Each student entering our educational spaces faces some level of stress. Healthy levels of stress keep us accountable for our actions, motivate us and inspire us to try out for school musicals. Unfortunately, there are equally as many reasons why stress is bad. Whereas mild stressors—such as when to finish your homework—can be motivating, major stressors can be debilitating. For instance, caring for a loved one who has a chronic illness is a serious stressor. Chronic or major stressors are extremely taxing on the brain and the body, especially in childhood when the brain and its response systems are still developing.
This is why culture matters. Culture can be the community that grounds us, the source of immeasurable stress, or any degree between. For children who do not see themselves reflected in the world around them, culture can feel like the one factor that divides them from their peers. Newcomer students face stressors that are unique and without the right supports can be overwhelming. Factors such as language, clothing, even meal options can be the things that not only set them apart from their peers, but in the case of language, can actually create a barrier to acceptance.
Visibly Indigenous students in Saskatchewan have the added pressures of racism and discrimination and while the depth of impact can be debated, the reality cannot. The history of the relationship between Indigenous people and the government of Canada is the foundation of the problem but it does not end there. Racism permeates every aspect of Canadian society from social media and news coverage to access to services and level of care. Imagine how hard it would be to feel equal to your peers when you know that reserve schools get 30% less funding per student and a remarkable number of reserve communities live without drinkable water. The only defining difference between the life you lead and access to clean water and adequate education is the colour of your skin.
This is why culture matters in the classroom. There is no such thing as being colour blind, if you don’t see colour, you don’t see our children. However, racism like other forms of toxic stress can be mitigated. When you provide a classroom where students feel acknowledged and safe, you are buffering toxic stress. When you create a classroom that reflects the cultural landscape of Saskatchewan, you are creating a space for Indigenous identity to flourish and grow. Finally, when you treat each person you encounter with the same dignity and respect, you are modelling equity.
Research has left us with two very important messages in relation to stress: stress left unmitigated can reach toxic levels in children which causes deep and lasting structural differences in the brain and it only takes one interested and caring adult to mitigate toxic stress in a child. Culture matters in a classroom and the only way to make it matter in a positive way, is an engaged, equitable and caring adult.