When Cultures Clash in the Classroom, Part Two

As educators, we’re often positioned as our students' gateways to a better future—and that’s a powerful role. But in moments when students are raising their voices or aren’t engaged in the lesson, we can feel anything but powerful. And when those students don’t look like us or share our cultural background, the resulting clash can make positive relationships tough to build in the short term, and irrevocably damaged in the long term.

Two years ago, I discussed how I handled these issues in my classroom in a blog post called “When Cultures Clash in the Classroom.” Since then, our country has seen the Flint water crisis, Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and perhaps the most contentious US presidential election in history—so it’s no wonder I continue to receive reader responses to that post, often from educators seeking further advice on how to build relationships effectively across gaps of demographics and experience. In one case, I was asked directly how to manage the behavior of students of different races, when the reader felt that some behaviors were the result of students’ home cultures.

The question gave me pause. Since then, I’ve been reflecting more deeply on what I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) about the complexities of teacher/student relationships over the years. Here are a few strategies I believe are critical for all educators who seek to address classroom challenges that involve cultural differences between teachers and students:

Context matters. When I was a teacher, I had a group of African-American students who, every morning, would greet each other with loud, gregarious hellos. I knew, from my experience working with them, that this was the way these students had learned to show love and appreciation among family and friends. And that was fine by me. But there’s a time and a place for everything. If those same students jumped on a table and started singing when they should’ve been doing an experiment, that wouldn’t have worked for us—and it would have had nothing to do with culture. Without visiting the homes of all 42 million African Americans, I can confidently say that there is not a single dinner table that a child is allowed to jump on while belting out uncensored song lyrics. It’s not appropriate at home, nor is it appropriate at school.

It’s helpful to recognize the norms of students’ non-school contexts—so you can help them mediate between them while still valuing who they are. What is misbehavior at the dinner table or in the classroom sends a completely different message outside school with friends, and it’s important to be able to identify those different contexts and teach students to do the same.

Keep the behavior and the student separate. Teachers work hard to keep their classrooms free of disruptive behavior; policies in place to maintain a supportive learning environment are important and productive. But it’s not productive to ascribe misbehavior to a student’s character, upbringing, or worse, the entire culture the student belongs to. Rather, it’s wise to keep in mind that, regardless of a student’s background, the student is a child, like any other—growing, and learning to be a member of their community.

When I taught in Kentucky, one of my students hailed from the eastern part of the state known as Appalachia. He was a self-described “country boy.” About a month into the school year, he started taking his shoes off and going barefoot. When I insisted he put his shoes on, his response was that he walks barefoot outside at home and it’s part of his culture to “keep his feet close to mother earth.” While this may well have been true, what was also true (and more important in my view) was that his choice made him unsafe in my science classroom. I chose to acknowledge his point and assure him that I wasn’t judging him for it, while also stressing that his safety was the reason I needed his compliance. His insistence on defying the rules of safety in my class was a reflection of the student in that moment, not the validity of his cultural expression and home life, and I tried to make that clear in my response.

It's important for us to be clear with students that we’re addressing behaviors in the classroom setting—not passing judgments on their norms at home. Ultimately, when a student’s home life is different from their school life, it’s up to the teacher to connect these two worlds in a way that makes the student feel valued in both settings.

Leverage students’ talents in the classroom. Early in my teaching career, there were three students who would beat on their desks incessantly, and freestyle rap during almost all of my lessons. For weeks, these students and I wasted valuable class time as my numerous requests for them to stop went unheard. It wasn’t until we found a compromise that their behavior changed. The students were put in charge of leading the transition into the start of class: everyday, class would start with a brief rap performance by the three kids, and the whole class had to be in their seats by the time the beat stopped, including the performers.

This did a few things for all of us. First, the students saw themselves reflected in the structure of the classroom, and therefore became part of our classroom’s procedures and expectations, rather than in conflict with them. Additionally, they were valued by an adult for their talent, the same thing they valued in each other—they were praised for being themselves, which they’d regularly been scolded for in the past. And finally, the new system gave them an outlet for their personal brand of self-expression.


There is something valuable about every student and, as educators, it’s up to us to look beyond the surface to find it. By focusing on ways to bridge cultural gaps and give students the freedom to express themselves, the goal is that each student will come to appreciate and make the most of their unique potential. Hopefully, all students can then feel like they’re a valued part of a shared classroom culture, rather than outsiders in a school, and world, that isn't their own.

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