Incorporating Student Identities and Racial Awareness into Teaching Practices

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Reviewed by Clare Fisher


  • Culturally Relevant Teaching: “Teaching that draws on the cultural backgrounds and knowledge of students as assets in the classroom.” Culturally relevant teaching prioritizes three approaches:
    • High Expectations: Teachers provide a rigorous curriculum for students in a respectful classroom environment.
    • Cultural Competence: Teachers encourage students to learn about one another’s respective communities, family lives, and cultures.
    • Critical Consciousness: Teachers address social justice and racial equity in the classroom and engage students on these issues.
  • School Racial Socialization: “Messages to students encouraging positive racial attitudes and understanding the role of race and culture in society.”


Education scholars propose that culturally relevant teaching is beneficial to student learning and development. Academic research has shown that students have better academic outcomes and are more engaged in their communities when teachers incorporate race and social justice concepts into their curricula. The research that provided the groundwork for these findings regarding culturally relevant teaching is mostly based on case studies and qualitative analysis. This work by Byrd aims to introduce an empirically strong study into the research field. Byrd’s study compares classrooms that use more culturally relevant teaching with those that do not by looking at students’ academic outcomes and racial attitudes.

Christy M. Byrd is an Associate Professor at North Carolina State University. Her research focuses on adolescents’ perceptions of school climate for diversity. Byrd’s research also examines the motivational factors that promote student engagement in diversity workshops, courses, and programs.

Methods and Findings

315 sixth- to 12th- grade students from across the United States participated in this quantitative study. 62% of study participants identified as female and 38% identified as male. (Non-binary was not listed as an option.) The study population’s racial/ethnic breakdown is 25% white, 25% Latinx, 25% Black, and 25% Asian. 

The study participants completed a survey that included questions about their academic outcomes, sense of belonging at school, racial identity and affiliation, and awareness of racial issues. The following findings emerged based on the statistical analysis of survey results:

Incorporation of real life examples into curricula (“constructivist teaching”) showed a statistically significant association with: 

1) greater interest in school,

2) greater sense of belonging at school, and

3) greater comfort with people from other backgrounds.

Promotion of racial equity and social justice in the classroom (“critical consciousness”) showed a statistically significant association with:

1) student exploration of one’s own ethnic-racial identity,

2) greater commitment to one’s identity, 

3) greater racism awareness,

4) a decreased sense of belonging at school, and 

5) greater comfort with people from other backgrounds.

Provision of opportunities to learn about one’s own cultural in the classroom (“cultural socialization”) showed a statistically significant association with:

1) student exploration of one’s own ethnic-racial identity and

2) greater commitment to one’s identity.

Encouragement of friendships and interactions with students of other races (“cultural competence”) showed a statistically significant association with:

1) lower racism awareness and

2) greater sense of belonging at school.


The findings from this study underscore the importance of engaging teaching methods that center student identity. Discussion of racial equity through real-life examples promotes greater student engagement with academic learning and personal exploration of identity. Culturally relevant teaching strategies also increase feelings of belonging at school and greater comfort among students of different ethnic-racial backgrounds. Lastly, study findings also show that awareness of racism can decrease when teachers neglect to “balance celebrations of diversity with discussions of historical and contemporary racism.” 

The author shared recommendations for teachers based on the study findings:

  • Get to know your students’ cultural and ethnic-racial backgrounds and use that information to personalize curricula. 
  • Teach students about cultural diversity, even if the teacher’s class has limited racial/ethnic diversity
  • Encourage appreciation for diversity among students as young as preschool age. Teachers should include discussions of current racial inequities and antiracism in their curriculum.


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