Teachers can expect challenges as they acclimate to their new digital learning environments. For one, communication practices that address a student’s individual learning needs may not be determined at the start of the term when cultural identities are still “masked.” So, teachers should be mindful of their approach to recognizing cultural differences as they conduct their virtual classrooms.
In online classrooms, discussion boards can be “safe space[s]” for students where they “enjoy sharing” their cultures with one another. These discussions can contribute to the depth and richness of learning for students and offer cues that help identify cultural backgrounds to teachers.
Teacher Bias in the Virtual Classroom
Data surrounding culture in the virtual classroom has not been exhaustive, but it is evident that the shift to virtual classrooms comes with teacher bias. According to a study by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, “results show compelling experimental evidence that instructor discrimination exists in discussion forums of online classrooms.” The study also found “that the effect of a White male identity” on comment responses from White male instructors was larger, but “not statistically significantly different from” its effect on comment responses from “instructor teams of mixed race.”
We can begin to explore how cultural competence manifests in cross-racial teaching. In a study by Amy Carpenter Ford and Kelly Sassi, Ms. Cross, a White teacher, sought the advice of her Black colleagues as to how she could establish “authority” with the Black students in her classroom. Her colleagues suggested “going hard on them.” Ms. Cross found that this approach was not effective with her Black students because of her race. While, on the other hand, the mean approach was well-received by Black students from Ms. Turner, a Black teacher. Why? Shared culture. Ms. Turner had shared language, racial history, experience, and frame of reference with the black students in her classroom that Ms. Cross did not have with the students in hers.
But cultural competence alone does not elevate a teacher’s success. Strong teacher-student relationships are also a contributor. So how can we develop culturally competent teachers who are sufficiently equipped to build strong relationships with their culturally diverse students virtually with a majority White teacher population, largely unprepared to navigate diverse classrooms?
Safe spaces for teachers and students alike are crucial. Online classrooms should have virtual discussion spaces that engage students in an online learning environment where they are comfortable sharing information with one another. And it’s just as necessary that teachers have spaces that foster open and honest dialogue on “Whiteness”—spaces where White teachers and White teacher candidates not only acknowledge that their Whiteness shapes the attitudes and behaviors they exhibit in their classrooms, but also identify communication practices that promote shared “common ground.”
Remember Ms. Turner? She and her Black students had common ground—culturally shared knowledge within a community. But what’s the common ground between a White teacher and a student of color? The “It Factor.” And can you guess who had it? That’s right. Ms. Cross.
The “It Factor” worked well for Ms. Cross. She used its components to guide the behaviors she was having trouble legitimizing with her Black students to create common ground. The result? Trust. Ms. Cross’s Black students trusted that her behaviors in the classroom were in their best interests, which made her authority in the classroom legitimate.
Teachers who are returning to virtual classrooms this fall should try putting the “It Factor” into practice once they unmask the cultural identities of their students. However, the “It Factor” is not one-stop shopping for successful “cross-cultural” teacher-student relationships, but a shared understanding and importance of its components is critical within the education space.
Christal Bunch is a mom and communications geek with a penchant for education. Christal attended public schools in Northern Virginia, where she was born and raised, and graduated from George Mason University with a bachelor’s in communications. Christal also holds a graduate certificate in digital media and a master’s in strategic communication from American University.