Why Connecting Across Cultures in the Classroom Is Hard

Most teachers in the US are white (about 80%). Most students are Black, Indigenous, or students of color (about 54%). Given this growing difference between the lived experiences of teachers and their students, it’s no surprise that culturally responsive teaching is essential to creating community and success in the classroom. 

What does it mean to be culturally responsive? It’s a tall order, which includes learning about and responding to cultural variables that each individual brings to interactions. If you’re a teacher, you could have 30 young people per class to get to know, or about 180 students and cultures a day. No wonder our training participants tell us this is hard to practice! 

Here is what they’ve shared about their struggle with developing a culturally responsive mindset. 

I Want to Value My Students’ Experiences… 


But it turns out I’m super judgmental.

Humans are judgmental. We can’t help it. Thousands of years ago, our ability to make quick decisions was helpful in responding to danger, but now it can lead to unfair biases and divisiveness. Our participants know that, and want to repair their harmful biases. Sometimes, though, this translates to wanting to be completely judgment-free, which feels (and is!) impossible. Instead of neutralizing every judgmental thought, it’s important to do the much easier task of just recognizing—neutrally—what’s going on with our own thoughts. (Hey there judgment, I recognize you!) If you notice that a judgment might impact the way you view a student, gently ask What else could be going on for this student? Does my judgment come from my perspective based on my culture? See if a little cultural humility might help you break down the barriers our judgments create. 

Also, if you find your opinions running ahead of your thoughts, don’t pile judgment on top of judgment. Saying, ugh, I’m so judgmental, I’m terrible won’t help. Acknowledge that in this instance, being human and all, you made a snap judgment, correct yourself, and move on. 


But how do I know what I don’t know?

Thinking outside our own culture is difficult, and while we can always be educating ourselves, there’s only so much time in the day. So when we find ourselves judging a student, the opportunity we have is to shift gears into curiosity. Staying curious about every student is a powerful tool in building relationships with students, whether or not you think you share a culture with them. 


What if…

Instead of telling them to raise their hand before sharing, you asked them why they speak out? Instead of giving a student another tardy, you ask them what the barrier is to being on time? 

If we can learn about what motivates student behavior, we have a chance of having a dialogue together across differences of age, power, and maybe race or gender. We never know what we don’t know. 


But…cultures aren’t always consistent!

People often say that Americans have certain characteristics, like optimism or extraversion. But plenty of us know Americans who are introverted pessimists. No culture is the same throughout, especially because, when we talk about culture, we often talk about the dominant culture. In the case of America, and especially in schools, this means White culture. In White culture, for example, failure to maintain eye contact is often a sign of disrespect or disinterest. However, in other cultures maintaining eye contact in many situations would itself be rude. 

While we can be culturally competent, and learn about the cultures in our classroom, at the end of the day the dimensions of diversity are incredibly complex, from gender identity to culture, to socio-economic level, to generational status, to sexual orientation, to ability and neurodiversity. We have to hold the balance of both getting to know our students’ culture and not making assumptions or generalizations about their culture. When we find ways of getting to know the individual as a person, every student benefits, even those who share your culture. 


But…you mean I have to keep adjusting?

Every year brings new challenges, including youth with cultures or traits that might be unfamiliar to you. That’s why it’s so important to not treat cultural responsiveness as a “one-and-done” box to check. Cultural responsivity is a continual process for everyone, and Girls Leadership offers our trainings and workshops to provide a space for educators to discuss these and other concerns in community. There aren’t always easy answers, but making sharing, learning, and bravery easier is what we’re all about. 


What challenges have you faced in adopting a culturally responsive approach? Are there any strategies you’ve found helpful in overcoming them? 

Are you a youth-serving professional? Join us on October 25 for an interactive, 2-hour, online workshop on Culturally Responsive Mindsets. Learn how to build trust, a sense of belonging, and authentic connection and communication with all the youth you serve.

Check out our free Cultural Appreciation Check-In Activity

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