Substitute Preparedness

Substitute Teaching and Classroom Diversity

Learn how to be successful in diverse classroom settings
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Understanding Classroom Diversity

This resource is intended to help you think about and understand the complexity of working in diverse classroom settings and working with diverse student populations. It is also intended to help you make the classroom a comfortable place for all students and help you have successful interactions with students of all backgrounds. It may even help you examine and challenge any assumptions you may have about different circumstances.

This resource does not (and cannot) give you a list of how to work with students from every different background; rather, it is designed to help you learn about some important factors that shape students' lives and how those factors may affect the way that they experience schooling.

Students know when they are noticed and respected by educators, and having an understanding of different backgrounds will help you build that rapport with students.

What Is Meant by 'Diversity?'

In the last few decades, education has grown its understanding of what 'diversity' means in a classroom setting. Previously, attention was centered on race and ethnicity; today, educators recognize that there are many significant factors (including race and ethnicity) that shape how a student experiences school. Students each come with unique identities and lived experiences, some of which have been historically underrepresented, misunderstood, and often devalued in classrooms.

Think, for example, about how society in general, and schools accordingly, have come to recognize the importance of mental and emotional health. Student challenges that were once dismissed or even disciplined are now given proper attention—substitutes who are knowledgeable and alert are able to give students support so that they can be successful in their learning.

As you read through the items below, consider how each might shape the way students experience school. Pause to think about questions such as

  • What do I know about this?
  • What have I experienced in relation to this?
  • What might others experience?
  • How might it lead to stereotyping, discrimination, or misunderstanding?
  • How can increased understanding help me support students?

If you want to learn more about any of these items, you are encouraged to explore the wealth of education resources online on these topics.


Race is generally defined as shared physical characteristics among groups of people, such as skin color and facial features. Race has origins in the mistaken idea that different groups had biological differences, with some races being deemed superior to others races. While this has been proven completely untrue, it carries a serious and traumatic history, and racist attitudes often persist today. Students may identify with one or multiple racial groups.


Whereas race is centered on physical characteristics, ethnicity is a broad term that encompasses a collection of shared cultural features of a region, such as language, religion, food, music, and so on. Some ethnic groups are older in origin while others have formed more recently, often through acculturation as groups migrate and interact. Students may identify with one or multiple ethnicities.


Nationality refers specifically to the national citizenship of a person. Some students may not be citizens of the U.S.; some may have parents or family who are not citizens of the U.S. There are some students who, even if citizens, may identify more closely with the nationality of their family heritage or may be dual citizens in their country of origin.

Immigrants / Migrants

Recently in the U.S., these two terms have been used interchangeably in reference to those who are new residents in the country. Regardless of personal or political beliefs, educators should recognize the reality that immigrant children are in the country through no choice of their own and are accepted into the public school system. In addition to stereotyping, discrimination, and misunderstanding, there may also be challenges with adjusting to a new country, including language, social norms, and school norms.

Multilingual Learners

For many students, English is not their first or home language. In previous decades, this was viewed as a deficit; in current education practices, these students are referred to as Multilingual Learners to emphasize that they are learning not only English but their home language(s) as well. Teaching practices are careful not to punish or shame students for using their home languages, and many schools are equipped with extra supports for these students. In addition to discrimination and misunderstanding, there are other obvious challenges, such as difficulty understanding instruction and materials given only in English.


A religion is a group with a defined set of beliefs regarding god(s) or a higher power. Students may consider themselves part of a single religion, multiple religions, or no religion. Education has grown to recognize this diversity by celebrating a variety of religious holidays and making allowances for religious observances. Understanding various observances can help prevent misunderstanding and bullying, such as knowing that Muslim students may participate in daytime fasting during Ramadan, that Catholic students may have ashes on their foreheads at the start of Lent, or that Jehovah's Witnesses may not participate in the pledge of allegiance.

Biological Sex

Students may experience school differently based on their biological sex. Education has grown in the last few decades to break down barriers that pushed students into certain socially-accepted fields or that prevented students from pursuing their interests. However, social attitudes around biological sex can still affect schooling and classroom dynamics, such as one sex dominating group discussions, or one sex being more recognized for artistic, athletic, or other ability. Students may or may not identify with their biological sex.

Gender Identity

Gender identity is how students identify and/or express their gender. Regardless of personal or political belief, the reality is that students are permitted by schools to express their gender identity and be treated with respect. Particularly with gender identity, there are language considerations to understand, such as the sharing and use of desired pronouns. Students may or may not identify with the gender that corresponds with their biological sex.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation refers to the sexual attraction individuals feel toward others. Classroom issues around sexual orientation are centered on the treatment of minority groups, such as homosexual and bisexual students. In addition to stereotyping and discrimination, these students are often targets of sexual harassment.

Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic status refers to the social and economic "class" of a student. Students in poverty may have a vastly different experience in their schooling than their more stable or affluent peers. This might include issues such as less access to materials, less out-of-school support, and even a lack of having basic needs met (shelter, food, clothing, etc.).

Food Scarcity

Despite being one of the most prosperous nations, there are still many students in the U.S. who suffer from food scarcity. Some students may be more open about this while others may suffer silently. Obviously, students who are not having food needs met outside of school are at a disadvantage; understanding the symptoms (fatigue, lack of focus, etc.) can lead a substitute or teacher to inquire and support rather than assume and discipline.

Housing Transience / Homelessness

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Act defines homeless students as lacking "a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence" (Section 725). This includes situations where households are shared with multiple families due to economic hardship; living in cars, motels, public places, or outdoors; and runaways. There are over 1 million students estimated to be living in homelessness as defined by law. Specific issues can include moving to many schools in a year, chronic absences, lost assignments, and lack of other basic needs being met, including food and health care.

Family Composition

Students have widely differing family arrangements. This includes single-parent homes, divorced parents and custody schedules, multifamily housing, care for grandparents, being raised by grandparents, and so on. Each situation is unique and may present different challenges.

Student Caregivers / Workers

Many students, especially in secondary grades, are asked to fill caregiver roles in their homes. This may mean an increase in absences to babysit young siblings while parents work, or it may mean that evenings are spent cooking and caring for family members. For older students, they may also be asked to contribute to the family economy by working outside the home, which can also affect attendance, work completion, and their ability to get sufficient sleep.


Defined broadly, trauma is any experience that causes a significant and often lasting negative affect on a person's life. Trauma can be physical, emotional, mental, or a combination of several. Common sources of trauma include abuse, injury, the death of someone dear, hate crimes, family dysfunction, and substance use. Challenges are as varied as students' situations, but may include things such as fear or distrust of authority figures, lack of emotion or empathy, intense expressions of emotions, becoming quickly overwhelmed, and committing experienced trauma against others.


Neurodiversity is broadly defined as differences in how people think, function, and behave based on neurological (brain) factors. These are also commonly referred to as developmental and behavior disorders, such as ADHD, ADD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, among others. Students with a neurological condition that affects their learning can receive special education support by law. In addition to stereotyping, discrimination, and misunderstanding, these students face challenges directly related to their cognitive functioning.

Mental and Behavioral Health

Mental and behavioral health encompasses a variety of issues that many students face related to their social, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Challenges include things such as stress management, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Like other factors, understanding can lead a substitute or teacher to inquire and support rather than assume and discipline.

Disabled / Differently-Abled

Students may have physical, mental, or learning disabilities, but it is common today to refer to these individuals as "differently-abled" to recognize that a disability doesn't necessarily restrict a person's ability to accomplish what others can. Students with a disability that affects learning can receive special education support by law. In addition to bullying and misunderstanding, differently-abled students face challenges specifically related to their individual physical or mental circumstances.

Diversity Is a Strength

This resource focused heavily on growing your awareness of different factors that shape how students experience school. It included issues that can arise from differences, such as misunderstandings, stereotypes, and discrimination. This was intended to help you become more conscious of your interactions with students and help you create inclusive classrooms.

However, diversity should not be viewed simply in terms of the tensions that can arise—rather, diversity is a source of great strength in classrooms! It brings a wonderful variety of voices and experiences to learning. It gives students opportunities to build friendships and to learn empathy for those who are different from themselves.

For educators, it is a chance to make every student feel noticed and valued.

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