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Culturally Proficient Considerations for Religious Students

 students classroom              

This past week, a friend texted me with greetings for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which marks the new year. The text read, “Happy New Year! Going to any crazy parties later?” The text made me laugh, not just because my days of going to crazy parties have taken a serious pause with the pandemic, but mainly because the way in which Rosh Hashanah is observed does not resemble the secular new year celebrations that occur each January. As I crafted a reply to the text, it occurred to me yet again how little we often know about any culture or religion that is not our own. This lack of awareness can certainly cause complications in both social and professional settings, but the stakes are much higher in school buildings. With our much-needed increase in focus on cultural proficiency in the classroom, we still often overlook accommodating religious needs that ensure all students feel welcomed and supported. Consciously making space for religious considerations is key to achieving a culturally proficient environment.

Timing and Awareness               

One of my colleagues tells a poignant story about a wake-up call that changed his practice. On a sunny spring day, he scheduled fitness drills for his afternoon P.E. class and noticed that a teenage boy was looking queasy. He pulled the student aside, who explained that it was Ramadan and that during this time, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. After many hours of fasting, the student was able to attend class, but running around in the hot sun was simply too much. The teacher apologized, and he later told me that he always marked his calendar for Ramadan in the years that followed so that he would not make the same mistake again. Along the same lines, many school districts ask teachers not to assign homework the day before religious holidays so that observant students are not behind when they return to school. In some religions, doing any work on a holiday is prohibited, so students cannot help but fall behind if the teacher does not make accommodations for them. Therefore, considering the timing of how we assign work, as well as how much we assign, is an important step to being more culturally conscious of religious norms. One advisable practice is to consult a culturally inclusive calendar at the start of each school year and mark down religious holidays in our own planners. That way, as these dates approach, we will know to check in with any students for whom the dates have an impact.


When my friend asked me about partying on Rosh Hashanah, I briefly and lightly explained that it was a more introspective holiday, one in which we think about our actions in the previous year and undergo a 10-day process of atonement. I certainly did not hold my friend’s lack of awareness against her, as there was no way for her to know about a holiday that was so unfamiliar to her experience. The blunders we make are often unintentional; nobody can be expected to know everything about a religion they have not encountered. Having said that, once we realize there are gaps in our understanding, we can learn more. Many years ago, a student invited me to a religious rite of passage in Hinduism I was completely unfamiliar with. Before I attended the event, I did a lot of Googling and reading up on what to expect. That helped me not just avoid making any mistakes, but also allowed me to understand what was happening around me. As teachers, we strive to learn more about each student in front of us. When we do a little independent exploration about who they are, we form better relationships that are not just culturally proficient, but also more profound.


A few months ago, one of my students was absent from class. When I checked in to see if she was all right, she told me that her Covid vaccine made her so ill that she was unable to let me know about her absence. I expressed empathy, since my own Covid shot had less than pleasant side effects, and she then shared her vaccine had been administered more than a week prior. That she would still be so ill a full week after her shot seemed highly unlikely to me, but I decided to give my student the benefit of the doubt. Let’s face it: as teachers, we hear a lot of excuses. Every now and then, I hear a justification for being unprepared that brings out the cynic in me. However, whether no matter what the reason we hear happens to be, practicing grace is important in making sure our classrooms are safe and culturally responsive. If a student cites religion as an excuse and it sounds a little off, it is not our job to judge the validity of what we hear. Instead, focusing on how we can help meet our students’ needs engenders a far more productive outcome and increases the likelihood that we continue to focus on what matters: instruction.               

In America, we are understandably fond of citing our various freedoms. Freedom of religion is included in that comprehensive list, but as teachers, we need to go beyond simply recognizing our students’ rights to observe and practice as they choose. We must also work to be continuously aware of their needs and consider how we can support them in a classroom space that welcomes a diverse range of perspectives. The journey to culturally proficient teaching is a never-ending process that we welcome with arms that are open to all. As we move through the school year, further increasing our knowledge and awareness of the role religion plays in so many students’ lives can help us build ever-richer relationships in a safe, inclusive classroom space.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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