Cultivating a Culturally Responsive Classroom Community

Launching a magnificent school year begins with cultivating a strong sense of community with the students at your school. Establishing a culturally responsive culture is not just the responsibility of the teachers in the classroom, school leaders should also communicate that this is a priority and support each teachers’ efforts. Classroom community ultimately reflects beliefs about how students should experience learning—and it is an immense feat to get a group of wonderfully diverse students with unique cultures, identities, passions, talents, and needs to learn and thrive together. 

Productive, culturally responsive classroom learning communities produce collective agreements about the values, relationships and behaviors that best serve the learning goals of all students and are cultivated throughout the year. Below are suggestions for how teachers can approach establishing an effective culturally responsive culture in the classroom—efforts school leaders should support and encourage, as well as mirror in their own interactions with staff. 

Start with Relationships, Trust and Rapport

Building trust and rapport with each student individually is one of the first things to consider when building a culturally responsive classroom community. As humans, we are all dependent on the quality and depth of our relationships. This is especially true for students, since most must navigate multiple relationships in and outside of school with varying levels of depth. Building trust and rapport, then, should serve as a teacher’s top priority at the beginning of the school year. 

Getting to know who your students are as individuals is one of the hallmarks of a culturally responsive classroom community. Understanding the cultural, academic, linguistic and social identities of your students comes through deep, authentic connections and relationships. This type of relationship building can feel risky at times since building a deep level of trust and rapport with students can push us personally to places of vulnerability. 

But it’s critical to remember that students have to believe their teacher cares about them. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain (2015), shares that “We have to not only care about students in a general sense, but also actively care for them in a physical and emotional sense.” When teachers authentically and consistently demonstrate caring behaviors toward their students, the critical trust that builds relationships grows, as does the culturally responsive classroom community. 

Tips for Practice

  • Be a storyteller. Incorporate your story and the stories of students into the life of the classroom. Create ways for you and your students to express individual identities and share personal experiences.

  • Model active, authentic listening. Listening conveys a sense of respect that is essential to building trust and expresses to students your deep interest in who they are and what they have to share.

  • Demonstrate acts of caring. Collectively decide as a class community what it looks like and sounds like to care for and about each other—then do it.

  • Be transparent about your desire to get to know students individually. Tell them your aim is to build trust and rapport as a classroom community.

Build Shared Agreements

Clear agreements or expectations coupled with supporting routines, processes and structures will help students make sense of a culturally responsive learning community and navigate it with confidence and ownership. Because shared agreements build community, the process for developing them should rely heavily on student voice and input. The process should be facilitated in a way that ensures all students can contribute.  

In preparing for the process, teachers should give attention to the specific social, emotional, and cognitive growth and development goals for all students in the classroom. For example, what essential thinking routines will students need in order to engage in deep learning? How will students work together in different grouping structures (whole group, small group, individually)? How should whole group dialogue look and sound?

Tips for Practice

  • Utilize free resources about developing classroom agreements, such as this blog post from Wendy Ward Hoffer, PEBC Education Senior Director, which provides sample agreements: Build Community with Shared Agreements.

  • After co-creating the shared agreements, visually display them throughout the classroom.

  • Engage in periodic classroom rituals such as connection circles, morning meetings or afternoon huddles focused on how well the class is demonstrating the agreements.

  • Co-create a metaphor for a culturally responsive classroom community with your students. Metaphors cause us to think differently and deeper about a concept. They also create greater clarity and can serve as a powerful reminder and barometer for your classroom community throughout the school year.

Building relationships, trust and rapport with students one-on-one can remove educators from their comfort zone, and they should be supported in establishing authentic connections. Likewise, shared agreements built for individual classrooms should mirror efforts to build collective agreements between school leadership and staff. Both actions are important first steps in creating a culturally responsive environment in your school. Doing so takes effort, and every member of your team—from teachers, leadership, instructional coaches and more—has a role to play.