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How do I build relationships with students who are culturally different from me?

Practice culturally responsive teaching through classroom leadership. Research your students’ diverse backgrounds and share your own experiences. Create opportunities to help them identify and reach their goals.

A teacher sitting with two young students with illustrated quote bubbles of different colors overlapping each other.

A teacher wants tips on how to connect with students who have different cultural experiences.

Source: Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages | Photo Illustration: Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat

A weekly advice column for K-12 teachers to share their joys, frustrations, and ongoing questions about teaching.

I want to be a more culturally responsive teacher, but my background isn’t the same as many of my students. How do you initiate a conversation with a student to begin building a relationship regarding their cultural experiences? — Curious for Conversation

Curious for Conversation,

I once worked with a highly qualified, veteran teacher who growled at students she did not like. I know it seems unbelievable. 

We had joint hall duty during passing time and while standing in our respective places, she would smile, wave, and speak kindly to the students who displayed conventional positive behavior in class. 

To the students who she believed made her work harder, told jokes, or left their assigned seats during class, she made a grunting, animal-like noise and frowned at them. She would turn to me and say something negative about the student, sometimes describing them as “soon to be in prison.” 

I still feel bad that my attempts to discourage her behavior never worked.

The teacher was white and the students she smiled at were often white. The students who received the growls were predominantly Black. As a Black teacher, I saw how differently she treated Black students. She was operating under implicit bias.

I wish that teacher would have asked me the same question you’ve submitted.

While your question does not specify race, 79% of American public school teachers are white. Black and brown children, who have been historically marginalized, need teachers who are willing to do the work to create more equitable classrooms. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1967 Kerner Commission warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” We need to be able to discuss race.

Practice culturally responsive teaching through classroom leadership

A culturally responsive teacher understands that if a student’s socioeconomic status, gender, or race differs from their experience, that teacher is still the educational leader in the classroom and around the building. 

Culturally responsive teaching requires us to face our biases and bridge the gap between our own lived experiences and that of our students.  

Teaching through leadership means inspiring passion and motivation in students. Here’s how to get there: 

- Become a student of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). Remember, no one owes another person an explanation of their culture. If you want to have these conversations with your students, you will need to start by reading books that address race and culture in our country. Some of these titles will feel risky. Push past that potential discomfort. The information contained in these works is enlightening. 

When I read Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” I was astonished by her parallelism between the U.S. and Indian economic systems.  

Bryan Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” also a major film, highlights the American penal system problems with real stories of men, women, and children who he and the Equal Justice Initiative have defended. There is an adapted version for students that I read with my classes. After reading the book, many students leave with strong opinions on the death penalty.

- Focus on the future by inspiring a shared vision. When students attend schools where their culture isn’t reflected, they are less likely to engage in the classroom, which leads to further disconnect from academic success. 

If your students are disengaged, instead of jumping into a conversation about cultural differences, start by finding common ground. Ask them about their goals and dreams, and how they hope to reach them. 

When I was a middle school teacher, I discovered a career in filmmaking could be quite lucrative. I printed a screenplay and distributed it to students during class to gauge their interest. None of my 100-plus students had actually seen or held a script. So, I started a filmmakers club. 

I had an open-door policy where all students were welcome. The club was so popular, I could not secure enough video cameras. 

Consider starting an after-school club that inspires and unites disengaged, potentially  marginalized students. You can help motivate them by encouraging them to collaborate toward their goals or help them set new ones based on new opportunities, like my filmmakers club. 

Curious for Conversation, open the doors of opportunity for students who have a different background and watch engagement skyrocket.

- Model the way. If you want more conversation with students who have a different cultural background, create lesson plans that encourage discourse. Share your own cultural background and experience.

I have taught foreign exchange students. Some had limited English proficiency and chose to remain quiet in class. By incorporating my own personal narratives and anecdotes into my lesson plans, I’ve been able to engage these students who are so far from home. 

- Focus on caring for and encouraging students. Teacher-leaders are often placed in positions of authority over their students. Use your wisdom and experience to find ways to identify the contributions of all your students to lead to long-term classroom and community success. 

In my classroom I highlight student contributions by using this technique employed by HBCUs: First, I start the school year by helping students identify their strengths. I use Myers-Briggs to achieve this analysis. Then, I make it a point to memorize key facts about each student. 

When I see them using their strengths, I make a point to acknowledge it. I will verbally applaud them, discreetly pass them a Post-it note, or add the feedback to an assignment. A phone call home to share good news with families really encourages student success.. 

If you show them you are keeping their best interests in mind, they will notice and be more willing to be led by you. 

Curious for Conversation, cultural conversations don’t just happen. Students must feel comfortable enough to share their experiences with you. If you push too hard, they will resist and you will lose ground. Design a playbook that fills in your cultural blind spots and puts your students’ needs first to create a long-term bond.

Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.

If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with Curious for Conversation, please email afterthebell@chalkbeat.org.

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