I was working with a group of teachers recently around building their culturally responsive toolkit.  One teacher was having trouble thinking about how to manage all the different cultures in her classroom.  “I have at least 13 different cultures and languages represented in my classroom.  I can’t manage all of those different needs,” she said.  Others nodded in agreement.

As we talked together as a group, it became clear that the issue wasn’t really about knowing the nuances of 13 different cultures, but about managing the dynamics of a multicultural, multiracial class.

Every class, every group, has its own distinct dynamics, determined by the individuals in it. How many of us have taught the same class to two different groups and had two entirely different experiences?  Still there are some commonalities among groups: all groups experience a period at the beginning in which people are trying to figure out how this group will work and what their position in it will be. All groups have a diverse membership of personalities which influences the quality of the interactions.

Yet, the socio-political aspects of race, class, gender and language often bring up unspoken issues of power, trust, and respect that changes the quality of those interactions, increasing the potential for conflicts, confusions, and miscommunication.

Most of the teachers in our group were concerned about  those occasional “hot moments” when the emotional temperature rises dramatically as a result of some negative interaction in the classroom.  It’s important to remember that conflict is a natural part of being a community. In group formation lingo they call it the “storming” stage of group development.

The trick is to be prepared and not get caught off guard when the inevitable happens.  Here are a few tips for creating an action plan.

1. Devise a set of  personal strategies in advance for managing yourself in the moment when conflicts arise. Know your own hot buttons/biases and what will make your mind stop working.  As the facilitator of the classroom, anticipate what topics might cause confusion or misunderstanding so you can be on the lookout for sticky situations and head them off.  Know how to keep yourself calm and centered so that you can stay present.  Practice when there’s no major conflict.

2.  Before conflicts come up, regularly help students “code switch” by building their explicit understanding of the different ways people show respect, build trust, or communicate within a group.  Explore how words or gestures are used differently between languages or cultural groups.  Have students express what respect and disrespect looks like for them and create an anchor chart for the classroom.

3.  Practice cross-cultural communication with active listening and paraphrasing.  Active listening can sometimes be used to check our interpretation of what’s been said or done –by repeating what one thinks he or she heard, one can confirm that one understands the communication accurately.

4.  Put structures and protocols in place to help manage emotions and process conflicts.  Many conflicts happen because we feel hurt or angry because of how someone has treated us.  These emotions are real.  Don’t sweep them under the rug.  Julian Weissglass, a math educator and school reform activist developed constructivist listening structures like dyads to help students manage the emotions that come up when there’s conflict.

Use structures like the kiva, a type of fish bowl, to help group members share their feelings and hear each other without judgement.  The “Kiva” is taken from Native American tradition. It is based on the belief that, as a community, we have all we need to solve our own problems and answer our own questions.

Conflict management tools are essential in the culturally responsive educator’s toolkit.  The first step is designing your action plan.

So, what does your action plan look like?