Doreen Nkala is a former secondary school teacher who now lectures at a leading Zimbabwean university and volunteers with Generations For Peace.
Our social and cultural backgrounds shape our lives and can deeply and personally influence how we behave and treat others. I have a background that, like many others, has thrown me into situations requiring that I be reactive, responsive, and even spontaneous.
I was a minority in secondary school classrooms that I learned in and later led. From my physical stature to my unfamiliarity with the common spoken language, I experienced many uphill battles. However, these experiences taught me to embrace cultural diversity and to use it not only to my advantage but also to that of those I was mentoring. Recognizing aspects of cultural diversity has shaped how I engage with youths from various, or even opposing, cultural backgrounds.
Here are three lessons I’ve learned and steps I’ve taken to go beyond recognizing cultural diversity to actively integrating it into classroom strategies.
Recognize the Power Dynamics in Your Classroom
Possibly one of the most difficult challenges many teachers face is recognizing the power dynamics between themselves and their students, as well as between the students themselves. Having grown up in an education system in which I was a minority and faced discrimination, this aspect took a central role during my time leading the classroom later in my life.
I grew up as a member of Zimbabwe’s Ndebele Tribe in classrooms with a majority from the Shona tribe. There were differences in language, tone, and physical appearance, all of which set me apart and positioned me as an easy target for bullying, leading me to becoming a bully in response. In any context, cultural differences like these can easily cause division if not recognized and addressed properly. In your classroom, it might be based on class or income or race or religion, among other identity factors.
The classes I taught looked similar: I represented a minority group, teaching majority Shona pupils. I already knew firsthand the experience of the power dynamics that can emerge from groups clashing. Your first step toward harnessing multiple cultures and leveraging them as an advantage through culturally responsive pedagogy should be making yourself familiar with the dynamics of culture in your classroom.
Respond to Cultural Dynamics That Extend Beyond the Classroom
The second step I took was to actively respond to the cultural differences and dynamics manifesting outside the classroom. It’s no secret that a school is not a vacuum and anything a student learns outside of class will likely be brought into it. This, of course, directly impacts the way in which cultural diversity manifests and surfaces in the learning environment.
Early on, I realized the need to engage with youths outside the classroom to learn for myself what the dynamics between different groups looked like—how they compared and differed with those I faced. In 2010, I was recruited as a delegate for Generations For Peace, a youth-led peace-building organization working around the world to build lasting peace in communities like my own. As I was trained in conflict transformation and began to implement what I learned in the field through Sport For Peace activities with local youths, I learned not only the cultural dynamics between tribes but also how leaders can work with different groups in new ways I hadn’t considered before.
These insights and strategies, which helped youths connect, create safe spaces, and build trust in one another, came with me into my classroom, allowing me to know both what needed to be explicitly addressed and also how best to address it through simple and direct engagement with youths.
Embrace the Power of Diversity to Drive Meaningful Discussion and Learning
I realized that I could foster confidence in students by recognizing and encouraging the use of their cultural strengths. I spent more time listening to their perspectives, which meant that all students, whether from the same or different backgrounds, also became more aware of various points of view.
We began implementing rotational responsibilities in the classroom—tasks as simple as leading in-class activities or lining up students when going from one place to another on campus—allowing each student to take on new roles of leadership that might play to their strengths or challenge their weaknesses. As we spend more time learning about different cultural perspectives through discussion and out-of-classroom activities, our learning environment has become relaxed, and students are gaining trust in one another as they interact more frequently across what were once divisive lines.
I embrace diversity and allow all students to share their perspectives and feel proud of their backgrounds while remaining positive and curious of others. It is this optimism, trust, and curiosity that builds lasting peace in our communities, inspires deeper learning in our classrooms, and empowers our youths to more effectively lead tomorrow than ever before.
Image created on Pablo.
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