How do we create more equitable and sensitive classroom settings?

I have turned education scholar Sonya Nieto’s principles of learning  into questions below. If institutions (and teachers) were to use these questions they could serve as part of a practice in holding themselves accountable to a more equitable, multi-cultural, spacious, and diverse learning environment. These questions might be:


  • Is this approach/setting allowing learning to be actively constructed?
  • Is this approach/setting honoring, giving space to, and building on the experiences that students have brought with them?
  • Is there space for discussion/sharing about how individuals learn and what approaches to learning serve them best?
  • How is the context in which we are learning playing a role in the process of education? (This could include personal interactions among participants, geographical location, cultural context of the practice, its texts and their translations (and the cultural context of those translations) and even such things such as climate.)
  • What is the social environment of this group? Of the teachers/leaders involved? Of the students/participants? And what is the culture of this organization/ class?


Nieto offers a number of broad and valuable suggestions for creating more space for diversity in the classroom. She writes (p.108) “the major issue is not to make particular strategies, approaches, or even content prescriptive, but rather to examine critically the environment in which those strategies and curriculum are played out.”  This is similar to Parker Palmer’s idea that to teach is to create space (O’Reilley, 1998, p.1) and to O’Reilley’s stance that to teach is to create radical presence.

Nieto’s (p. 109- 1999) general suggestions for creating this kind of space in classrooms are listed below:


  • Build on students’ strengths (109-112).
  • Seek to bridge cultures and lives by acknowledging differences present between self and students and acting as a bridge between those (112-120). As Nieto points out, part of this, “especially for dominant-group teachers… means recognizing their privilege” (p.115).
  • Embrace “dangerous discourses” (p.120-123). This means inviting discussion about issues, especially ones that are uncomfortable.
  • Allow students to be part of a transformative process (p.123-128). This is related to encouraging student participation in the learning process, in the process of the curriculum creation. Essentially, this means asking students for input and feedback.


There are a number of subcategory suggestions, which Nieto makes—ones that are part of those listed above but are more specific. These include looking closely at one’s one identity and how it exists in the culture at large and in the yoga community. This also includes becoming more familiar with those cultural backgrounds of one’s students. As Nieto points out, using ignorance about a cultural heritage (or capital) is not a valid excuse for not adapting changes to approach. “The assumption [in this case] is that learning is a one-way process in which students need to learn the culture and values of the school [or methodology], but that teachers need not learn the culture and values of their students” (Nieto, p.132, 1999).  However, in order to understand the cultures of others, one must take a realistic look at one’s own culture and where it places one in the larger context. Essentially, this means that teachers look closely at their privileges.

Another subcategory suggestion for creating a more just learning environment is what Nieto refers to as “becoming a learner of students” (p.142, 2002); she writes, “defining the teacher as learner is a radical departure from the prevailing notion of the educator as repository of all knowledge, a view that is firmly entrenched in society.  Ira Shor (Shor & Freire, 1987) critiqued this conventional portrait of teachers vis-à-vis their students: ‘the students are not a flotilla of boats trying to reach the teacher who is finished and waiting on the shore. The teacher is also one of the boats’ (p.50)” (Nieto, p.145, 2002).

This comes back to O’Reilley’s work and to my basic tenet as well: teaching is about building relationships. In relationship we seek to understand one another, to create boundaries, to respect boundaries, and even to push boundaries. Nieto shares the words of a high school student about teachers; I share them here because I think that they are profound and at the heart of any work to make teaching more sensitive to relational and cultural components: “ when a teacher becomes a teacher, she acts like a teacher instead of a person. She takes her title, as now she’s mechanical, somebody just running it. Teachers shouldn’t deal with students like we’re machines. You’re a person, I’m a person. We come to school and we all [should] act like people. (p. 268)” (p.153, 2002). Essentially, we must acknowledge and seek to honor the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of one another, whether we are in the official role of student or of teacher.


This is part of a three part series. See parts one and two as well:

Teaching: Multicultural individuals, relationship, and radical presence!

Creating a safe classroom: Engaging reflection and response

© Traci Childress, 2013.


Nieto, S. (1999). The light in their eyes: Creating multicultural learning communities. Teachers College Press, New York.

O’Reilley, M.R. (1998). Radical presence : Teaching as contemplative practice.Boynton/Cook Publishers, Portsmouth, NH.

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