Celebrating diversity through teacher-student communication

Male student using laptop

By Natalia Benjamin

School fulfills many needs for students: a social outlet for seeing friends and interacting; a place to grow their skills and intellect to build successful lives; and an opportunity to receive support for physical or mental health. However, when it comes to the relationships between teachers and students at school, these are largely focused on developing the academic needs of students. As a high school teacher, I believe that one of the best ways to support diverse students is to put relationships at the core of our instruction. 

Mutual relationships – being vulnerable

One of the values that I uphold in my classroom is that everyone is appreciated and celebrated. I build lessons that will help students develop positive self-identities through not only reading texts that uplift their lived experiences as multilingual learners, but also providing opportunities for students to tell their stories, their experiences, and their interests. And, I believe that if I ask my students to share about themselves, I should be willing to do the same. As I model the sharing of stories by telling them about my uncle Carlos’ immigrant journey, they are willing to share the stories of important people in their community so we can value the hard work and stories of those who have come before us. While we work on extensive projects that dive deep into identity work, there are small, everyday interactions that serve the same purpose.

Prioritizing community building

Along provides teachers with a library of questions that can help both teachers and students to get acquainted, to build a learning community, to learn about different cultures, and to make connections. Questions like “Tell me about the story of your name” or “What traditions matter to you?” can be a springboard to deeper connections and conversations in the classroom. As we interact with each other, we are able to build trusting relationships that will help students feel more comfortable in taking academic risks. 

After one shared reflection a student mentioned, “You are an immigrant, just like me!” That statement hit me right in the heart. That was not a similarity that I thought was meaningful, and yet, it resonated with the student. Through sharing, we are able to find common experiences that connect us as individuals and allow us to create classroom environments that will support students’ academic success.

Classroom routines

Human interactions are important in building a learning community and relationships between the members of our class. At least once a week, students get a chance to answer reflection questions in private. Sometimes, we shared aloud during class in a circle. And yet other times, we engage in a collective activity to help us center our minds. Building these networks of connection is not only important for social connection and building relationships, but also to build routines and interactions that we can later use in learning activities where we can learn together and lean on each other.

Using various communications channels

Students need interactions with teachers and students through multiple communication channels. It can be greeting them at the door and exchanging a fist bump. It can mean asking a question when we see them not being themselves: “How come you are so tired today?” It can also look like written exchanges on sticky notes or digital platforms. Sometimes it’s through more in-depth assignments or longer conversations after class. What is important is that students know that, as the teachers and educators in the school setting, we are willing to see them as individuals and that their stories matter.

Responsiveness to students’ needs

Our students are doing life, just like teachers are doing life. One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted was that we all face different struggles. When I shared about the passing of my grandfather, and a month later the passing of my uncle due to COVID, students started sharing their own stories of loss. When we share our human experiences, students share their own humanity back, and as a result, we can better meet their needs. Sharing reflections  can be a great way for that human connection to take place, for teachers and students to get to know each other through their humanity.

Doug Reeves shared that “psychological safety is the prerequisite for learning” in a recent webinar on engagement. In short, when students’ needs are met, they can find success. This begins with positive teacher-student relationships that create a safe learning environment in the classroom.

And when we build strong teacher-students relationships, our students should know:

“You are more important than homework deadlines.”

“We can figure out a timeline that works with your present needs.”

“Your story is valuable.”

“Your mental health is important, and your safety comes first.”

“We help each other out.”

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are featuring a guest blog by Natalia Benjamin. Natalia, born and raised in Guatemala, was the first ever educator of Latin American heritage to be named Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2021. She taught multilingual learners and ethnic studies at Century High School in Rochester, Minnesota and currently works in the district office as the Coordinator for Multilingual Learning. Previously, she taught Spanish and French to elementary age learners in Idaho