Embracing Diversity Key 21st-Century Skill

The future workspace for today’s students calls for workers who are increasingly open-minded and respectful toward those who may see the world in different ways. Diversity in the workplace is expected to increase. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts by 2043 minority groups will be the majority population.

Teachers can play critical roles in supporting this societal transformation by helping students maneuver through conflicts that come from diversity of backgrounds, cultures, sexual orientation or social class.

Conflict resolution and the Peace Table

The Peace Table can be an effective way to encourage young children to work through conflicts. Many Montessori classrooms use this strategy to provide a peaceful place for children to cope with their own emotions or to resolve conflicts with others through talking.

When working with older students, there are many strategies available to deal with conflict resolution. Role-play, open discussions, or discussions based upon quality literature containing situations of conflict can help open the door to learning and acceptance of others.

The important thing to remember is that teachers cannot afford to ignore conflict and disrespect when it deals with issues of diversity.

Be bold enough to present the core of the issue

Classroom diversity is an opportunity for teaching.

Ignoring the core issues serves to perpetuate the problems. Bringing the issues to light gives teachers the opportunity to teach for reconciliation. Here’s one example:

Ravi, a middle school student, had recently arrived from India. During lunch, other students made fun of him because his food was completely different from that of other kids.  Instead of being excited to learn about another culture, the students mocked him behind his back. Ravi was socially excluded by others and then chose to withdraw further from the group.

When the teacher noticed the problem, she immediately addressed the issue in the classroom. Without giving any names, the teacher led a brief discussion about different types of foods eaten around the world.

The teacher made a point of looking for student actions that would reflect negatively on Ravi. Noted issues were addressed kindly and privately with specific students. She also began to bring in samples of various foods so students could experience differences in food choices. The team of teachers at the same grade level organized a tasting party and invited Ravi’s mother in to talk about India.

Students were fascinated. Slowly, Ravi was not only accepted but also became a leading voice in the class.

Take action: avoiding serious conflicts

Although this is a light example of prejudice, it illustrates how a teacher can closely observe the community of learners for initial signs of stereotyping or prejudice. It is easier to address the beginning signs of conflict than to wait for the conflict to spin out of control. Recent events in the U.S. news are enough to encourage teachers to reach out and work to create a supportive learning community where every student is valued and respected.

Even young children see difference, and it is important to address the differences in an accepting manner. Madeleine Rogin, a 13-year kindergarten teacher in Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito, California, tells how she realized she must begin to talk about skin color in her class.

“By avoiding the conversation I was contributing to patterns of prejudice and ignorance,” Rogin wrote in InCultureParent, an online magazine.

As teachers, it is our responsibility to hold the difficult conversations and open students’ minds to understanding the issues that traditionally have divided society. Once we are free to explore differences, we can more easily see the similarities and begin the process of building authentic and enduring relationships that dispel the stereotypes.

The problem of time

Teachers struggle with the enemy of time. “Where will I find time to address these issues in the school day?”  “I don’t have time!”

A look at recent news events assures us that there is little time left not to address these issues. Building a community of learners who deeply respect each other does take time, but once the expectation is set, minimal effort is needed to continue the process.

Stress and emotions distract from learning

Although teachers have a significant amount of content to cover, ignoring student conflicts can hamper learning. Emotions and stress play into students’ readiness to learn. When under duress, learners’ minds can be preoccupied with problematic situations and are not as open to acquiring knowledge.

Taking time to deal with conflict by building a community of supportive learners can relieve the stress as well as provide students with tools for conflict resolution, skills that will be valuable in the work place.

Children learn from the examples set by adults. If teachers set the expectations of open-mindedness and respect, the next generation will be more prepared to embrace diversity to maximize U.S. productivity.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards.

Learn More: Click to view related resources.