Learning about and understanding diversity in the classroom can enhance the perspective of both prospective and developing teachers in many ways as they engage with the realities of today’s classrooms.
First, today’s teachers are likely to confront a range of different types of students—students with different socioeconomic backgrounds, different learning abilities/disabilities, and different ethnic or religious identities. Second, working effectively with classroom diversity is critical to promoting educational equity and optimizing both access and outcomes. Third, learning about diversity and developing strategies for working productively with those who are different entails short- and long-term benefits for students. Finally, diversity in the classroom is a teaching tool and opportunity for educational enrichment in itself.
Explore the impact of diversity in education, why diversity matters for students, and how teachers can foster diverse and inclusive learning environments.
Educational equity refers to the idea that every student should have access to the necessary resources to reach their full academic potential.
Without educational equity, academic success is significantly more difficult for some students. Systemic barriers—such as housing insecurity, inadequate nutrition, and underfunded classrooms—continue to prevent students from reaching their full potential. Certain groups of students do not receive the same educational opportunities and accommodations as their peers. This can lead to a lack of diversity in the workforce, barriers to social mobility, mental health issues, and increased poverty.
When students from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the same resources and opportunities as their more privileged peers, they are more likely to succeed academically and professionally. Educational equity is important because it prioritizes all students having the opportunity to reach their potential, regardless of their identity or circumstances.
Diversity, Culture, and Social Identities
Diversity in the classroom refers to differences in social identities. A person’s age, race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, and nationality all comprise a person’s social identity. Our identities are intersectional and overlapping, and many aspects of our identities change over time.
Types of diversity that can be present in the classroom include:
- Ability diversity: This includes differences in students’ physical, mental, and learning abilities.
- Age diversity: This includes differences in students’ ages.
- Gender diversity: This includes differences in students’ gender identity and expression.
- Ethnic diversity: This includes differences in race, ethnicity, national origin, and languages spoken at home.
- Religious diversity: This includes differences in belonging to and identifying with the values and/or practices of a particular religion or sect.
- Socioeconomic diversity: This includes differences in income, education levels, occupations, and housing security and stability with regard to students or their families.
- Experiential diversity: This includes differences in students’ life experiences, such as immigration, military service, adoption, or foster care.
- Sexual orientation diversity: This includes differences in students’ sexual orientations.
- Geographic diversity: This includes differences in students’ local or regional identity and experiences based on where they live, learn, and play.
Diversity in the classroom is not limited to these examples. Individuals can belong to multiple social groups at the same time. Note that diversity is not only about visible differences. Along with the last three categories above, differences in learning styles, personality, mental health, and more are often present without being visible.
Why a Diverse Teacher Workforce Matters
Diversity in the classroom is not limited to the student population—it includes teachers, too.
The teacher workforce that supports elementary students is far less racially and ethnically diverse in the US than the students they teach, according to data published in 2021 by Pew Research Center. While the share of Asian American, Black, and Hispanic teachers has increased over the past two decades, this minor increase has not kept pace with the rapid diversification of the general US population.
For example, Pew reports that between 2017 and 2018 (the most recent study based on National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data):
- 79 percent of US public school teachers identified as non-Hispanic White, whereas only 47 percent of all public elementary students identified this way.
- 9 percent of US public school teachers identified as Hispanic, whereas 27 percent of public elementary students identified as Hispanic.
- 7 percent of US public school teachers identified as Black, whereas 15 percent of public elementary students identified as Black.
Recent empirical studies show evidence for improved learning outcomes for students who have teachers from the same racial and/or ethnic groups. According to findings synthesized by Brookings Institute in 2022, students who had a same-race teacher tended to experience educational benefits such as:
- Improved test scores
- Improved course grades
- Improved working memory
- Better attendance
- Better interpersonal self-management
- Higher likelihood of taking an advanced math class
- Higher likelihood of being selected for a gifted and talented program
- Higher likelihood to graduate from high school
- Higher likelihood to intend to enroll in college
Diversifying our educational system must therefore include increasing the representation of teachers who belong to different racial and ethnic communities. Students of color deserve to have the opportunity to learn from teachers who may share similar cultural experiences as them.
Teaching Diversity in the Classroom
Valuing inclusion in the classroom can help to create a more respectful learning environment for everyone.
Students can be taught as early as pre-school and elementary school how to use accurate terms to describe their own social identity. For example, a child can proudly affirm that they are both Black and Korean American, having a mother who is a Black woman from Chicago and a father who is a Korean man from Busan. Likewise, a child can proudly affirm simply having two mothers or two fathers.
Students should also learn to celebrate and respect people from cultures different from their own. Diversity is crucial for elementary school students to learn about because it helps them to appreciate the differences among people and cultures. In a rapidly diversifying world, students deserve educators and educational resources that teach diversity in the classroom and affirm the importance of inclusion, respect, and justice for all.
Learning about diversity from an early age can lead to more inclusive and respectful interactions with others and can also help students develop a sense of empathy and understanding for people who may have different experiences or perspectives.
Kids often express a natural curiosity toward the food, sports, art, clothes, children’s books, games, toys, and dances of different cultures. This openness and enthusiasm for learning from and about people who are different is something teachers must encourage and nurture.
Students who learn to appreciate and support members of diverse groups as children can grow up to be strong leaders of diverse and inclusive communities.
Contribute to the Ongoing Effort to Diversify Education
With the right teaching tools, educators can foster diversity and inclusion for the next generation of students. The significance of diversity in the classroom takes its impetus directly from a historical context where many classrooms were not diverse–either by political fiat or teaching philosophy–but its impact and its mission lies in promoting equity and positive outcomes for today’s students.
If you’re interested in an enriching career as an educator who embraces the mission of using diversity in the classroom as an educational opportunity, American University’s Online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and Online Master of Education (MEd) in Education Policy and Leadership programs may be a great next step for you. We prepare graduates with the tools they need to approach the diversity landscape in education with an informed perspective and teach students from diverse backgrounds.
Start pursuing your goals in education with American University.