Students should have equitable opportunities for learning, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, linguistic or socioeconomic background, ability, and more. What concrete moves can we make to foster an optimal environment for learning, which encourages engagement, authenticity, and respect?
While course design is the first step to teaching equitably, cultivating a classroom climate that fosters learning is an ongoing process. It starts on the first day of class and entails creating, communicating, and managing the classroom norms and conventions in a way that is conducive to learning. The following strategies can help instructors achieve an inclusive classroom climate.
- Set the tone on your first day. Set the tone for inclusivity by providing opportunities for students to introduce themselves, learn about their classmates, and learn about you. You’re all in the same classroom: what brought you to this particular classroom, at this particular time, to study this particular topic? What do you hope to learn or get out of the class? (Note: you’ll have to be open to receiving a variety of answers, including ones that indicate the class is required and they’re simply hoping to get some credits from it!) Clearly introduce students to the course’s learning goals and any methods they should expect to engage in regularly throughout the semester. If your class primarily involves discussion, for instance, then be explicit about discussion norms and conventions from day one. You may even come up with ground rules for group interaction together as a class; these ground rules can live on an online version of the syllabus or the course’s website. The first day is also a great time to articulate how you understand your course to be relevant to your students’ lives.
- Get to know your students. Beyond learning names, ask your students why they’re taking your course and what they hope to get out of it. Beyond asking these questions, find out about your students’ previous experience with your discipline and subject. You may also want to learn more about their extracurricular passions and commitments. You can collect all of this information on index cards on the first day, or you could invite students to sign-up for a brief one-on-one or small group meeting with you at the start of the semester. In any case, encourage your students to take advantage of your office hours throughout the semester. Requiring them to visit you at least once in the first month of the course—even briefly—can be a helpful signal of your availability and willingness to engage.
- Build rapport among the group. Give your students regular opportunities to interact with each other and you. Start classes with an icebreaker or opening ritual or routine to help the group feel comfortable and aligned. You may ask students to take turns leading the opening exercise so that ownership over this part of the class is shared. Throughout the semester, invite students to move around and work with different partners. This movement not only prevents classroom social dynamics from getting stale, it also allows students an opportunity to get to know each other throughout the class’ duration. This variation is especially important for discussion-based classes, or sections that require a lot of pair work.
- Be explicit. Your approach and methods won’t be obvious to everyone, so it’s important to cultivate a habit of explaining and giving a rationale for both what you’re doing and what you’re asking students to do. Slowing down and explaining the process behind your teaching will make the work more accessible to your students—it will likely be helpful for you too! Clearly articulate what students need to do in order to fulfill all of the class’ requirements and to excel in doing so. Be sure to review rubrics for big assignments or exams, for instance, and break down how you’ll measure participation throughout the class. If you change elements of your course during the semester, make sure to keep students up-to-date, letting them know what to expect.
- Be mindful of language. Keep in mind that a lot of language used while teaching is culturally specific. Certain terms or ways of speaking may be alienating to students if they lack familiarity. If you personally feel uncertain about what language to use when speaking about a particular identity or community, for instance, then do some research. Acknowledge your position in relation to the identity or community of which you’re speaking. Don’t be hesitant to tell your class that you’re learning and might make mistakes; be open to conversation and feedback. If you decide to talk to your class about your learning process, be sure to avoid a confessional. This is an opportunity not to air whatever guilt or uncertainty you may feel about your knowledge gaps, but rather simply to acknowledge those gaps and your aim to ameliorate them. You might also share what has been constructive or meaningful for you in your work to cultivate mindfulness around language. Still, acknowledging gaps in your knowledge is vulnerable to be sure. But communicating that you’re learning will signal both that you recognize your limitations and that you’re taking the initiative to seek knowledge for yourself. Finally, know that you will likely make mistakes and be misunderstood at times. When it comes to mindfulness around language, it’s important to operate with a spirit of open-minded curiosity, humility, and goodwill.
- Do an early-semester check-in. How will you know if your efforts to cultivate an inclusive classroom climate are working? Gather feedback early and often. For example, a few weeks into your class, you can ask students to provide feedback anonymously through an early semester survey. Your purposes for conducting this survey may vary, but it’s important to explain clearly what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and when and how you will share with the class what you learn. After conducting the survey, follow up by summarizing your findings for the class. Be sure to explain what you can or cannot do in response to the feedback, and why.
- Acknowledge and respond to difficult topics. Difficult topics come in many forms in the classroom. Some are rooted in course content; for example, a lack of diverse perspectives in the literature, or triggering material, such as accounts of genocide or rape. Some difficult topics take the form of current events that intersect with course content and/or the lives of people present in your classroom; for instance, hostile immigration policies, race-based violence, or pervasive sexual harassment. Difficult topics can also come in the form of uneasy realities related to your discipline – unbalanced gender and ethnic representation, unethical research practices, a history of systematically excluding certain voices, and more. Rather than ignore these uncomfortable truths, take time to acknowledge them. Ultimately you must decide how much of your teaching you want to dedicate to addressing such difficult topics. In some cases, you may be charged with teaching a body of academic content, so taking time to address difficult topics may feel like a distraction from your teaching obligations. The difficulty will be entering your classroom regardless, though, affecting your classroom’s dynamics. Offering even a brief, structured opportunity for everyone to acknowledge and communicate around the difficulty can be helpful. It’s especially effective to work towards linking up these conversations with whatever academic content you may be covering at the time.