Create a safe, welcoming environment [I-5]

Illustrations are grouped by the proficiency that they best bring to life.

We would like to communicate our deep appreciation to these teachers who are allowing us to learn from their experiences.


Many of us understandably but mistakenly treat culturally inclusive instruction as a 'sidebar' study of women or minorities every so often or during a particular month. Cultural inclusion is—but is also much more than—a mere reference to or celebration of persons of color, or other cultures.

Celebrating Black History Month exemplifies a multicultural moment that many of us incorporate into our curriculums once a year. Unfortunately, this type of curriculum sends a message that Black History is separate from and inferior to European History, and suggests that one month’s acknowledgment provides sufficient recognition. (It also troublingly implies that it is acceptable for the other eight months of the school year to be devoted to White History.) Another common misrepresentation occurs when only exceptional individuals, the “superheroes” of history from a minority group, are acknowledged.


While being a culturally inclusive educator does mean celebrating heroes and holidays, it also means taking an approach to your classroom that integrates (not isolates) multiple cultures throughout your curriculum, values diversity, and teaches the value of inclusion and sensitivity every day, not just on designated days.

Several strategies for doing so include:

  • Teaching tolerance so students appreciate diversity outside their classroom
  • Deepening your understanding of students' backgrounds
  • Integrating current events about your students' communities and cultures into your curriculum
  • Searching for bias in curriculum

To read more about such strategies, visit the "Draw Welcoming Values Out of Your Curriculum" section of the Reinforce Expectations page.


Some of us so enthusiastically embrace establishing a welcoming environment that we may fall into the trap of emphasizing it over academic growth and achievement. However well-intended or progressive our enthusiasm for issues of diversity and inclusion, it must not come at the expense of other areas of learning, but rather for the benefit of those other areas of learning.


It is important to strike the right balance; consider the repercussions otherwise. On the one hand, a teacher who views a welcoming environment as the ultimate goal might end the year with self-confident, culturally aware students who can’t read. On the other hand, a teacher who ignores the strategies and benefits of a welcoming environment altogether could easily end the year missing students’ reading goals because students haven’t become as invested in the goals as they would have had the classroom been more supportive.

As you contemplate your own approach to establishing a welcoming environment, remember that it is a far greater service to students that environment functions not only as an end in itself but also as a means to academic achievement that complements rather than replaces rigorous, effective teaching of basic academic skills. Thus, try to take advantage of synergies between welcoming methods and your students’ needs for intense instruction in academic skills and concepts. As you think about ways to integrate inclusive messages into your classroom, do not lose your focus on standards-based academics.


We are all sometimes uncomfortable responding to insensitivity. Sometimes we are simply shocked to hear unexpected or frank comments; sometimes we just do not have articulate, appropriate or student-friendly replies at our fingertips.


Responses to insensitivity should be immediate, direct, and convincing. Accept that throughout the course of the school year there will inevitably be times when your students will say things that make you and others uncomfortable. To prepare yourself, ask other teachers about their most difficult moments. Ask them for examples of the most shocking things their students have said, and how they responded (or how they wish they responded). Hearing others’ experiences will give an idea of what you might expect and stimulate your thinking as to whether you would want to handle a comparable situation similarly or differently.


Understandably, we sometimes fall into the habit of reacting to insensitive comments, rather than proactively laying the groundwork and foundation for an environment where such comments will be understood to be inappropriate and hurtful. But such a habit slows the pace with which we can achieve a learning environment in which all students feel comfortable and supported, and it can ultimately cost us a lot of valuable learning time.


At the beginning of the year especially, you'll need to explicitly create a classroom culture where your expectations are clearly understood. Once expectations are established, you should proactively reinforce them (by praising students for embodying welcoming values, by drawing welcoming values and messages out of your curriculum, etc.) to prevent lapses from occurring. While it is inevitable that students will still sometimes prove insensitive, discussion about these comments should occur within an established context of expectations. There are multiple and varied methods you can use to create this culture.

More on establishing clear expectations and systems

More on proactively reinforcing those expectations


We all naturally resist the possibility that we might have any deep-seated bias towards our students; but it is just as natural to have that bias. Our views of students must be as unbiased as possible, since these views affect our ability to inspire/motivate and/or bond with our students.

Sometimes we have narrow conceptions of what a “good student” looks like; or we assume that because students dress or speak in a certain way that they are uninterested in success. Perhaps the opinions of students’ previous teachers affect our own opinions.


Be willing to engage in challenging and potentially uncomfortable personal evaluation and reflection to deconstruct your own biases and assumptions. Passive acknowledgment of stereotypes and prejudices alone will not counter their effects on behavior. Take time to think about how you perceive and treat different students (i.e. who "look," "sound," or "act" a certain way) and their families (i.e. who "look," "sound," or "act" a certain way), and why. Get to know students and their families as individuals before making judgments about them.

The bottom line: there is no solution for your hidden prejudices like openly acknowledging them through awareness and acceptance.


Links to Helpful Resources

  • Teaching Tolerance Provides lesson plans/ideas, DVD Teacher Kits which you can order for free, a teaching magazine, and grants for teachers. Songs, documentaries, great lesson ideas; all that engage students on a critical level.
    • Facing History and Ourselves Offers critical readings and resources, online workshops and in-person training. Provides background on historical and present-day issues including immigration, genocide, civil rights, dissent and the Holocaust. Helps you engage students in reading, writing, and critical thinking with topics that have relevant meaning.