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Classroom diversity: Tips for teachers on how to foster inclusivity

In the context of increasing acts of intolerance and rising diversity in schools across Canada, how can teachers create an environment inclusive to all students?


By Lindsey Craig

September 7, 2017 

Given the current political climate south of the border, a rise in racist incidents playing out in news headlines, and an increasing number of new Canadians in classrooms across the country, teachers in already diverse schools need to teach lessons far beyond regular assignments. 

Imagine the conflicts that could arise in a class of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, black, Indigenous, white, gay, straight, transgendered, immigrant and refugee students or those whose native language is other than English or French?

What is a teacher to do in the face of a racial slur? Or when a child is ostracized for his or her religious beliefs, clothing or language? What can a teacher do to create a classroom space that is not only respectful of difference but an environment that celebrates it?

Given the power of education to fight intolerance, OISE experts say that even in a country generally known for respect for individual differences, it’s crucial for teachers of growingly diverse classrooms to create an environment inclusive to all.

Below, OISE Professor Ann Lopez, winner of numerous multicultural education awards and distinctions, and Richard Messina, Principal of OISE’s Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study (JICS) give 9 tips for teachers on how to create an environment that celebrates equality in an increasingly diverse world.


1.  Honest self-reflection

Professor Lopez: Before teachers can make a commitment to truly being inclusive of the knowledge and experiences of those who are different from themselves, they must engage in critical reflection about what they themselves need to unlearn and learn.

For instance, a teacher might think they are “embracing diversity” but may hold stereotypical views of some students, often manifested in excessive discipline or low expectations of certain students. This could be a teacher that has different cultures or languages displayed on the walls in the classroom, but who also becomes quite impatient and aggressive in tone when re-directing a black boy who has become disengaged with the class. This is known as unconscious or implicit bias, which are stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. That is – some teachers don’t realize they treat some students differently based on stereotypes they may hold.

As teachers start the new school year, it’s important for them to think about practices and perspectives that might be a blind spot, and consider proactive strategies to overcome them. These could include reviewing one’s approach to classroom discipline, talking to a critical friend to discuss challenging issues, and searching out additional resources to support him or her on their journey. For example, if not currently offered, teachers and educational leaders should also ask for workshops to assist with this critical self-reflection.

2.  Write a letter

Principal Messina: Teachers could start the year by writing to the families of the kids in their class, asking for information that would help them understand the individual differences of each student.

Since not all forms of diversity are visible, the letter from the family helps teachers learn more about the story or identity of the child. It gives the teacher ways to “mirror” that identity in the curriculum and resources (books, activities, etc.) so the child can see him or herself reflected in the curriculum. 


Dear parents,

Coming to know each student as an individual and as part of your family is an important aspect of our work with your child. We enjoy coming to know parents, grandparents, your traditions and celebrations, your child’s preferences and gifts, your goals and hopes. Please feel free to write me a letter at any time to deepen your communication of these important aspects of family life and identity. I welcome an email or a written letter. You may want to indicate whether your letter can be shared with other teachers who teach your child. These letters will be received in confidence, of course… 

3.  Forget ‘food, fun and festival’…and leverage resources!

Professor LopezTake advantage of the resources in your school’s community. Create activities or assignments that require students themselves to learn about diversity. Be mindful not to focus on ‘food, fun or festival.’ While it’s often a well-intended tactic, diverse people can do more than cook. We need to break this stereotype. A great resource for teachers in this regard is Beyond Heroes and Holiday. Parents have valuable knowledge to share. Find professionals from diverse groups to engage with students. It will help the break down stereotypes as to who can be a pilot and who cannot.


4.  Curriculum check

Professor LopezDiversity must be reflected in the curriculum and pedagogy. Teachers should review texts and other materials to see whose voices and experiences are left out, and make efforts to include them in lessons.

For example, when teaching history, teachers should carefully examine the content to ensure it’s an accurate representation. One only has to look at what is going on south of the border where some folks are trying to re-write history by promoting a war – in which some fought to keep slaves – appear as something heroic. And in Canada, we need to heed the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ensuring we capture the devastating effects of residential schools on Indigenous children, and how it impacts Indigenous families today.  (Professional development days and workshops can help provide tools to assist with this. If teachers do not currently have these available to them, they should ask for such support.)


5.  Idea diversity

Principal Messina: It’s important that a classroom supports the notion that “idea diversity” is essential to knowledge advancement. To understand an idea is to understand the ideas that surround it, including those that stand in contrast to it. Idea diversity creates a rich environment for ideas to evolve into new and more refined forms. This pedagogical approach may help students to appreciate and value all forms of diversity and how diversity enriches learning.

For example, when teaching about scientific concepts like “seasons” or “evolution” it is important to recognize that there are many interpretations of these concepts. For example, Indigenous communities have their own explanations. It is vital that they presented in non-judgmental ways that enrich the students’ learning experience.

6.  Model respect and care

Professor LopezA positive classroom environment models inclusion and respect for all students. This means teachers must ensure they treat all students and their families with respect. For example, if a student whose first language is not English (or French) joins a class, teachers must ensure the child is given time to speak and process his or her thoughts. The teacher must also teach the rest of the class to respectfully listen. How the teacher speaks and interacts with students should model respect and care. Students know when their teachers care about themselves or others, and when they do not.

7.  Challenge stereotypes

Professor Lopez: Disrupt narratives and stereotypes in the classroom that position diverse people as lacking in valuable knowledge or unqualified. 

For example, teachers of more senior grades might discuss with their class a newspaper article about certain organizations trying to recruit more diverse staff. Some students might think that is not fair and only “qualified” people should be hired. Implicit in this notion is the idea that some people from diverse backgrounds are not qualified. The teacher might use this a teachable moment to talk with students about why it is important for organizations to reflect the diversity of Canada.

8.  See colour

Principal MessinaIn understanding and dealing with racism, it is not enough for the teacher to simply be “non-racist." Educators must be “anti-racist”, which means that they actively address racism and it effects. “Active” is the key word. Claiming to be non-racist and/or to “not see race in others” may passively allow racism to continue. 

This may mean moving beyond celebrations of diversity. That is, teachers should look at ways for the invisible to be made visible. For example, a teacher might create opportunities in the classroom in which it’s safe for students to talk about how they experience unfairness and discrimination, how they see these experiences in others, and how to be advocates.

This is important since issues of racism, discrimination or sexism often go unnoticed. Unless there is an established forum to bring these issues into the open, children may simply accept them without realizing there’s a way to share and address them. 

9.  Take action...never ignore!

Professor LopezEven if after putting to practice many of the tips above, a teacher witnesses a racist or discriminatory remark or behaviour, he or she must always address it, no matter how difficult. However, it must be done in a manner that supports student learning. A few words of advice for how to handle such situation:

  • Stop the class and in a caring and kind manner (“We should chat about this, because I assume you did not mean to hurt….”) let the student who uttered the discriminatory remark know that what was uttered was not appropriate.
  • Explain why that words hurt feelings of other people – adjust conversation to grade level as appropriate.
  • Speak to the parents of the child to support the child to learn why those comments are hurtful. Including parents in the dialogue is important.
  • If the comment is heard outside of the classroom, for example, in the gym or the lunchroom, the teacher must immediately speak to that student, but also follow-up with guidance counsellors and the student’s teachers – not to punish, but to continue the process of learning and unlearning.
  • As discussed previously, weave these topics into the curriculum on an ongoing basis. These issues cannot be challenged only when we hear discriminatory remarks.
  • Bring in resources such as storybooks, particularly in the lower grades, that deal with these issues.
  • In addition, in every case, a call home to chat with parents or guardians is essential. This is to reinforce actions taken by the school and ensure everyone – including both the student and his or her family – understands discrimination in any form is unacceptable.