The Teacher’s Role in the Culturally Responsive Classroom

Module 1 Writing Assignment /Culturally Responsive Instruction

The Teacher’s Role in the Culturally Responsive Classroom

joyce m

Teachers have an important role to play in the development of the lives of their students. Not only are they teaching academic rigor, they also are teaching social expectations, affecting attitudes and mindsets of their students. This role also includes teaching respect and awareness when it comes to social, racial, cultural and economic differences.

Students come to school with their own worldview. They see things from their own experiences, cultural norms and expectations. History has already made it’s footprint upon the life of the student. The student may not even recognize that footprint exists. However, the historical (recent or even generational) imprint affects expectations and thinking patterns due to race, culture, poverty. It affects the way the student sees the world around him as well as how others think of him. Experiences affirm what he knows about himself and his world or affects how others see him.


These cultural norms also affect how students learn. For example, in African-American cultures, developing a relationship with the student is imperative before the student learns academically with the teacher. Direct eye contact with a person in authority is considered disrespectful in some cultures, whereas it is expected in most classrooms. In some cultures, a student is to sit quietly and be obedient, as compared to African-Americans who are louder and more boisterous. In the first example, a teacher may find the student withdrawn and in the other the student to be a troublemaker. The effective teacher learns what the cultural norms are with her students. She not only teaches flexibility to her students, she too learns to be flexible. Students need to develop the ability to move between their primary culture as well as the dominant culture. (Tileston, Darling 2008). The teacher facilitates the student learning that ability, by teaching how to function in the dominant culture (language, social expectations, academically), while acknowledging and valuing the primary culture.

There are many cultures to take in to consideration. Not only are there race and nationality differences, but also that of poverty. There is economic poverty but also deficit thinking, learned helplessness and low achievement. The teacher’s role is to assist the student in overcoming these obstacles and create an environment which promotes success. Failure is not an option. The teacher can model how to deal with mistakes and failures. By encouraging attempts, teaching how to learn from mistakes, possibly even learning to laugh at mistakes, the student learns how to grow emotionally.  There is so much a teacher can do to help her students be successful whether in economic poverty or emotional. (

Collectivism is highly valued in a majority of the world population. The values of the family unit such as obligation, duty, tradition, harmony, family integrity and interdependence is considered more important than that of the individual in these cultures. (Tileston, Darling 2008). Americans highly value individualistic traits and therefore, teachers may not consider this mindset when planning lessons. However, this is an important belief system for teachers to take into consideration when working with students of other cultures as it affects the student’s thinking and practices within the classroom.  Teachers can support the student by implementing strategies which encourage students according to their cultural mindset. These strategies may include cooperative learning, affirmation,  inquiry-based projects and group discussions. Individualist vs. Collectivist Cultures

Vocabulary is another area that needs to be addressed when working with diverse cultures and children in poverty. Students coming from other countries, especially ELL students, will not have the vocabulary foundation necessary to understand tasks assigned. Even students who have been in the country for some time and have developed conversational English understanding may continue to have challenges with academic language, especially in middle to high school years. Pre-teaching vocabulary is crucial. It is important to be proactive and not assume all students understand the vocabulary presented. This is also true for students who live in poverty. According to a study by Hart and Risley in the 1960’s, on average, children from welfare homes had less than one-third the vocabulary as that of a child in a professional home. (The Early Catastrophe Article).

Culture is extremely important to most people. It is where we come from, our home, our roots. It is where we are accepted and affirmed. These cultures differ by traditions, practices, and belief systems. The cultural differences can either divide or enrich the lives of students. Teachers have the wonderful opportunity to enrich the lives of the students by teaching cultural understanding in the classroom. Students can share their language, talk about their traditions with their peers, compare and contrast holiday traditions. This allows the teacher to teach relationship building skills, flexibility, caring, open dialogue.  One of the most exciting examples I have seen recently is a middle school assignment called, “Write Your Story.” In the assignment, the students are given a lengthy time to basically build their own family tree. They write and present to the class who they are, where they come from, share traditions, stories of family members and create presentations in which to share their story with their peers. This assignment has allowed students to delve deeper into their family history and affirmed their story as well as their culture. It also allows opportunities for others to learn more about the culture of their peers.

The teacher’s role in a culturally responsive classroom has no place for prejudice towards racial differences, cultural differences, poverty, stereotypes, learned helplessness, or deficit thinking. Instead, her role is to create a classroom where differences are appreciated, and culture is honored. Students who live in poverty have hope and are supported. Students are expected to participate, learn and grow. There is no room for failure, meanness or hate. The teacher envisions their student successful and dreams are fulfilled. Teachers cannot change the world, but they can change one life at a time.

Additional video clip resources can be found at Edutopia: Five-Minute Film Festival: Culturally Responsive Teaching



Five-Minute Film Festival: Culturally Responsive Teaching. (2014, September 26). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Individualist vs. Collectivist Cultures. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from

Poverty in the Classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from Early Catastrophy. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from

The Early Catastrophy. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from

Tileston, D. W., & Darling, S. K. (2008). Why culture counts: Teaching children of poverty. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.