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Who we are: Three strategies for creating an inclusive classroom

December 19, 2022

Before opening a textbook or pondering pedagogy, there are several practices that instructors can adopt to set the stage for an inclusive and supportive classroom culture. This is particularly important since many students are struggling to feel a sense of psychological safety after returning to school post-COVID. With a bit of concerted effort, instructors can help students feel at ease in the classroom and motivated to fully engage. While it’s easy to dismiss these practices as luxuries or irrelevant “soft skills,” firmly establishing a collaborative and trusting culture is critical for learning and ultimately, for everyone’s well-being. Three strategies for creating an inclusive and supportive classroom culture are:

1. Learn the names of your students and make sure your students know each other’s names. Use their name when you give feedback on papers, when you engage them in conversation, or see them in the hallway. This is the most basic way to respect your students: It tells your students that you value and see them, they are an important part of the class, and they are worthy of your efforts to learn who they are. If names are hard for you to learn or hard for you to pronounce, let your students know this. Ask them for help pronouncing their names, study their pictures and names in your Learning Management System, and use notecards or name tents as necessary.

Ensure that students also learn each other’s names and how to pronounce all names. Collaborative learning requires that students know each other. Some of this will happen naturally by virtue of where students sit and whom they’ve become friends with, but to really create community, teachers must intentionally introduce students to each other. This can happen through group discussions, casual interactions, project-based learning, or with simulations, activities, or games. You might build these partnered activities into your lecture notes or lesson plans. For instance, ask students to walk to the other side of the room to meet someone new and then ponder a discussion prompt while walking to the water fountain, outside, or around the building. Consider a simple think-pair-share that begins with the instruction to first “make sure you introduce yourselves and talk about your favorite thing to do in the fall.” Myelinating peer networks creates a deeper sense of belonging for students and faculty, which is desperately needed to support learning and the emotional health of the school community.

2. Arrive 10 minutes early and stay 10 minutes late. Use this time to talk with students about anything unrelated to the class. This is not the time to focus on the computer, the screen, or your materials, but rather to enjoy the company of your amazing students. Be sure to share a bit about yourself and ask them about themselves: What are your plans for the weekend? Tried any good recipes lately? An interesting tidbit in the news? New pictures of your kids or pets? Seek their advice and ask them about things that matter. Allowing yourself to be somewhat vulnerable in class models to the students that they are welcome to do the same. Students who trust that it’s acceptable to share their own stories will soon feel comfortable sharing when they don’t know something, feel fearful, or feel accomplished. Spend this time moving around the physical space (but being careful that you don’t come across as “monitoring”), paying particular attention to students who you notice might feel unsure of speaking up in the larger group, or who seem less engaged.

Also, enlist the help of the students during this time: Ask them to start the computer, pass out materials, write the session plan on the board, and/or send a message to the class group chat. If we’re really co-creating the learning experience, lean on students to participate and even lead that process whenever possible.

This practice of opening up may seem counter to how teachers have been trained and certainly, it would be inappropriate to share overly personal details or opinions. Sharing our humanity, however, helps to dispel any notion that we are simply there to transmit information and offers students a foothold as we co-create a relationship of respect. Quite simply, students learn better and engage more fully when they feel a connection with their teacher and classmates. It’s very difficult to relate to the material and the content when we’re not able to relate to each other.

3. Set the stage for autonomy. Make sure that your students know they are welcome to leave the class to get a drink, stand up and walk around, eat a snack, close their eyes and listen, and use their computer or not. Students who are able to learn on their own terms and encouraged to pay attention to their own needs are more likely to develop an intrinsic motivation for learning. They learn how to regulate their nervous system and are more likely to benefit from class interactions.

Be very clear with students that you trust them to know what they need and what they need to learn—during each class session and also during the semester—and that you will support them. Creating a trusting environment in simple ways will extend to more complex things like selecting project topics and exploring internships, job placements, and extracurricular activities. When students believe that their teachers know them and care about them as individuals, they are more likely to take the risk of moving beyond their comfort zone. As much as possible, guide students away from any inclination they have to “do what the teacher wants” and toward developing awareness of their own interests and ambitions.

Trust your knowledge base of biochemistry, statistics, historical figures in ancient Egypt, or whatever you’re teaching. And know that the work we do in the classroom does not require us to master every bit of that content. Students learn best from teachers who are excited about their work and bring this excitement to class. In fact, when we reject the all-knowing professor trope, it can make learning feel more accessible to students and invites them to participate in knowledge creation in the classroom. If a student asks a question you don’t know how to answer, you can ask the class to share their ideas or quickly find answers online and then discuss the merits of the brainstormed responses. And note that this crowdsourcing is much more effective and exciting if you’ve incorporated practices #1 and #2 above.

In their widely applied Self Determination Theory, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan highlight belonging, autonomy, and mastery as essential components of intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and well-being. Reframing teaching as something other than imparting knowledge can help us achieve these goals. Not only does this support students, but also contributes to teacher well-being because we can also bring our full selves into the classroom. Rather than sharing what we know or what we think, we can share who we are. Can we commit deeply to the relationships that form within the class and the school community? Can we let go of compliant-focused, power-based teaching in favor of a classroom environment that is relationship driven, honors each individual, and is built on the trust of ourselves and each other? Certainly, the workforce will demand that our graduates work well with others and are creative, complex problem-solvers, emotionally intelligent, and cognitively agile. A few simple steps can help students be fully prepared to meet these challenges while learning to create a beautiful, fulfilling, and connected life.

Published in Intrepid Ed News on December 19, 2022


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