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Chilean Teachers Responses to and Understanding of Student Interaction with Diverse Peers in the Classroom

Chile’s educational inequality has sparked intense debates in recent years (Cabalin & Bellei, 2013; Stromquist & Sanyal, 2013). While there is a wide consensus concerning the crucial role that teachers play in fostering inclusion in the classroom, research suggests that Chilean teachers, often without intent or awareness, reinforce exclusionary student interactions marked by social class and gender hierarchies (Carrasco, Zamora, & Castillo, 2015; SERNAM, 2009; Tijoux, 2013). Although teachers’ motivation and concern for questions related to exclusion and inclusion in education are spreading, navigating exclusionary dynamics can be particularly challenging especially since teachers’ initial and continuing professional education seldom addresses these issues (Sleeter, Montecinos, & Jiménez, 2016). Informed by literature on social justice education, the legislative framework that regulates exclusion and non-discrimination policies and practices, and empirical research on social class and gender dynamics in Chilean schools, this exploratory study uses qualitative methods (Creswell, 2009) to gain a nuanced understanding of teachers’ understanding of and responses to discriminatory behavior in the classrooms. Two 1-hour interviews were conducted with eight Chilean urban middle school teachers from different gender and social class background. The first interview asked about their understanding of and responses to vignettes portraying social class or gender-based discrimination dynamics in a classroom; the second interview inquired about some of the professional, personal, and contextual factors that may be shaping their understandings and responses. Three significant findings emerged from the qualitative analysis of the data. First, teachers’ “big ideas” of exclusion and inclusion in education appear to be aligned with public policies focusing on non-discrimination, yet this alignment does not necessarily translate into more inclusive practices in their classrooms. Second, most of the teachers interviewed appear to respond to students’ discriminatory behavior based on prior personal experiences, or by the use of a trial-and-error approach, which suggests a lack of professional development opportunities focusing on how to proactively respond to these dynamics in the classroom. Third, teachers’ biographies, personal experiences, and knowledge of educational psychology inform their understanding of and responses to discriminatory behavior in the classrooms. These findings build on relevant literature discussing social class and gender dynamics in Chilean schools, suggesting the value of promoting professional development opportunities to help teachers bridge their understanding of exclusionary dynamics at the macro level with their responses at the micro level.