Safe Classrooms

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Embracing Diversity in the Classroom

In my early days as a classroom teacher, I would often interrupt conflict between students with a simple refrain like, “You don’t have to like them but you’re going to need to tolerate them.” This no-nonsense message often resonated with my 5th and 6th graders, and it helped me maintain peace in the classroom. I said this because I wanted to create a safe, orderly classroom environment where all students could learn and achieve academic success, however, I’ve come to believe that we must aspire for more nuanced understandings that move beyond tolerance. In the words of our CEO Jane Clementi, “schools must not merely “tolerate” children who identify as LGBTQ+ but embrace them.” This need to embrace diversity extends to any difference including race/ethnicity, ability, nationality, or religion. Together, adults and teachers need to push young people toward a deeper understanding of differences.Safe Space

Safe classrooms are spaces in which children can understand their own truth and seek understandings of truth that may be different. By consciously embracing diversity, students can develop curiosity, self-awareness, listening skills, and respect.

This work takes time and commitment. It requires that both teachers and students travel outside their comfort zones, abandon stereotypes, and notice their own bias.


Learning Through Mirrors and Windows

mirrorsAdults have a responsibility to encourage children to see their own uniqueness and the diversity that surrounds them, ask questions with genuine curiosity and respect, and embrace what makes them and others unique. Young people need adults who can help them understand their truth while guiding them to understand the truth of others.

Educator Emily Style suggests that education should consist of children learning to look through both mirrors and windows.

A mirror allows children to see their own truth; a window provides them with a chance to see and understand someone else’s truth. Students can see through someone else’s window only if they are listening to their words with an open heart and a willingness to understand; they can find their own truth in a mirror only if they acknowledge how they are different from others. 

Shifting Away from a Normalized Perspective

As a teacher, I would sometimes hear students say, “That’s so gay!”  Why is this phrase still being used to express disbelief or disapproval? As teachers, we have a responsibility to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and to listen with an open mind. We should correct their use of slurs or hurtful language, but we should also guide them to understand why they may have used those words.

fishMany children develop a “normalized perspective” through learned behavior and exposure to external messaging. They are told to behave and speak based on a presumption of heterosexuality and a gender binary, therefore, using the word gay is their response to a behavior that does not fit into this perspective. In other words, “gay” is viewed as “not normal” and students may reflect that view into their world. What they perceive as “not normal” could also be any other kind of difference, including disability, religion, or political view that does not fit into their view of normal. This same scenario can be applied to any difference that challenges children’s preconceived notions and we should be careful not to “shut-down” these conversations.

Teachers should address the comment in the moment and then check-in individually with the student after. Let them know that you notice their willingness to learn about and understand diversity and that you are excited to learn more about their thoughts in the future. Remind them that saying “that’s so gay” can make others feel hurt, alienated either because it challenges their own identity or the identity of their loved ones. Finally, let them know that “difference” goes both ways. While they may see others as different from themselves, that person also perceives them as different. By helping them learn how they themselves might be seen as different, we encourage self-awareness and acceptance of others.

Guiding Children to Embrace Diversity

Seeking to understand our individual truth might be the easy part. The difficulty lies in seeking to understand and listen to and seek to understand the truth of others. Below are some ideas for guiding children to embrace diversity.


Model a sincere desire to understand diversity

Say: “This is a kind of diversity that I have less personal experience with (as a cis-gendered/heterosexual/female), so I plan to keep an open mind.” 

Notice when students express a curiosity to learn about diversity

Say: “I noticed that you asked, “What kind of guy would ever want to dress up as a woman?” It’s great that you are curious about transgender individuals. I’m wondering, do you know any?”

Create genuine opportunities for students to practice reconsidering their socialized beliefs by sharing examples in literature, history, or your own experiences

Say: “This experience may seem different to us but let’s try to imagine what it might be like. Can anyone share a related experience? Even though it may seem uncommon, this person sees our normative perspective as different.”

Exercise compassion by acknowledging that everyone is in a different place

Say: “In this classroom, we all have lived experiences that shape and inform our mirrors and windows. Let’s be open to learning new things from ourselves and others.


In closing, whether you are a classroom teacher, youth group leader, or parent, this work can be incredibly challenging. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, we believe that the reward is worth it.

The good news is that we are not alone. Many, many great educators are already doing it. Below is a list of resources that can help you develop these skills in your classroom. 


Beyond Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance

National Seed Project Curriculum

Everyday Feminism: What is Heteronormativity? 

Article References

For more information on implementing these ideas in your classroom, or to share your feedback, e-mail