What’s Working: How to Be Culturally Sensitive in the Classroom

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices closing the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

Teachers should go beyond making diversity days holidays filled with flags, food, and language and focus on global fluency—the knowledge, skills, and mindset needed to live and work effectively and successfully in a globally connected world.

This was a major takeaway from a recent ASCD webinar with Brad Gosche, vice president and lead certified trainer of the Global Fluency Institute.

“By 2045, diverse ethnic groups will be the majority of the population in the United States and in our classrooms,” Gosche said, making a case for the importance of global fluency.

Gosche provided examples of various activities that can help educators understand how to be culturally sensitive in the classroom. One of them revealed how seemingly simple assignments can be extremely difficult for students whose first language is not English.

“This Should Be Very Simple”

During the webinar, Gosche demonstrated an activity he has given to instructors before, in which they have to take a seven-question quiz about a monologue he made them listen to. 

Gosche said the quiz should be very simple; after all, they hear the answers to the questions in the order they were given.  

When the audio starts playing, however, the instructors inevitably throw their pencil down, become frustrated, start writing down words they know, and look around frantically to see what others are doing. 

Why? The audio that Gosche plays is in Middle English, which hasn’t been spoken widely since the 1500s.

the journey

In this exercise, the educators experience what a student learning English as a second language would experience. Students who just arrived from a refugee camp, where there is no educational system structure, also struggle with audio exercises like this one. 

Gosche said instructors always get an “ah-ha” moment after this activity because it is something they have never considered. This activity demonstrates to educators the importance of empathy and understanding your student's background and experiences. 

When Eye Contact Can Be Hurtful

Along with realizing where your students are coming from, Gosche also stressed the importance of being a culturally sensitive educator. 

Most educators make eye contact and nod their heads when they are talking to students to encourage them to continue with what they are saying. Gosche said he himself did this once when he was talking to a Korean student. 

To Gosche’s surprise, the Korean student started crying. The prolonged eye contact was perceived as threatening and made the Korean student feel that what he was saying was wrong.   

Nodding your head does not mean “yes” in every country, and Latin Americans exhibit indirect eye contact as a sign of respect when being reprimanded. 

Related story: Tailored Approaches to Help English Learners Graduate

Gosche added that educators should celebrate a diverse perspective in the classroom, instill trust, and cope with change in order to be a successful cross-cultural teacher. 

Ultimately, Gosche said that demonstrating these traits will make students feel valued. When a student feels valued and comfortable in the classroom, that is when educators can push them out of the comfort zone and into a growing and learning zone. 

“Successful educators acknowledge the array of cultures and perspectives in their classroom and leverage them to enhance each student’s learning experience,” said Gosche. 

Curious to see how globally fluent you are? Take this quiz to find out. 

ASCD is a partner of America’s Promise Alliance. Find out how you can become a partner and have your work featured on our website here. To bring Global Fluency Training to your school, email Brad Gosche: [email protected].

Join the GradNation Learning Community
The GradNation campaign provides those working to increase high school graduation rates with data, best practices, and opportunities to connect and learn from one another. To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. 

Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.