At TpT, we’re lucky to have a community of incredibly dedicated educators with a wide range of expertise, knowledge, and experience to share. This month, as part of our Teacher Voices series, we had the chance to speak with Tanya G Marshall The Butterfly Teacher about her ideas for building a culturally responsive classroom.
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What drove you to become a teacher?
I started teaching Sunday school and Bible study, which I LOVE. My late husband strongly encouraged me to become a school teacher because of my passion to help kids. He was so right; I haven’t looked back since!
I’ve been a teacher for 12 years now. For 10 years, I was a brick-and-mortar classroom teacher and the majority of that time was in 4th grade. For the past two years, I’ve been an online teacher working exclusively with English Language Learners.
How has your background shaped your teaching practice and the materials you create?
My Christian faith shapes my teaching practices more than anything else. Christianity is all about loving others (ALL people) well. So relationships are the bedrock of everything I do as a teacher. I want to love others well by including and accepting my students no matter where they come from and by practicing integrity when I create resources as a TpT Teacher-Author.
Why is representing diversity in the classroom — and in education, more broadly — important to you personally?
What we do in the classroom should prepare our kids for what they will do in the real world. And the world is a beautifully diverse place! When schools lack diversity, not only does that stunt the academic and emotional growth of the kids, but it also hinders the professional strength of teachers and principals. That’s why representing diversity in education is so important to me.
When you celebrate and highlight cultural diversity in the classroom, what impact does it have on your students?
Relationships are king in the classroom! No matter how Instagram-worthy our decor or how great the curriculum is, if students don’t feel included and connected emotionally, their learning will suffer.
Celebrating and highlighting diversity in the classroom builds that emotional bridge for students to feel accepted and included. It allows them to be seen and known in positive ways. Not only that, but it naturally builds more kindness and compassion in the classroom among the students. Helping kids see each other as humans first really helps break down the negative walls that divide us.
What steps have you taken — in your classroom or at your school — to improve cultural representation and diversity in the lessons you teach?
I’ve been pretty bold and outspoken about traditions that negatively and falsely display groups of people. For example, when our school’s focus during Black History Month only showcased African-Americans as slaves, I refused to participate and decided to showcase the positive achievements of African-Americans instead. I also refuse to allow false images and storylines of Native Americans only wearing feathers and deer skins while smiling happily with the Pilgrims in my classroom. I want my students to be informed of historical truths about stereotypes surrounding different groups of people.
When I see teachers using February to only teach about Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, and the like with no sincere effort to include Black History in their teaching, I gently and firmly remind them of the damage this is doing to their students.
What are two or three things you do to help your students see themselves in their learning materials, classroom, and curriculum?
One, names are important! It’s so simple, but powerful! Please correctly pronounce your students’ name no matter what. Please don’t give them “nicknames” as an effort to not have to pronounce their actual name. I’ve become even more aware of this issue now that I teach and work with English Language Learners. Many of them feel pressured to change their names to “fit in.” This is a problem that doesn’t cost any money to fix.
And two, as a literacy teacher, I intentionally look for learning materials that feature pictures and stories of people from all ethnic backgrounds. As a widow and single mom, I’m also aware that not all families are the traditional mom, dad, two kids and a dog! I want my students from different family backgrounds, neighborhoods, and cultures to feel included. This also applies to other areas like religion and gender representation.
What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to a teacher who is trying to incorporate more diversity into their teaching practice?
One pervasive and toxic myth about diversity is that it is a one-time “event” or singular unit that is “covered” at some point during the school year. My biggest piece of advice is to dismantle this myth! Diversity isn’t a “unit” that you teach.
Building a culturally responsive classroom can be woven into your daily routines with things like playing diverse music during classroom transitions, making sure your class decor represents diverse backgrounds and family dynamics, filling your bookshelves with reading material that’s also culturally responsive. Food and art are also powerful cultural markers. So I find ways to include them in our class parties and activities.
One common pitfall teachers face is feeling like they don’t have enough time to “teach diversity.” You can easily overcome this pitfall with these tips.
For an educator who is looking to highlight Black History and culture in the classroom, how do you suggest they do so both during — and beyond — moments like Black History Month?
I tend to see teachers stuck on prominent Black figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carver with craftivities that focus on basic facts about these people. One powerful way to highlight Black history is to go beyond these figures to show the amazing things that have been and are still being done by African-Americans in all career fields. This allows teachers (and students) to see that Black History is American history! My students complete book reports, biographies, read information about, and are exposed to African-Americans and Black culture throughout the entire school year.
It’s also important not to treat Black culture as a parody or mockery. For example, as a Black woman, I’ve worn my hair in its naturally curly texture throughout my career. Natural hairstyles on women and girls of color aren’t “costumes.” So they shouldn’t be treated as costumes for anyone else either.
Some educators feel ill-equipped to talk about issues concerning race and diversity in the classroom. What advice would you give to those teachers? Do you have any tips to help them start those conversations with their students?
I completely understand this! There’s so much pressure to be “politically correct.” No one wants to say or do something that might seem offensive. And, unfortunately, a lot of people are easily offended these days.
I remind my teacher friends from all walks of life that everyone needs grace! No one has all the answers about everything and the only way to learn is to humbly engage with others in a transparent way. My advice is to practice the Golden Rule. How would you want to be treated as a human if the tables were turned?
When starting these conversations with your students, remember they are human just like you. For really tough topics, I love to start with a good read-aloud. Don’t underestimate the power in a well-written story. Teaching a potentially uncomfortable topic in the classroom from a third-person perspective really helps transfer the reality of it to a first-person perspective. And there are read alouds that can serve as lesson hooks for these topics across different ages and grade levels.
Are there additional resources, articles, books, or podcasts that you’d recommend looking up on this subject?
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a TED talk called “The Danger of the Single Story” that EVERY teacher needs to see! I also highly recommend two of Brene Brown’s books Daring Greatly and Braving the Wilderness. Although these resources aren’t exclusively geared toward education, they tackle topics related to diversity, inclusion, acceptance, and understanding other humans in a way that will help teachers with diversity in the classroom.
I respect Angela Watson, whose podcast is called Truth for Teachers, for her moral courage to talk about real issues related to race in education. She does a beautiful job explaining how this isn’t just a problem for people of color to solve. It’s a problem for all people. And she gives practical tips for how we all can get involved in real change.
And I recommend Lee & Low, a multicultural children’s publishing company; their blog has several posts with detailed tips about building classrooms and schools that celebrate all cultures.
If there was one thing you wanted other teachers to take away from your story and your experience, what would it be?
I began my teaching career only 4 months after my husband passed away. Our son was only 5-months old when it happened. Because of negative stereotypes ascribed to things like race, gender, socio-economic status, and relationship status, I could be the poster child for “Least Likely To Succeed.” No one with my background would be picked to excel as a teacher.
And yet, I’m succeeding as an elementary educator and writer. Don’t look at your students and colleagues and automatically put them into a box based on what you see. Don’t assume negative things about your students, their parents, your co-teachers or administrators if you haven’t sincerely taken the initiative to connect with them. God can do wonders through anyone! Allow my story to inspire hope for you when it comes to this!
Last but not least — what’s one thing that makes you smile?
Oh goodness, I can’t choose just one! Good food, my morning meditations (with my best friend coffee), and watching YouTube videos of babies laughing keeps me smiling 🙂
I’ve been a teacher for 12 years. I’ve taught 2nd grade, and 4th Grade Language Arts. I am currently teaching ESL online and I love every minute of it! I also enjoy teaching PreK-4 Sunday School at my local church. I still love teaching just as much today as I did when I stepped into my first classroom! #borntoteach Check me out at www.thebutterflyteacher.com.