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Understanding microaggressions: 6 common examples in the classroom and inclusive alternatives

Understanding microaggressions: 6 common examples in the classroom and inclusive alternatives

Microaggressions can happen anywhere — even in the classroom. These interactions can have long term negative impacts that may cause students to feel alienated and even disengage from learning. Creating an open learning environment where diverse voices are welcome and heard can help students understand the power of words and develop respect for others — the foundation future leaders will need.

Learning how to recognize microaggressions and changing classroom language accordingly is critical for teachers. What are microaggressions? They are the everyday, subtle, and often unintentional interactions or behaviors that communicate bias toward historically marginalized groups. Whether a classroom is online or in-person, they need to be inclusive settings free of microaggressions to educate students effectively.

At EF Education First, we see language as a tool for building understanding, so we’ve compiled a list of common examples of microaggressions and alternatives for a more inclusive classroom environment.


Scenario: “Your family is from this place, can you tell us about it?”

Alternative: “Does anyone know anything about this place?”

Why: Assuming that someone represents a specific group of people is problematic because we all have our own individual experience. The assumption may not only be incorrect, but it might also imply that your student is not from the same place as you, which could confuse and alienate them. Instead, open the door for students to share their experience on a narrative level.


Scenario: “You must live in that neighborhood.”

Alternative: “Where do you live?”

Why: Instead of presuming your student’s living situation based on their appearance or background, allow for an open dialogue so they can tell you about where they live.


Scenario: “Are you supposed to be in this classroom?”

Alternative: “Welcome to this class!”

Why: Questioning someone’s presence in a classroom may imply that you do not expect them to be there for various reasons, including how they look, what they are wearing, or the color of their skin. Welcome all students into a classroom before making any assumptions.


Scenario: “Wow, you speak really good English.”

Alternative: Don’t say anything.

Why: Saying this can make someone feel like they don’t belong. We should never make assumptions about where someone is from, how they speak, or their first language. In this situation, it’s best to comment only on the content of what someone is saying, not how they said it. It’s also an opportunity for you to reflect internally about why you might instinctively make this observation.


Scenario: “I see that this project is due on this religious holiday, but no one here looks like they celebrate that holiday.”

Alternative: “Does anyone here celebrate this religious holiday? Please email me to let me know so I can adjust when this project is due.”

Why: Commenting that someone might not fit the part of a religious (or any) group based upon appearances may cause a student to feel embarrassed or uncertain. Creating space for open dialogue will help you get to know your students better and ensure that you do not make anyone feel like they can’t speak up about their personal experience or background.


Scenario: “That ‘problem’ isn’t something that exists.”

Alternative: “What has been your experience?”

Why: When navigating a conversation or lesson plan around history, institutions or the modern world, it’s likely that conversations of “isms” (see our blog on what Dr. Deborah Plummer qualifies as an “ism,” like racism, sexism, etc.) will arise. If you dismiss your student’s concerns about race, ethnicity, or culture, you convey that there is no room for open dialogue or differences in the classroom. It’s better to open up the conversation so everyone can consider other experiences and perspectives.


At EF, we believe that the world is better when people try to understand one another, and education is key to actualizing that belief. Working together, we want to create learning spaces for students where diversity is not only welcomed but celebrated. By educating ourselves and others on important topics like this, we seek to open the world for everyone.