II-C-1: Respects Differences

Prepared by Karen Schwartz of WGEE for the DESE


Consistently uses strategies and practices that are likely to enable students to demonstrate respect for and affirm their own and others’ differences related to background, identity, language, strengths, and challenges.

What does it mean to enter a classroom in which differences related to background, identity, language, strengths and challenges are genuinely respected? What does the classroom look like? How does it feel? What do the interactions between teachers and their students look and sound like? What about the dynamic among the students themselves? In order to fully realize what proficiency in respecting differences could look like in classrooms, it seems crucial that we first clarify what comprises these differences and what we mean by respect. It also seems relevant that we address the various lenses through which differences are seen – how teachers come to view their students and how students see their teachers and their peers. How aware are we as teachers of our own backgrounds and the differences and commonalities we have with the myriad of students who walk in through our doors every day? How do we come to understand and acknowledge our possible biases so that we may create and sustain equitable learning experiences for all of our students?

Differences among our students can be both obvious and hidden. The various races, languages, cultural identities, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual identities, family compositions, and strengths/challenges of the individuals who comprise our school populations create opportunity for valuable learning when affirmed and respected. The “behavior” of highly skilled, culturally sensitive teachers permeates the complex web of a classroom. It is evident in their interactions with students and in how their students are guided to respond to one another. It is evident in both their development of self-knowledge and their knowledge of students’ diverse backgrounds. In a classroom collective based on mutual respect, students feel safe to express themselves and are treated as individuals rather than as categories. Students in classrooms where there is high proficiency of “respecting differences” learn citizenry that affirms the self and appreciates how understanding of individual differences can create strong and effective communities. Such respect is evident on the walls of the classroom and in the choices that a teacher makes in how learning happens each day. From literature choices to varied instructional methods, teachers are powerful influencers in enabling students to demonstrate respect for and affirm their own and others differences related to background identity, language, strengths, and challenges.

Vignette #1  –  In her ongoing attempts to help students demonstrate respect for and affirm their own and others’ differences, a high school art teacher helps launch a “Mix It Up” day at her large, urban school. A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program, the annual “Mix It Up Lunch” day is one of many programs aimed at reducing prejudice and improving intergroup relations both in and outside of the classroom.

Vignette #2  –  When his middle school team comes together to examine how they are enabling students to demonstrate respect for and affirm their own and others’ differences, sixth grade Social Studies teacher Brian Nichol is humbled, surprised and energized by the experience. The team’s responses to checklist/questionnaire tools on “communicating care and high expectations” and “examining assumptions” provide opportunity for reflection and positive changes. 

Vignette #3  –  A group of elementary school teachers joins together to exchange lesson ideas about how they can build opportunities for their students to share, affirm, and understand each other’s differences and identities in the classroom.

Vignette #4  –  A high school teacher approaches group work in his classroom with the intention of helping students acknowledge, respect, and appreciate the differences they bring to their collective. By turning to the work of an expert teacher, Kevin is inspired to establish a learning community of respect and connection from day one.

Vignette #5  –  When a middle school teacher learns that a student with Asperger’s Syndrome will be joining her class, she embraces this opportunity to learn more about how she can model support for this student and help his classmates learn important lessons about acceptance and understanding of differences. 

Vignette #6  –  When a student confides in an introductory letter that she has often felt like an “outsider” in her classes as an ELL learner, a high school English teacher responds by evaluating how he can best affirm, connect, and support all of the learners in his diverse classroom. 

Vignette #7  –  A group of K-12 educators gathers together to examine how developing greater empathy among students in the classroom can help their students better respect and understand each other’s differences. In the process, a teacher discovers that a genuine study of empathy must include an exploration of her own abilities to empathize with both her colleagues and the population she teaches.

Vignette #8  –  By recalling her own experiences as a student and by observing/interviewing a highly successful veteran teacher in her community, a young teacher works to figure out how to best establish a culture of respect in her classroom. Confident that the best learning will happen for students who feel safe, affirmed and connected in their differences, Malia makes it a priority to gather successful strategies that she can apply to her tenth grade classroom. 

Vignette #9  –  When a Critical Friends Group takes on a “Circles of Identity” Protocol to help examine how perceptions around identity can hold people back and push them forward, an elementary school teacher reckons with a “lost opportunity” from his early teaching days and prepares to improve his practice for a challenge on the horizon.

Vignette #10  –  Frustrated by classroom management issues, a young, white first grade teacher seeks guidance and understanding of how to best meet the needs of her largely immigrant Latino student population. Encouraged to attend a  “Bridging Cultures” workshop, she learns valuable lessons about examining how her own cultural understanding impacts the choices she makes in the classroom. With a newfound appreciation of the varying needs of “individualistic” and “collectivist” cultures, she returns to the classroom and makes changes that benefit her students.



  • From the UNC School of Education, this guidance and drama unit on “Respecting Differences” aspires to help students “identify prejudices and understand how certain character traits such as tolerance, respect, and kindness affect their choice of behavior.” Although the materials are geared toward 6-8 graders, the unit can likely be adapted for any grade level. The site provides well considered learning outcomes, materials, pre-activities, activities, assessments, and supplementary materials.



  • In this one-minute video, Building Community in the Classroom, a first grade teacher shares how important it is to assure her students that they are accepted and valued in her classroom community from the start of the year. She suggests that a positive attitude towards building community helps ward off discipline issues.


  • In this article entitled, “Communicating Cross-Culturally: What Teachers Should Know,” the authors point out that some have likened cross-cultural understanding to “an iceberg of which only the top is visible while a massive part remains unobservable below the surface of the water.” To bump into an iceberg causes a “jolt,” thus pointing to the feelings and complexities involved in some teachers’ quests to understand other cultures. The author breaks down cross-cultural understanding into six categories: 1) Ways of Knowing 2) Ways of Solving Problems 3) Ways of Communicating Non-Verbally 4) Ways of Learning 5) Ways of Dealing with Conflict and 6) Ways of Using Symbols. All are helpful for teachers to examine, as they try to better understand how to respect and serve the diverse populations in their schools.


  • “Student Identity and Engagement in Elementary Schools” is a four page article summed up as: “Identity + voice = engagement + learning.” The article highlights the significance of getting to know our students well and finding meaningful ways to include their voices in helping to determine positive learning experiences.


  • From Johns Hopkins School of Education, this site on “The Responsive Classroom” shares the importance of students feeling respected and learning to respect others as key components to learning. The site outlines seven principles of the Responsive Classroom and six strategies for teaching.



  • This teaching guide on Respecting Others for grades 5-9 provides bulleted ideas about how to treat others with respect, offers discussion questions for students considering how to best treat others, and shares student activities and writing assignments for the classroom around the theme of respecting differences.


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