Creating a Safe Place in a Diverse Science Classroom

School climate determines the extent to which a teacher can be successful not only in purveying knowledge, but also in positively affecting students’ lives. As teachers we are often thought of as merely instruments used to pass along knowledge, but at every level of education, from pre-K all the way to higher Ed, teachers are so much more. They are role models for students, leaders in the school community. Teachers are tasked with the important job of shepherding students through their youth and adolescence into adulthood. Whether they remember every date from world history or how to solve a specific physics problem hardly matters in the long run. But how they deal with conflict and confrontation, that’s essential. Students need to be taught how to deal with others and how to become engaged citizens.

So the climate in the classroom needs to be conducive to molding students into these active citizens. This means students have to learn how to deal with the diversity of their peers in a meaningful and safe way. Differences need to be celebrated and not singled out. Teachers are left with the daunting task of making their classroom safe for students of all background and cultures.

I am especially interested in how diversity can be addressed in science classrooms, since that will be my domain. Although I come from a well to do Caucasian family, I am also a woman in science. I remember standing in the hallway at my high school looking at the posters on the wall in the science wing. Dead white guy. Other dead white guy. Oh, look, yet another dead white guy. Science is full of a lot of dead European men that do nothing to inspire me. Times have changed, Neil deGrasse Tyson is arguably the most recognizable astrophysicist of our time and he’s a black man. But they haven’t changed that much; I think I’ll probably be dead before the most notable scientist out there is a black or Hispanic woman, but I can dream.

So what do I do about this sorry state of affairs in an urban science classroom? A classroom where over fifty percent of my students are Hispanic, almost thirty percent are black and the rest come from well to do suburbia or an Air Force base. They have all different histories, all different cultures despite all living in the same school attendance boundary. Almost none of them are represented in science either historically or presently. Mr. deGrasse Tyson is the only black astrophysicist I’ve ever seen. The Asian and Asian-American population is fairly high in science, but my school doesn’t have very many Asian students.

The first step is to go back through science and find the odd man or woman out. The names are the stars are in Arabic, so why not celebrate that history with a display on the walls? I don’t know any other examples off the top of my head, but with a bit of research I know I could put together a diverse cast of scientists on the classroom walls. There will be no Einstein quotes or homages to Bohr and Rutherford. My classroom will represent the diversity of the students within it.

Beyond the décor, I will encourage students to engage in group activities together, asking students randomly to answer questions and avoiding the bias of assuming some students will be better at a subject than others. In one class I’m currently observing, a young woman of color is the most competent student. I will admit I might not have expected her to perform so well, so I now make a very conscious effort to not let any biases interfere with my perception of students. I’ll always have judgments running through my head, but they won’t affect how I respond to students.

In addition, I believe in addressing the lack of minorities and women in the sciences. As we go through the curriculum, we’ll talk about the underrepresentation of these groups and even discuss why we think these groups are still underrepresented in the 21st century. Students have a right to understand and discuss why they don’t see themselves in the curriculum and I would like to facilitate that discussion.

I hope that by taking these steps students from a variety of background will feel comfortable speaking up in class and feel that they are in a safe place. I also believe that addressing difference will help prevent the students in my class from bullying each other and hopefully forge positive bonds between them. Although I’m going to be a high school science teacher, I feel these bonds are far more important than any science knowledge I could impart.