Diversity, Equity, Teaching

The Culturally Responsive Classroom

A proactive approach to diversity in Canadian schools

I became interested in diversity, demographic change and teacher professional development related to both while serving as a teacher, administrator and educational researcher in a medium-sized school district in rural Alberta. This became a predominating focus of a qualitative case study I conducted between 2007 and 2009 in a small city undergoing rapid demographic change towards increasing diversity. Canada’s immigrant population is steadily increasing. Moreover, as Manitoba researcher Jan Stewart reported, “it is expected that the number of students coming to Canada from war-affected countries will increase significantly over the next decade, and the school and the community must be prepared to respond to the unique and diverse needs of these children.”1 District leaders and school administrators can help their teachers respond effectively, through focused professional development activities and ongoing dialogue related to social justice and equity issues in education.

When rapid demographic changes affect a school and community, it is important for educators to closely examine their own attitudes and cultural assumptions toward different cultural groups and their teaching practices. Educators must respond to the challenges of diversity, not remain trapped in their comfort zone: the teaching practices and methods on which they have traditionally relied. If teachers and leaders do not take professional and pedagogical action to learn about challenges related to demographic change and diversity, many students will not be served equitably by their school system. Worse yet, teachers may find themselves in spaces of physical and emotional difficulty if they become overwhelmed by the challenges associated with diversity. Teachers who focus on the opportunities associated with diversity are able to create enriched learning experiences for students. There are many ways for teachers to respond and adjust their strategies to fit the changing nature of their classrooms.

Create safe, culturally responsive and inclusive classrooms

Teachers who build their cultural competence increase their ability to form authentic relationships across differences, which supports their growth as educators in multi-ethnic schools. Educators need to be committed to knowing about their students’ lives. This can help them “generate and sustain a genuine dialogue with students so that they will be able to draw on what the students know and care about and monitor their engagement and success.”2 Educators are then able to create an inclusive inquiry-based learning atmosphere in their class where all students have the opportunity to share and learn from each other’s perspectives, experiences and life stories.

In the past, I have invited some of my new immigrant parents into my classes to share the stories of their journey to Canada. The students who have been born and raised in our country are often entertained and yet overwhelmed by these narratives. Many of my immigrant students have shared stories of conflict that are unfamiliar to most students. I have learned that there is a great deal for all to learn through these cultural exchanges.

Shields suggests that “when children feel they belong and find their realities reflected in the curriculum and conversations of schooling, research has demonstrated repeatedly that they are more engaged in learning and that they experience greater school success.”3 This means accepting and valuing a multitude of languages spoken in a classroom, reflecting a multitude of cultures. Creating vocabulary walls with English words and their international equivalents is a sound strategy that demonstrates respect and appreciation for all languages represented within a multilingual and diverse classroom. Teachers should also consider allowing students to freely use their first language in class for learning, clarifying and communicating as it can create a true democratic and global experience for students and teachers.

Some school and classroom structures that are routine for Canadian students may be misunderstood by newcomer children. Educators need to be alert to this possibility and prepared to offer extra support or change their old way of doing things. For instance, fire alarms and school fire drills often frighten elementary children who have experienced conflict in their former countries or in refugee camps. Teachers need to prepare their new students for these events; they should not happen without notification to teachers from administration. Further, teachers might find new immigrant children racing to be at the front of lines when they are preparing their class to move around the school. From conversations with their parents, I learned these children were not misbehaving and simply needed additional coaching. The children had learned that the front of the line usually meant a means for their survival.

Get parents involved

Building relationships with immigrant students and their families is critical for educators in multi-ethnic schools. Many parents need this support, not only because they may not feel comfortable using the English language but because they may not really understand how a Canadian school functions. Parents may not understand how they can become involved in their child’s schooling, or that they should. Teachers need to be aware of the socio-economic backgrounds of their students’ parents, particularly new immigrant parents who, due perhaps to their working conditions or other barriers, may not come to parent/teacher interviews or visibly support their children in school functions. School leaders who open their schools as joint-use community facilities will see increased involvement from parents and community members. For example, hosting weekend soccer and floor hockey tournaments brings families together. This action provides increased exposure to the school and allows educators to showcase the diversity in their building and advocate for the stakeholders who may exist on the margins of the community.

Encourage professional development

Teaching in the diverse classroom and lifelong learning go hand in hand. Creating focused professional development activities on topics related to diversity helps teachers transform their instructional practices and classrooms and enables them to build their capacity to function effectively in highly diverse classrooms and schools. One suggestion would be for educators to target and review curriculum resources. By examining classical literature and dated historical perspectives, educators can become more aware of ideas or materials that may denigrate, marginalize or offend some of their students. This puts teachers in a better position to discuss sensitive issues around race, discrimination and exclusion in a safe environment with students. Examining curriculum may also help teachers identify perspectives and voices that should be in the curriculum.

It’s important for school staff to understand the effects and extent of racial and cultural stereotypes as well as how personally hidden assumptions about diversity impact classroom practices and school environments. If teachers fail to recognize and address the covert and overt racial stereotypes and situations in schools, classrooms and communities, minority students will remain in what Banks calls “cultural psychology captivity” and they may “internalize the negative stereotypes and beliefs about their cultural groups that are institutionalized within the larger society and may exemplify cultural self-rejection and low self-esteem.”4 A successful approach is to incorporate workshops and sessions for staff and students in diverse schools with topics that make visible and challenge inequitable and discriminatory practices and assumptions in the school, and also in the community at large. It is important to contact media in the community and invite them to participate in these mini-conferences. This will allow the school community to indicate what they stand for and more importantly, what they do not stand for.

Teachers in diverse schools need to continue to work on developing a broad base of knowledge. This might mean returning to the university classroom or reviewing published literature on how to work in diverse classrooms. “Teachers who ‘think pedagogically’ about diversity are able to build a practice that is both academically challenging and responsive to students.”5

Keeping Students Together

As classrooms change in Canada, it is important for educators to fully engage in courageous conversations about diversity. One such conversation is about conceptualizing and establishing educational protocols in multi-ethnic and multilingual schools that support keeping students together. Excluding the English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes that provide focused English language instructional intervention for ESL/EAL students, I argue that it is important to keep all students together for their core subject areas of math, social studies, language arts and science. This will take some work through school professional development and school administrative restructuring.

All too often, students who are not proficient in the dominant English language are removed from some of their core courses and provided modified or adapted programming. “The result of this exclusion is that many students either drop out of school or fail to master the curriculum.”6 Removing EAL/ESL students from class due to language barriers is a form of tracking and over time will gradually distance them from educational opportunities that provides them life opportunities, as well as creating divisions in our schools and our communities.

Therefore, it is critical for all teachers in Canada to be prepared to teach new immigrant and EAL students. If teachers lack the necessary skill sets, it is the responsibility of educational leaders at the district and school level to work to ensure teachers are culturally proficient to teach and thrive in multi-ethnic classrooms. Further, all teachers in diverse schools should know how to teach reading and clearly understand how children learn to read so they can build language learning components into their lessons in their classrooms for these students.

All children need to be in regular classrooms led by professional educators. Educators who defer their responsibilities for ESL/EAL children by sending them into empty classrooms, hallways or libraries to receive core educational services from individuals other than themselves are not providing an equitable and fair education for these children. 

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, September 2014


EN BREF – Alors que les salles de classe canadiennes deviennent plus diversifiées et accueillent des élèves dont la langue maternelle n’est ni l’anglais ni le français, il importe que les éducateurs comprennent comment l’évolution démographique de leurs collectivités ainsi que des forces d’envergure mondiale pourraient se répercuter sur leurs pratiques pédagogiques au cours des prochaines années. Cet article incite les enseignants et les dirigeants en éducation à faire preuve de proactivité pédagogique en anglais, langue seconde et en anglais, langue supplémentaire (tous deux, ALS) pour répondre aux différents besoins de leurs nouveaux élèves immigrants. Des activités de perfectionnement professionnel pertinentes, ciblées et axées sur les questions et les défis associés aux communautés scolaires diversifiées peuvent procurer aux enseignants des connaissances culturelles et des compétences grâce auxquelles ils pourront rendre leurs classes plus inclusives pour leurs élèves.

[1] Jan Stewart, Children Affected by War: A bioecological investigation into their psychosocial and educational needs (unpublished PhD diss., University of Manitoba, 2007).

[2] James Banks, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Luis Moll, Anna Richert, Kenneth Zeichnerk, Pamela LePage, Linda Darling-Hammond and Helen Duffy with Morva McDonald, Teaching Diverse Learners, in Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What teachers should learn and be able to do, eds. L. Darling-Hammond and J. Bransford (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005), 232-274.

[3] Carolyn Shields, “Dialogic Leadership for Social Justice: Overcoming pathologies of silence,” Educational Administration Quarterly 40, no.1 (2004): 109-132.

[4] James Banks, “Teaching for Social Justice, Diversity, and Citizenship in a Global World,” The Educational Forum 68 (2004): 296-305.

[5] Banks et al., Teaching Diverse Learners, 232-274.

[6] James Ryan, Inclusive Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 33.

Meet the Expert(s)

Lyle Hamm

Assistant Professor of Educational Administration and Leadership

Lyle Hamm is an Assistant Professor of Educational Administration and Leadership in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick. He teaches courses in Educational Theory and School Administration, Teacher Supervision, and Leadership in Culturally Diverse Schools.

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