Cultivating and Supporting Diverse Classrooms: What You Need to Know
Featuring expert Q&A with teacher Tygue Luecke
Fast Facts About Diversity in Education
The concept of diversity gets talked about a lot in regard to education, but what does it actually mean to cultivate and support an inclusive, diverse classroom? This guide seeks to answer that by providing evidence-based solutions, resources, and guidelines for both educators and students at the K-12 and postsecondary levels.
What Makes a Classroom Diverse?
For the purposes of this guide, we are including the following in our consideration of what contributes to a “diverse” classroom:
When thinking about people of various backgrounds coming together to learn, it’s important to understand the differences among a few key terms, including:
This term simply means the differences that exist between people or what makes us unique.
This term serves as more of an action word and goes beyond diversity. Creating a truly multicultural learning space involves deliberate inclusiveness, understanding and celebrating differences, and wrestling with unequal power structures.
Equality usually refers to creating a level playing field for accessing opportunity and ensuring not one person or a group of people faces obstacles that others do not encounter.
This larger concept goes deeper than equality and calls on us to consider how structural issues such as policies, laws, and biases contribute to unequal dispersal of resources that make it harder to achieve equality.
Why Diversity in the Classroom Matters
Multicultural classrooms are more important than ever as students continue to face issues around safety and acceptance from both peers and educators.
A 2018 Human Rights Campaign survey of more than 12,000 LGBT+ students aged 13-17 found that only 26% of these learners report always feeling safe in their classroom and only 5% stated all of their teachers and school staff were supportive of them.
Similarly, a student survey conducted by YouthTruth revealed that bullying of students of color had risen by 7% (to 37%) during the 2017-2018 school year, specifically in majority white schools.
When students feel welcome in classrooms, they can focus more on their education, build meaningful relationships, and learn to flourish in their environments. Hostile and/or homogenous classrooms can leave learners who don’t feel like they look or act the same ostracized, or worse, harmed.
How to Find a Culturally Diverse School
Whether you are a student, parent, teacher, or administrator, there is much you can do to ensure you attend or teach at a diverse institution. Steps you can take include:
Tips for Creating a Diverse, Open School Environment for Teachers and Administrators
1. Bring historically marginalized voice to the forefront.
Rather than sticking to the tried-and-true narratives, incorporate diverse voices and stories. For example, when teaching about women in history, split your time between sharing Amelia Earhart’s story with Black aviator Bessie Coleman.
2. Consider font choice.
Students with dyslexia or other reading disabilities may struggle to read handouts or presentations written in serif fonts. Consider using alternatives such as Ariel or Comic Sans.
3. Make diverse materials available.
Work with your school librarian to ensure students have access to books that help them learn about other cultures and ways of thinking and living.
4. Create opportunities for kindness.
Whether at the start or end of class, set aside five minutes for students to share nice things about each other and discuss what they admire about their classmates.
5. Avoid separating students into gender-based groups.
This can make nonbinary students or those who aren’t yet out feel marginalized. Instead, divide students into groups based on random number count-offs.
6. Create gender-neutral bathrooms.
All-gender restrooms help transgender and nonbinary students avoid the awkwardness of using a bathroom that doesn’t fit their gender identity. Create a few single bathrooms that can be used by anyone.
7. Make sure you know how to say their names.
Students from other countries or cultures may have names that feel unfamiliar to American ears and mouths. Ask every student how they say their name to ensure you don’t mispronounce them all year.
8. Arrange your classroom thoughtfully.
If supporting differently abled students, make sure your classroom allows them to get around easily. When arranging breaks or trips, also keep this in mind. For example, avoid planning fieldtrips to places that aren’t wheelchair accessible if any of your students are in wheelchair or can’t climb stairs.
9. Provide teacher training.
If working in a leadership position, make sure teachers receive sensitivity training and know how to build inclusivity and multiculturalism in their classrooms. Set aside at least one in-service day to provide continuing education.
10. Set expectations around treatment.
At the start of the school year, define behavioral standards that focus on how students treat each other. Write or print these up in a large font and display them so everyone can see them each day.
11. Ensure accommodations are available.
Whether a student may need an e-reader, a sensory tool, or a quiet place for test-taking, review each learner’s individualized education program or 504 plan at the start of the school year and ensure you can provide the necessary services.
12. Ask for translated materials.
If your students (and their families) come from non-English-speaking countries, find out about getting materials translated to their native language. While it may not be possible for everything, it can show that you and the school care about including them.
13. Consider food eliminations.
If hosting a gathering in your classroom or simply offering food as part of a lesson, ask students about their allergies and any foods that their religion or moral compass may prohibit them from eating.
14. Be there.
Even if you don’t understand what it’s like to be a student with a disability or a learner of color, the most important thing teachers and administrators can do is make themselves available and listen to their students if or when they want to talk.
15. Give equal time to religions.
If teaching a subject such as social studies or history that includes world religions, spend equal time on each religion rather than focusing most of the time on Christianity.
16. Develop an inclusive dress code.
Whether putting the burden on female-identifying students to ensure they aren’t a distraction to boys or prohibiting students from wearing items required by their religion, dress codes can often create division. Work with students, teachers, and staff to develop a dress code that makes each learner feel supported.
17. Act as a faculty sponsor.
Whether starting a pride organization or group focused on social justice, let students know that you would be happy to serve as the faculty sponsor and support their efforts.
18. Allow vernacular/culture-specific language.
Students from different cultures or life experiences may have a different way of speaking and forming sentences, including African American Vernacular English. Do not criticize their language in normal conversation or casual writing.
19. Intervene when necessary.
If you overhear students disparaging one another for “funny smelling” food or “weird” clothing, step in. Remind learners that everyone has different traditions and one isn’t better than the other.
20. Don’t fall into gender stereotypes.
If a male student wants to play dress-up or a female student is more interested in superhero figurines, let them enjoy their interests. Do not classify toys, assignments, or behaviors by gender.
Tips for Students to Foster Diversity in Their Classes
1. Create a student task force.
Develop a group of social-minded peers that keep tabs on multiculturalism and diversity in your school. If you see problems cropping up, work with administrators to address these.
2. Act as a welcoming ambassador for new students.
When you see a new student in your class, taking a moment to introduce yourself and ask their name can do wonders for helping them feel more comfortable in a new environment.
3. Call out unkind classmates.
If a fellow student says something rude, ignorant, or inappropriate, don’t let it slide. Explain to them why what they said is offensive to certain people.
4. Push your teachers and administrators to be better.
If you see your teacher or administrator engaging in behaviors that could hurt others (e.g., gender stereotyping, reacting to strong food smells, etc.) don’t be afraid to point these issues out and tell them how it hurts the goal of creating a diverse classroom.
5. Start a diversity club.
Diversity clubs are a great option for bringing together students of many different backgrounds and abilities, planning programming for the whole school, and bringing in speakers who can share their life experiences.
6. Celebrate Diversity Month.
Did you know that April is Celebrate Diversity Month? You can use this time to celebrate other cultures, raise awareness about different lifestyles, and help your peers learn more about others around them.
7. Ask teachers about non-European cultural narratives.
Rather than following the traditional history curriculum that emphasizes European accomplishments, ask your teachers to focus on rarely studied populations, such as Native Americans or important LGBT+ individuals throughout history.
8. Organize a multicultural film festival.
Perhaps as part of Diversity Month celebrations, consider working with a student club or school administrator to arrange a series of film screenings focused on familiarizing learners with diverse experiences.
9. Celebrate classmates’ cultural holidays.
Learn about the cultural heritage of your classmates and ask if they would feel comfortable celebrating holidays specific to their heritage. Examples may include Lunar New Year, Diwali, or Yom Kippur.
10. Start a book club focused on diverse authors.
Set a goal of reading a book from a non-white author or those with experiences unlike your own each month. Invite friends to participate in these readings and get together to discuss once everyone has finished reading.
11. Speak up about bullying.
If you see a fellow student being bullied based on their appearance, abilities, or culture, let administration know. Bullies should understand that harmful behavior will not be tolerated.
12. Invite new friends to activities.
Step beyond just being friendly in the classroom; invite new students to activities with your established friends. This not only helps them feel more comfortable, it also creates an opportunity to meet other classmates in a less formal setting.
13. Ask classmates about themselves.
Something as simple as asking another person about their life and their experiences can open your eyes to other ways of living while also helping them feel known and seen.
14. Use your papers and assignments to learn about different ways of being.
Rather than focusing on tried-and-true research topics, challenge yourself to look into a person, event, era, or invention that has historically received less attention.
15. Attend a Pride festival.
Attending your local Pride festival both exposes you to others and also helps you learn about the history of the LGBT+ movement while celebrating the many strides taken over the last few decades toward equality.
16. Learn basic sign language.
If deaf or hearing-impaired students are in your classroom, consider learning a few basic signs that may prove helpful at school. This small act of kindness can make a huge difference in the life of someone who communicates differently than you.
17. Encourage diversity in group projects.
If working on a project with classmates, suggest a topic that brings in other perspectives and cultures. If a student from a historically underrepresented population is in your group, ask their thoughts about potential projects.
18. Show gratitude for new cuisines.
If a classmate brings in a snack or dish from home that sits outside your typical experience of food, thank them for sharing their culture. Under no circumstance should you make any type of comment that could be seen as rude.
19. Examine yourself for biases.
Despite active efforts to rid ourselves of problematic behaviors or thoughts toward others who may at first seem unlike us, unconscious biases remain. Check in with yourself regularly to identify these and work to change them.
20. Pressure administrators to change problematic policies.
As news stories have shown, pressure campaigns can work. If your school is involved with private prisons (or other problematic industries), call for them to cut ties and divest.
What are some important considerations for teachers with diverse classrooms?
Culturally responsive teaching is important for all teachers and classrooms, as it can provide not just a safe and welcoming environment for students of diverse backgrounds but also a student experience that normalizes and celebrates diversity.
If a teacher is new to the field and is wondering how to best support their students, they should start with educating themselves. Many pre-service teacher programs include some education on teaching in diverse classrooms, but all too often treat culturally responsive pedagogy as an add-on rather an integral part of teacher preparation.
For teachers who haven’t received a thorough education, books like For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (Emdin, 2016) and Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (Hammond, 2014) may help develop a greater understanding of diversity in the classroom and foster deeper empathy for the students and their families. Such self-education is equally important for teachers who aren’t new to the practice but whose schools see a shift in demographics. For both novice and experienced teachers, ongoing professional development—whether it be through their schools, districts, or universities, or just through self-study—is critical for ensuring best practices for diverse classrooms.
From a practical standpoint, there are a few basic steps teachers can take that can support their teaching in diverse classrooms. First, when planning a scope and sequence, it is essential that teachers include texts from authors of color. It can be empowering for students to see their lives and their stories reflected in texts considered academic or canonical, and teachers who stick to canonical works written by white authors deprive their students of color of this opportunity. The more voices a curriculum lifts up, the more opportunities students have to feel a connection to their academics and to build empathy with points of view different from their own.
On this note, it is important for teachers to keep in mind that students from different backgrounds bring with them different ways of learning taught to them by their families, communities, and personal life experiences. By including student choice, varied forms of instruction, and multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives in their planning, teachers can enable students to engage authentically with their work. More than that, such planning can create a multitude of access points from which all students can benefit.
Finally, when planning a curriculum that engages with diversity, it is essential to avoid tokenization. As young people learn different ways of being, it is common for them to generalize. Therefore, when planning, teachers should be careful to avoid texts, curriculum, and instructional practices that emphasize one experience as representative of a whole culture.
How do you foster inclusiveness/promote equality in your classroom?
As many teachers know, the beginning of a year can set the tone for the class for months to come. For this reason, prioritizing community building, especially at the beginning of the school year, is one of the best ways to foster a sense of safety and belonging in the classroom.
It is common and understandable for teachers to want to launch into curriculum in the first few weeks, but teachers who build in opportunities for authentic sharing of ideas, collaboration, and exchanging of viewpoints often find that their classrooms function better afterward, since students have had the chance to build trust with their peers. Even if teachers spend instructional minutes on activities, games, and discussions not directly related to their learning objectives, they will likely find that they reap the benefits of their efforts once it comes time for collaborative efforts like peer revision and editing or group projects.
Teachers should also build classroom routines and participation structures that promote equity of voice and participation among students. A few easy practices teachers can start with are the use of equity cards/sticks and group roles.
Without establishing routines that promote equity, it is common that classrooms can be dominated by a small number of students who feel the most confident speaking up. These students may have more social capital than some of their peers and may further discourage shy, quiet students from participating or make them feel that their thoughts and opinions aren’t valued. To avoid this situation, teachers can use cards or sticks with student names to call upon students rather than asking for volunteers. The earlier the teacher sets up the expectation that the student who is called upon is the student who speaks, the more likely it will be that students will feel it is normal and comfortable to be called upon.
Additionally, during group work, a similar situation can occur in which students with the greatest confidence in their skills may dominate. This is why rotating roles can be useful. By creating roles such as the Facilitator, Recorder, Materials Manager, and Discussion Moderator, students within groups can each have a sense of purpose that is recognized by their members. Just as with equity cards, the earlier these roles are implemented, the more comfortable students will be maintaining them.
In addition to everything above, the most important thing a teacher can do is to listen to their students and be honest. This may sometimes mean asking repeatedly for clarification to make sure a student’s idea is properly heard or even responding to a question, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it and get back to you.” It may also mean apologizing if the teacher makes a mistake and upsets a student. By modeling transparency and empathy, teachers can help foster similar behaviors in their students.
How do you handle multilingualism in the classroom?
The short answer here is, celebrate it! Multilingualism is a benefit to students who possess it, and the last thing teachers should do is make students feel bad for it. “English only” classroom policies discourage students from performing their best and feeling that their background is of value. By encouraging students to translate when necessary, to discuss ideas in their first languages before expressing them in English, or to clarify their ideas with a peer who speaks the same language, teachers show their students that all languages are valued. At the same time, they promote biliteracy and give students the opportunity to engage in work with less confusion or apprehension.
The long answer? Again, do your homework, and listen to your students. A teacher who isn’t used to teaching English language learners won’t do their students justice just by allowing them to use a translator or talk to a language buddy. Asking a student what helps them learn best and what when they find confusing is a starting point. Case managing students with language needs may also be made a priority in staff meetings so that teachers may share how they have seen their students find success across learning contexts. At the end of the day though, professional development is once again key, and if it’s not available to a teacher, then books on teaching literacy and writing to multilingual students are.
How do you talk about diversity to your students?
For white teachers in particular, “let’s talk about diversity” moments can do more harm than good. By approaching talks about diversity as one-off experiences, teachers run a great risk of tokenization and devaluation of minority perspectives. If a teacher’s curriculum is set up to be inclusive and culturally responsive, then diversity is a constant source of discussion. Students are always learning different perspectives and encouraged to share their own in ways that have been made to feel safe and comfortable.
What are the challenges that culturally diverse students face? How do you help them overcome these challenges?
Stereotype threat and academic tracking are two major hurdles that have been shown by academic research to hurt chances of success for students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities. These are pervasive, systemic issues that need to be addressed at district- and school-wide levels. However, within a classroom, teachers can help students by listening and asking questions. The hurdles faced by culturally diverse students aren’t going to be the same based on cultural background, and teachers should not assume that they will be. Making time for one-on-one conferences, case management, and family contact will help teachers best gauge the challenges their students face without making inappropriate or damaging assumptions.
What advice do you have for BIPOC/LGBTQ+/people with disabilities who are in schools with a majority of white students?
As a queer person of mixed ethnic background, I would encourage teachers who are BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and/or have disabilities to share as much of themselves that they feel comfortable doing. Teachers of diverse backgrounds can serve as wonderful models for students like them, but they may also be susceptible to similar discomforts their students feel. Because of this, they ougtn’t feel obligated to share more of themselves than their white, cis, hetero, non-disabled colleagues might. However, if it feels right for a teacher to share their perspective openly and honestly, they may do a great deal of good for students. It may take a great deal of bravery to do so at times, but the results can be both beneficial to students and staff and also rewarding to the teacher.