Toolkit on Teaching for Diversity - Valuing and encouraging diversity in the classroom


Introduction: What does it mean to value and encourage diversity?

Part of a teacher’s role is to provide students with an environment that is conducive to learning. If a student feels unsafe, uncomfortable, or not respected, then his or her chances of succeeding in the classroom can decrease. 

As society becomes increasingly diverse, it is important that all students are taught to value diversity and see it as a resource.  Teachers can play an important role creating an environment in which students feel valued and respected. 

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How can it be done in the classroom?

The new school year is a good time to get to know each other and begin to gain appreciation for diversity in all its forms. From the beginning of the year it is a good idea to allow time for the students to learn about each other and gain an appreciation for the diversity they bring to the classroom. This way, you can learn more about your own students and create an inclusive atmosphere in which students feel safe to ‘be themselves’. This also helps to communicate to students that you are interested in them as individuals.  

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Looking Inside Ourselves: Why critical self-reflection is a prerequisite to valuing and encouraging diversity?

A basic component of developing sensitivity to diversity is working on critical self-reflection skills.  This includes understanding our unconscious biases, questioning stereotypes and prejudices, and perhaps modifying pre-existing views, all of which we have been introduced to in the above sections.  It also involves developing a critical approach to teaching.

Teachers tend to develop their classroom skills and teaching style when they first start teaching.  While a teacher’s style of teaching provides a means of coping with day to day demands, teachers can also become stuck in a routine and find that eventually, their old styles are not flexible enough to deal with new classroom challenges. One way to increase flexibility in teaching and have a better understanding of how you teach is through observing and reflecting your own practices.

Critical self-reflection is particularly important in teaching a diverse classroom. While teachers do not intentionally treat their diverse students differently, studies show that this can and does occur, however unconsciously. Teachers tend to interact differently with male and female students and with students who are – or who the instructor perceives to be – high or low achievers. Although these patterns of behavior are generally unconscious, they can demoralize students, making them feel intellectually inadequate or alienated. When teachers demonstrate high or low expectations for certain groups of students, students are likely to rise – or fall – to the occasion. 

In order to gauge which steps towards treating all students equally could be useful in your classroom, teachers can use various forms of critical self-reflection. This could include different approaches such as self-reporting, keeping a journal, or observing your teaching on video to see whether you are unintentionally sending different messages to different groups. Though it may always not be comfortable at first, this process is conducive to effectively teaching for diversity.

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How can you foster ongoing, critical self-monitoring of your behaviour and reactions?

It is crucial for teachers to take time to develop the reflex of reflecting critically on their actions in the classroom and how those actions affect students. Examples of activities to do this can be found above. 
However, it is also important that teachers work to make this a habit and not just a one-time effort.  One way to help build habits- and keep them going – is to work with fellow teachers.  Feedback from fellow teachers – classroom “outsiders” who are nonetheless familiar with the school context – can be very useful.

Peer observation is one way to get feedback from fellow teachers. Here is an example of how a basic peer observation might be structured for diversity issues:

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How to demonstrate high expectations for all students and avoid stereotype traps?

Effective teaching for diversity is respectful of all students and includes high expectations of all learners.  Beliefs about diversity based on ethnicity, language, culture, socio-economic status, religion, and other background factors inevitably shape teachers’ instructional behaviours.  If diversity is perceived as a positive and valuable resource in teaching, then it is likely to be systematically included in classroom practices.  Conversely, negative beliefs about diversity often result in avoidance, denial or dismissal. 

This is why it is so crucial as a teacher to clarify your beliefs and critically analyse behaviour with students. Deep analyses will reveal that some long-standing, and often unintentional, beliefs about students from different backgrounds are somewhat negative and can be problematic for effectively teaching students.  In addition, students tend to adapt to the expectations – be they high or low – of their teachers. The good news is that when teachers communicate high expectations and identify ways in which students can meet them, a positive learning environment can be created.

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