Prejudice in the Classroom

Students come into your class from diverse backgrounds and they all have prejudices. As you teach, you will witness these prejudices surfacing and sometimes even causing problems within your class or the school. It is your job to keep your classroom as prejudice-free as possible. Prohibit stereotypes and put-downs in your class, and set an example by making sure that you do not rely on stereotypes either.

Your Reaction Sets the Tone

The first clue that students have to your staunch attitude against prejudice should be your initial reaction to any stereotypical or prejudicial statements. For example, if a student says something derogatory about immigrants, your reaction should be firm, swift, and forceful.

This does not mean that you should yell or become uncontrollable. Instead, with a serious expression, stare at the student in question and say something such as, “That type of speech is not allowed in this classroom.” You will have an impact.

While your reaction should be swift and firm, it should be fair. Unless a student has a history of inappropriate speech, you should assume that an expression of prejudice is a mistake and she did not realize the implications of her words. Use this opportunity to teach your students why the statement was inappropriate.

You need to be quick to stop offensive speech. If it gets out of hand, there will be hurt feelings and your classroom could become a battleground. This, of course, is to be avoided at all cost. Your classroom should be a safe haven for all students, and they should feel welcomed regardless of their gender, religion, or ethnic background.

You'll need to realize that elementary-aged children might not understand the full meaning behind their prejudicial statements. They might be repeating something they have heard outside of the school environment. Therefore, an effective teacher should use these moments to help students understand that prejudicial statements could hurt someone's feelings and are not appropriate. If the behavior continues, then further action should be taken, such as a phone call home or a parent-teacher conference.

Freedom of Speech

The older your students, the more likely that they will argue with you concerning their right to voice their opinions. Students often bring up the Constitution and its protection of free speech. Point out that they do have the protection of the Constitution, but according to the law, school is a special place. The Supreme Court has said that speech that “materially and substantially” disrupts class is not allowed. Any inflammatory speech against a group should be considered disruptive to the learning environment.

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