Education: Code Switching and Cultural Identity in the Classroom

A former co-worker of mine used to tell a story about how his father forced him to wear a suit on move-in day of his freshman year of college. It was 2004. “You’re making a first impression,” his father counseled.  He was from Ecuador and to him, there was no other way to arrive on your first day.

Most of our office-mates laughed, but I knew it was one of many cultural family practices he was expected to follow at home while navigating being an American teen.

Known to academics as “cultural code-switching,” many Latinos recognize it as a fact of life. Almost instinctively, one begins to move between certain cultural norms to accommodate being a part of several cultures at once. Many Hispanics learn to “master” cultural code switching as it is part of their ever-evolving identity and a means for social survival. For Latino students, it is a strategy developed at an early age to be successful in school, emulating their peers and teachers by adapting to their customs.


Most of us remember teachers who were successful teaching racially and/or ethnically different students. My 9th grade geometry teacher didn't make anyone feel dumb or inferior. Students are, however, aware of their teachers’ expectations and tend to strive to meet them, even if there's a cultural conflict. When Latinos are unable to relate to their teachers, it forces them to overcome the negative stereotypes their teachers carry.

We know the number of students of color, including Hispanic students, increases each year which is why it's crucial that our schools and teachers promote inclusive learning spaces where children thrive. They also must strive to develop the individual self-worth of each child.

That's why I'm sharing these culturally relevant teaching methods that have succeeded in my classroom.

Tips for Teaching Culturally or Racially Different Students

  • Use student culture as a basis for learning and encourage students to share their experiences, instead of seeing differences as negative.
  • Get to know your students. Ask questions. Learning more about your students and their families will give you a better understanding of their perspectives.
  • Don’t make your student’s feel like they need to choose an identity. Many Latino students don’t see themselves as just Hispanic or just American, but a blend. Allow them to self-identify.

Culturally Relevant Teaching Resources

  • Teaching Tolerance features a variety of classroom activities for every grade addressing topics ranging from immigration to racial profiling.
  • Looking for lesson plans and popular readings on building inclusive classrooms? Scholastic is my teaching one-stop shopping!
  • Oldie but goodie Gloria Ladson-Billings explores the importance of using culturally relevant practices in the classroom.

Providing the necessary learning support for all youth requires integrating students’ rich connection to their culture and traditions into the classroom. For any teacher, the task is daunting. But the rewards--raising our minority students' education achievement--will have far reaching consequences for them, their families, and our communities.

Michaela_Pommells-TheWiseLatinaClubMichaela Pommells is an educator, social justice strategist, and co-founder of The Coalition for Racial Justice, a collaborative of neighbors, leaders, and institutions organized to eliminate race-based disparities in Philadelphia. Her greatest inspiration is her husband and three children.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

How do cultural differences affect you as a teacher--or as a student?