C.M. Corner: Understanding Difference and Background

Travis Chapman

In the last blog post, we discussed how technology has changed and driven culture, influencing how students interact with the world around them as opposed to adults.  However, this is only a small aspect to consider in the grand scheme of the human experience.  Living in the United States, it is no secret that we are a “melting pot” of the world’s cultures and there are a multitude of differences within those cultures.  The same thing is true of our classrooms.  Each school we walk into will have a wide variety of students from various ethnic, economic, religious, political and social backgrounds.  This can bring a lot of challenges, especially when you lack understanding about those backgrounds.  But there are some simple things that we can consider when working on any assignment that can assist us in helping our students learn and grow in a positive environment. 
First, it is always important to walk into each positions with an open mind.  Even if a student is from a similar community, there could be any number of differences.  One of the biggest dangers for people is assuming that the people they are working with have the same experience and background that they do. They assume the students understand what is expected because “that’s how it was when I was a student”.  This line of thinking portrays any difference that doesn’t line up with the assumed values as wrong, bad, or in need of correction. This in turn causes students to feel unsafe or uncared for.  However, if we remain open-minded and observe those differences, we may begin to understand what the student is conveying to us. For instance, a student is being respectful in how they are behaving but it may looks different that what you’ve previously experienced. Another example is that a student may not be misbehaving because of their cultural background, but because they are frustrated at their lack of understanding. 
Further, we want to work through our positions with the mindset that those differences we encounter are not bad or wrong, but that they just are.  Our primary concerns should be that our students are and feel safe, they are cared for and that we are here to learn, regardless of who they are.  Some students struggle simply being in a classroom with other students because of how different they feel or that because of those differences, nobody can understand their situation.  Therefore, students will act or respond in a variety of ways. Some will misbehave, some make jokes, some withdraw, and some will focus on their academics.  These differences can be due to any number of things including: ethnicity, economic status, special need, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or academic ability.  There is an American proverb that says, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”  This means that you should work to understand somebody before you criticize somebody, comment on their situation, or try to correct somebody’s behavior.  Even within cultures there are many differences.  While it is inappropriate to ask students about their experience or background, we can still communicate that we care for them and want them to grow and excel by treating them with dignity and respect and by building upon similarities rather than differences.  Just because a student has a different ethnic background does not mean they don’t like sports or because they are from a particular neighborhood that they don’t like movies.  The more we build on the commonalities, the less we see those differences and the more students feel comfortable in our classrooms.
As with all classroom management, the only behavior we can control is our own.  Much of our own behavior stems from our mindset.  If we are able to establish ourselves in a position of open-minded understanding, we will provide a more inclusive and positive classroom experience for all of our students. 
If you would like to take some free trainings to help gain more skills in this area, take a look at Sanford Inspire’s “Working Against Racial Bias” or “Affirming Difference and Valuing Background Knowledge” are a great place to start.  If you would like to discuss any other options, please reach out to our office at 800-713-4439.