Effective teachers cultivate positive relationships with students every day, no matter if the classroom is physical or virtual. They foster emotional connections among students, and help them to feel a sense of belonging and purpose.
This is not a small task. In fact, it is possibly one of the most difficult but important things an educator can do. According to the latest research in developmental science, relationships between and among children and adults are “a primary process through which biological and contextual factors influence and mutually reinforce each other.”
This means that when children experience positive relationships, they are not only creating the pathways for lifelong learning, adaptation, and integration of social, emotional, and cognitive skills, but also making qualitative changes to their genetic makeup. In other words, children’s brains change in response to their life experiences, relationships, and the environments they encounter from birth into adulthood.
Positive relationships also foster resilience, and reduce the impact that negative factors—such as adverse childhood experiences (ACE)—may have on children’s healthy development. Researchers from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University suggest that these positive experiences, along with support from adults and the development of adaptive skills, can counterbalance the lifelong consequences of adversity.
Unfortunately, differences in social and cultural backgrounds can make it harder for students to trust teachers. For instance, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students and their families may have a hard time trusting their white teachers, given America’s history and current reality of institutionalized racism. At the same time, white teachers may not be inclined to trust their BIPOC students due to their own bias and learned beliefs. This trust gap may hinder their ability to establish meaningful relationships, and can affect students’ academic success.
While an increasing number of schools are adopting social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and practices to create positive learning environments, many fail to incorporate cultural competence as an essential building block to foster these trusting relationships. However, educators still need to gain awareness of their own cultural identity, consider their biases, and how they use their power and privilege with students. Cultural competence also means that educators develop their ability to learn about and build on the varying cultural and community assets of students and their families.
In my new book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind: A Complete Educator’s Guide to Social Emotional Learning, I discuss why educators need to build their cultural competence in order to nurture positive relationships—and how they can ensure that students feel respected, seen, and affirmed. At the root of developing a culturally responsive classroom lies the belief that students’ diverse cultural practices and ethnic backgrounds are assets in the learning process, that should be celebrated and incorporated into academic content and pedagogy. “Culture is central to student learning,” writes education consultant Zaretta Hammond. “Cultural practices shape students’ thinking processes, which serve as tools for learning in and outside of school.” Therefore, students’ languages, cultures, and life experiences should be acknowledged as meaningful sources for learning and understanding.
1. Develop an awareness of your own racial and cultural identity
This entails identifying the historical roots of your identity, as well as beliefs, values, the way culture has influenced your life, and the things that motivate and matter to you. It also involves considering implicit biases, and the privileges and disadvantages afforded to you based on your race or ethnicity. This process is especially important for white educators, since research suggests people of color will commonly begin developing their racial identity before white people. According to author and University of Georgia professor Dr. Anneliese Singh, developing a positive racial identity entails cultivating nonjudgmental curiosity—questioning old ideas and remaining open to new ones.