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What’s Your Plan for Managing Difference?

Need tips for managing the dynamics of a multicultural, multiracial class? Here are four ideas to help you put a plan in place. 

I recently worked with a group of teachers to build culturally responsive toolkits. One was having trouble deciding how to manage all the different cultures embodied in her classroom. “My students represent at least 13 different cultures and languages. I can’t manage all those different needs,” she said. Others nodded in agreement.

As we talked as a group, it became clear that the concern wasn’t really about recognizing the nuances of 13 different cultures, but about managing the dynamics of a multicultural, multiracial class.

The distinct dynamics of each group is determined by the individuals who comprise it. How many of us have taught the same class to two different groups and had two entirely different experiences? There are some commonalities: All groups experience an initial period in which people try to figure out how this group will work and what their positions in it will be. All groups are composed of diverse personalities that influence members’ interactions.

The socio-political aspects of race, class, gender and language often reflect power, trust and respect. These unaddressed issues change the quality of any interaction and increase the potential for conflicts, confusion and miscommunication.

Most of the teachers in our group were concerned about those occasional “hot moments” when the emotional temperature rises dramatically as a result of some negative interaction in the classroom. It’s important to remember that conflict is an intrinsic element of community. Group-formation lingo calls it the “storming” stage of group development.

The trick is not to be caught off guard when the inevitable occurs. Here are a few tips for creating an action plan:

1. Devise a set of strategies for managing yourself in the moment when conflicts arise. Know your own hot buttons/biases and what will make your mind freeze. As the classroom facilitator, anticipate what topics might cause confusion or misunderstanding. Being alert to potential problems will enable you to prevent sticky situations from arising. Know how to keep yourself calm, centered and present. Practicing your strategies when minor problems occur will prepare you to implement them when major conflicts arise.

2.  Before conflicts arise, regularly help students “code switch.” You accomplish this by building their explicit understanding of the different ways group members show respect, build trust or communicate. Discuss how words or gestures are used differently by people who speak different languages or members of different cultural groups. Have students express how respect and disrespect look to them. Create an anchor chart for the classroom.

3.  Practice cross-cultural communication with active listening and paraphrasing. Active listening can verify or correct an interpretation of what’s been said or done. Repeating what we think we heard can confirm accurate understanding of the communication.

4.  Establish structures and protocols to help manage emotions and process conflicts. Many conflicts occur because we are hurt or angry about how someone has treated us. These emotions are real. Don’t sweep them under the rug. Julian Weissglass, a math educator and school reform activist, developed constructivist listening structures like dyads to help students manage the emotions that conflict generates.

Use structures like the kiva, a type of fishbowl activity, to help group members share their feelings and listen to each other without judgment. Adapted from American Indian tradition, the kiva is based on the belief that a community has all that’s needed to solve its own problems and answer its own questions.

Conflict-management tools are essential components in the culturally responsive educator’s toolkit. The first step is designing an action plan.

So, what does your action plan look like?

Hammond, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is an educator and writer passionate about teaching and learning. She’s worked as a research analyst, a high school and college writing instructor, a literacy consultant and, for the past 13 years, a professional developer.