’ ability to read critically with these issues in mind.
  22. Be aware of and responsive to the portrayal of certain groups in course content. For example, if an Asian country’s policies are being used to contrast Australian policies, the policy of the Asian country should not always be used as a negative example or always used as a positive example. You need to address the role of culture in foreign policies and not present policies as either wholly good or bad. Such treatment ignores the complexity of other cultures’ policies or practices.
  23.  Avoid dichotomizing issues of race into black and white. It is essential to recognize and acknowledge that there are other groups for whom racial issues are relevant (Arab Americans, Asians Americans, Latinos/as, Native Americans, etc.). Whenever possible, perspectives on racial issues from other groups should be included in course materials. If you have difficulty finding such materials, you should bring other perspectives into course lectures and discussions.
  24. Customize your attendence policy. At the beginning of the semester, ask your students to let you know if their attendance, their participation in class, or their ability to complete an assignment on time will be affected by their observance of religious holidays or practices, or because of a disability.
  25. Use the same grading standards for all students. When you use different criteria to evaluate the performance of students from certain groups, this can create tensions in the class because students tend to share their grades. Ask all students about their prior experiences with the course content and should inform students of the criteria by which their performance will be assessed along with the rationale for differential evaluations if such a practice will be used.
  26. Use examples from a variety of cultural reference points. Instructors who use examples drawn only from their own experience may fail to reach all students in the class. Given that examples are designed to clarify key points, you should collect examples from a variety of cultural reference points. For example, in 1995/1996 “Friends” was a sitcom that received high ratings in the U.S. However, this show was less popular among many African American people than shows like “Living Single” and “Martin.”
  27. Be aware of different discourses. Not all students speak Standard Formal English at home, and the adoption of it may challenge aspects of their identity. Be clear and open about the reasons you are teaching SFE and at the same time recognize the legitimacy of other discourses and habits of language.
  28. Adapt content to fit student lifestyles. If you teach literature, choose content that reflects multiple ethnic perspectives and literary genres. If you teach math, incorporate everyday-life concepts–such as economics, employment, consumer habits–of various ethnic groups into your lessons.
  29. Intervene when necessary. A safe learning environment is not only fostered at the start of the course but maintained during the course of the semester. In many classes, there are critical moments that can confirm in students’ minds how safe the classroom is, how committed is the teacher to equitable participation and student learning. This may happen the first time one student harshly criticizes another, or the first time a loaded question is directed to the teacher. If the instructor intervenes or responds in a way that is effective, this can set the stage for more and more honest student interaction.
  30. Share your own learning journey. Mark Kiselica, a psychologist who conducts multicultural training, stresses the importance of teachers self-disclosing their own journey in becoming more culturally sensitive and knowledgeable. Kiselica states that “the process of developing multicultural awareness and sensitivity is a journey marked by fears, painful self-reflection, and joyful growth,” and students can learn from an instructors who share their mistakes, incidents that led to their learning, and what they have gained from the process.

About

Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.

You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or saga.briggs @ oc.edu.au.

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One Comment on “30 Ways to Become a Culturally-Sensitive Educator

  1. A tremendous article, as always. The image at the top is interesting – I think the book’s quality is more important than purposely imposing culturally diverse titles. Either this or you could go for titles which are impartial, such as E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. This covers pretty much every area you can imagine in a child friendly manner – especially the illustrated version.

    As I child I read Brian Jacques’ wonderful fantasy series Red Wall. His characters were very culturally diverse, and there were always strong female leads. Perhaps it’s more important than I thought, realising this.

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