Professional Development

Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education: Classroom Culture

1 hour

This module is part of a 4-part seminar. The four modules in this seminar are based on the original version of our Critical Practices publication, published in 2014. Learning for Justice released the new edition of Critical Practices for Social Justice Education in 2023. The new edition is informed by the current social and political landscape, and it acknowledges the ways educators have been challenged by increased political scrutiny, censorship and debate about what can be taught in schools. Please stay tuned for updated professional development resources around this publication.

You need:

  • ability to access audio and video on your device;
  • pen and paper;
  • your lesson book for reference throughout;
  • and about one hour.


Culture refers to a wide range of identity and community characteristics. Culturally responsive pedagogy engages identities and identity issues across all groups and communities: gender, ability/disability, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, language and nationality.

Culturally responsive classroom culture exists when classrooms are safe spaces where students are seen, valued, cared for and respected as their full selves.

In looking more directly at classroom culture, we must keep in mind that culturally responsive pedagogy:

  • allows all students to be their full selves.
  • asks teachers to lead by example in matters of respect and inclusivity.
  • encourages both students and teachers to speak up against bias, bullying and exclusion.
  • encourages deep exploration of complex and challenging issues.
  • ensures that everyone’s voices and participation are valued.
  • recommends teachers and students both participate actively in teaching and learning.
  • values respect, diversity and equity.

In this professional development, learners will:

  • Identify thoughtful classroom setup and structure that honor student experience
  • Establish norms for shared inquiry and dialogue
  • Establish how to create social-emotional learning safety in the classroom
  • Analyze behavior management practice to ensure value-based components

Learn More:

Think about a classroom that makes you feel safe.

List five to 10 characteristics of that classroom.

Think about a classroom that makes you feel unsafe.

List five to 10 characteristics of that classroom.

 Working in a cohort? Share your lists with a partner.

Honoring Student Experience:

Let’s begin by looking specifically at honoring student experience.  A culture that honors student experience includes the following:

  • A sense of openness and cultural humility
  • An asset-based view of youth, groups or experiences that may be unfamiliar
  • A commitment to avoiding and challenging stereotypes
  • A willingness to let students define their own identities

One way of honoring student experience is to have students share their own stories and experiences.

Teacher Amber Makaiau facilitates a discussion with her students about “being local.” How does the activity in the video honor student experience? Which of the four elements of this practice (listed above) are demonstrated in the classroom exercise?

Go Deeper:

Another way to make room for students to talk about their experiences is to talk about yours. There is great power in the authentic, thoughtful sharing of personal anecdotes by teachers. Choose stories carefully, keep them relatively brief and communicate them at a level that invites appropriate student sharing.

Imagine you are teaching a lesson on gender messages using “Jerrie Mock” by Tamera Bryant from the Perspectives text library. To help illustrate the lesson, share with your students a time when you were personally impacted (positively or negatively) by society’s ideas about gender.


Think about a time you were personally impacted (positively or negatively) by society’s ideas about gender. Write down as many key details as you remember. Look at your upcoming lesson plans, and determine when you can incorporate telling this story to your students. Write one to two questions that encourage students to share stories related to the same theme.

Classroom Setup and Structure:

The next segment looks at classroom setup and structure. 

Keep your students and the following consideration points in mind when arranging your classroom:

  • Inclusions of multicultural images
  • Arrangement of furniture and supplies that supports collaboration, fosters dialogue and encourages student ownership and comfort


One way to increase consciousness of your classroom surroundings is taking an inventory of how the room is decorated. 

Watch Amber's video a second time; focus on the images displayed throughout the classroom. Consider race, ethnicity, language, nationality, gender, ability/disability, religion, family structure, age and environment/surroundings as you watch.


Using the inventory sheet, do a physical or mental scan of your classroom and school building. 

Look for images representing race, ethnicity, language, nationality, gender, ability/disability, religion, family structure, age and environment/surroundings. Are images displayed inclusive of multiple groups in each category? How does your classroom compare to the school environment? Which groups are underrepresented? Which groups are overrepresented? What can be done to include more groups?

Shared Inquiry and Dialogue:

The next piece will look specifically at shared inquiry and dialogue. A classroom that bases itself on shared inquiry and dialogue has five main components:

1. Listening: deeply listening to what others say and to the feelings, experiences and wisdom behind what they say

2. Respect: trusting the integrity of others, believing they have the right to their own opinions (even when different from your own), and valuing them enough to risk sharing your own ideas

3. Humility: recognizing that our own ideas and opinions are only a part of the story and that other people may have access to pieces of the puzzle that we don’t know about

4. Voice: speaking the truth as we see it and asking questions about things we don’t know or understand—particularly on topics related to identity, difference, power and justice

5. Trust: building a safe environment to try on new ideas and work through the conflicts, controversy and “ouch moments” that often arise in talking about difficult topics


Diving further into your analysis of shared inquiry and dialogue by looking at participation norms within a classroom. For example: How do we communicate with one another? How well do we listen to each other? While watching this video, list in the right column examples of how the teacher includes the five components above.


Think about inquiry and dialogue in your classroom. Take a minute to review the five components of shared inquiry and dialogue. 

With each component in mind, brainstorm ways to encourage participation from your students. In the right column, list at least one option for each component.

Social and Emotional Safety:

The next segment of this professional development looks specifically at social and emotional safety within a classroom environment. There are multiple ways to create a safe environment:

  • Teach social-emotional skills
  • Actively create positive relationships
  • Practice bullying prevention and intervention
  • Build community
  • Focus on understanding and appreciating differences
  • Engage in meaningful conflict resolution
  • Teach students to challenge bias and exclusion and to stand up for each other as allies

Research shows that students need to feel both physically and emotionally safe to learn; safety includes being free from the threat of stereotypes, harassment and exclusion. Safety is especially important when learning about issues of identity, power and justice. Many of these issues touch students at a personal level and leave them feeling simultaneously vulnerable and passionately invested. Creating a safe climate takes time and work on the part of both teachers and students.


A safe classroom culture (one that incorporates social and emotional standards) requires that teachers engage the “whole child.” While you watch this conversation with Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence recipient Amber Makaiau, look for ways Makaiau addresses social and emotional well-being in addition to academic growth.

Go Deeper:

When reflecting on the importance of looking at the “whole child,” the 2013 CASEL Guide, Effective Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs, is a great place to start.

There are many powerful programs and strategies available to support teachers in building social-emotional skills, addressing bullying and harassment, managing conflict and building community. Here are a few suggested approaches:


Attending to social-emotional learning and school climate helps create the conditions for productive conversation, nurtures relationships across lines of difference and models inclusiveness of all people.

Let’s review some of the most important components of social and emotional safety:

  • Active teaching of social-emotional skills
  • Attention to creating positive relationships
  • Bullying prevention and intervention
  • Community building
  • Explicit focus on understanding and appreciating differences
  • Meaningful conflict resolution
  • Teaching students to challenge bias and exclusion and to stand up for each other as allies

How will you incorporate these components into your classroom routines?

Choose one area to focus on and plan for how to integrate it into your teaching and classroom management. 

 Working in a cohort? Share your plan with a partner.

Values-based Behavior Management:

We now look at values-based behavior management. 

This critical practice asks you to consider five key principles of behavior management that support and model the values of anti-bias education:

  1. Belief in the dignity of every person
  2. Community building
  3. Equity and fairness
  4. Respect for cultural differences
  5. Respect for the safety and inclusion of all individuals and groups

There are many ways to infuse these values into disciplinary practices. All teachers need to build on their own personal styles to design appropriate classroom management systems. Generally, however, there are three primary aspects of this work:

  1. All classes must commit to creating a safe, inclusive community where all students and teachers are respected.
  2. Disciplinary incidents must be treated as opportunities for growth, restitution and community building (not just “punishment”).
  3. Behavior management practices must address issues of fairness, equity and cultural awareness.


Taking a values-based approach to behavior management and discipline supports the community-building goals embedded in culturally responsive teaching. It also provides students with exposure to a system of justice that values all people and seeks to build connections rather than divisions.

There are several strategies available to teachers to ensure values-based behavior management:

  • Student-generated agreements and contracts establish shared ownership of classroom norms.
  • Zero indifference (not zero tolerance) means never letting disrespectful conduct go by as though nothing has happened, but does not require automatic suspension, expulsion or other punishments that take kids out of class.
  • Restorative justice emphasizes building community, repairing harm and restoring relationships rather than simply punishing those who have engaged in misconduct.

Go Deeper:

Culturally responsive teachers shift their behaviors to maintain a values-based approach to classroom management and reduce student push-out. As outlined in A Teacher’s Guide to Rerouting the Pipeline, daily classroom management decisions can help divert students from punitive discipline and establish values-based discipline instead.

Classroom teachers can:

  1. Adopt a social-emotional lens.
  2. Know their students and develop their own cultural competence.
  3. Plan and deliver effective student-centered instruction.
  4. Move the paradigm from punishment to development.
  5. Resist the criminalization of school behavior.


Consider what current disciplinary measures you use. How could you implement the use of one of the aforementioned strategies: student-generated agreements, zero indifference, restorative justice and values-based classroom management shifts?

List challenges you might face in using one of the strategies. Identify supportive allies in your building.

Working with a cohort? Share your ideas with the group.


At the start of this professional development module, we identified our objectives.

Let’s return to the objectives now:

  • Identify thoughtful classroom setup and structure that honor student experience
  • Establish norms for shared inquiry and dialogue
  • Establish how to create social-emotional learning safety in the classroom
  • Analyze behavior management practice to ensure value-based components

Take a minute to remind yourself of key ideas from each objective. 

Working in a cohort? Share key ideas with the group.

Let’s review the critical practices for classroom culture introduced here:

  • Honoring student experience
  • Thoughtful classroom setup and structure
  • Shared inquiry and dialogue
  • Social and emotional safety
  • Values-based behavior management

Take a minute to remind yourself of key features of each practice.

Include an action item that you can/will use in your classroom to implement the practice.

Working in a cohort? Fill in the table with a colleague.

Lastly, let’s expand on your action plan. 

What can you change tomorrow to make your teaching and your classroom culture more culturally responsive? Keep in mind that this change should be something that takes very little (or no) money or outside resources. 

What steps will you take to make this change? 

To help you plan, finish this sentence, “To honor my students’ cultural backgrounds within my classroom culture, I will…”

Identify an ally with whom you can share your plan and who can periodically check in to support your work in this area. Do the same for your ally; be each other’s cheerleaders and advocates.

For continued reflection purposes, consider starting a journal where you can jot down thoughts and ideas as you implement Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education. Remember that this work is not in addition to what you already do; rather, it should frame what you currently do so that you can be more inclusive in your work with students.