remote learning

Finding 'Common Ground' Will Be Tough in Virtual Classrooms

Some teachers may face addressing cultural differences virtually this fall, as school districts nationwide consider taking instruction online during the 2020-2021 academic year in response to COVID-19. This at a time when recent data has shown classrooms becoming increasingly diverse and students of color outnumbering White students in classrooms taught predominately by White women.

Is the majority White teacher population prepared to thrive in their virtual classrooms? Not likely.

Many say explicitly that they don’t feel prepared to teach culturally diverse populations in mainstream classrooms. Couple this with teacher preparation spaces that do not prioritize multicultural competence, and students this fall will be left with teachers who, frankly, don’t know how to teach them.

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.”

Then why focus on the classroom behaviors of White teachers? Teachers are prone to rating relationships with students whose ethnicity matches their own “more positively.” Teachers also tend to assign higher grades to students whose racial group matches their own. At a time when projections show a majority non-White student population, these behaviors leave students of color at an unfair disadvantage with mostly White teachers in their classrooms compared to White students.

Culture in Cross-Racial Teaching: A Study

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.


Culturally Competent Relationships with Students

To be clear, a lack of cultural competence is not necessarily a result of prejudice. It’s not always a teacher standing in front of their classroom “comparing the phrase ‘OK, Boomer’ to the N-word.” It’s a result of ignorance. The absence of racial awareness. Cultural competence means an educator has a thorough understanding of how race impacts socio-demographics. A teacher lacking such competency is burdened with legitimizing “authority” with their students.

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.

We should also remember that Ms. Cross was part of a study in a traditional classroom where she did not have to approach challenges like cultural unmasking as would the teacher of a virtual classroom. And the study was one for which Ms. Cross was nominated specifically because she had a reputation for establishing positive relationships with African American students. So what about the White teacher of a virtual classroom who doesn’t have the same initiative as Ms. Cross?

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
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.

Join the Movement