The conversation surrounding the topic of diversity in schools is as broad as the student population it represents. Concerns regarding achievement gaps, resegregation, subgroup performance on standardized testing, and language disparity has made diversity a subject that can no longer be ignored. Teachers who work in schools that cater to students from various backgrounds face these issues each day, but what about the more subtle forms of diversity that exist in every school?
What does a diverse classroom look like?
The general public may picture a diverse classroom as white, black, and brown students all mixed together. The reality is that today’s schools serve students with a multitude of differences. Any given learning environment will include students with various cultural and religious backgrounds, disabilities, gifted capabilities, and language ranges.
Beneath the exterior are students with very different home life experiences, which play a significant role in their educational preparation. Teachers are tasked with helping each child meet their fullest potential. In order to complete this mission, an educator needs a plan.
Meeting the needs of the many
The most basic response for leading a diverse classroom setting is to differentiate learning for all students. This may sound like a simple solution, but there is quite a bit of preparation and thought that needs to go into this concept.
It all begins by knowing your students. Understanding their individual strengths and areas of need can help the classroom leader to devise a strategy for success. Simple classroom adaptions such as seating arrangements, meaningful classroom management policies, and cues for students to use when they need assistance can set students up for success even before the lesson begins.
Cossondra George, a middle school teacher and consultant, acknowledges the importance of establishing behavior cues and providing organizational tools early in the school year. Recognizing that differentiation extends beyond curriculum can save time and sanity for everyone involved.
The challenge of a diverse classroom is removing the “teach to the middle” mentality. This means that a variety of instructional strategies and activities must be present in lesson planning.
While a generalized classroom lesson may allow a teacher to present the information, if the goal is for the students to master the content, a contingency plan must be ready for the various ways students learn. It may require a lot of initial preparation, but the organized educator will build an intervention library that will serve her as students move in and out of the classroom over time.
A lack of confidence in students, based on issues such as language barriers, culture, or disability, may keep them from asking a teacher for assistance. This may be particularly true if the teacher does not represent the same social or cultural background.
The use of peer support can bridge this communication gap in a diverse classroom. Rather than simply using a student as a translator or an escort for a student who needs to leave the classroom, peer assistants can offer a learning perspective out of reach for teachers. Allowing students to build their own learning community where educational and emotional support is common can make the school setting less intimidating for some learners.
Equity over equality
Students understand and accept the concept of equity far better than most adults. Ensuring the opportunity for all learners to succeed requires an educator to distinguish between what an individual student needs to grow versus what the entire class needs. This is the core of a strong learning environment.
Diversity exists in every classroom, regardless of the outward appearance of the learners. Different students need different supports to accomplish great things. With an open mind, proper planning, and a compassionate learning environment, a rich and meaningful education is attainable for all students.
Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- Cossandra George, "6 Strategies for Working with Diverse-Needs Students," Education Week
- Jane Burnette, "Strategies for Teaching Culturally Diverse Students," TeacherVision