Teaching Tuesday: Promoting Civil Discourse and Equal Representation in Education

By Nathan Hollis II

outdoor classroom discussion

Humility, compassion and respect are three characteristics that educators need to exercise in their practice. These traits are especially critical because over the past several months, incidents involving threats to people’s safety and well-being have been at the forefront of many news and social media platforms. Citizens have participated in protests, marches, petition requests and other demonstrations to draw attention to laws, policies and practices many believe need to be changed or altogether removed in order to address systems of discrimination. While many are choosing to demonstrate a civic engagement, others are gaining a greater awareness about diverse social interests and are having discussions across their personal and professional networks. Both strategies are necessary for enhancing our abilities to listen and respond to the needs of students and their families.

Conversations about the civic duties of law enforcement, race relations and social and restorative justice across institutions should not be ignored or invalidated in the classroom. Some students may not have opportunities to discuss what they see, hear or understand with another responsible and unbiased adult. Therefore, to help prepare for returning to the classroom, office or other educational settings in the fall, here are some concepts and suggestions to consider for engaging with students, their families and your colleagues.

1. Build Genuine Relationships With Students and Families

Much of the work that must be done to inspire and relate to students so the teaching and learning process can occur effectively requires trust and a consistent level of commitment. Priding oneself on being a strict disciplinarian usually voids children of the ability to believe that you care about them. This is especially true for many Black, Indigenous and other students of color who are burdened with the direct and indirect experiences of discrimination that cause a general distrust of people in positions of influence, including teachers.

Teaching is not simply about disseminating information so students can learn. It is important that educators remember to show students care and compassion. Be an example of patience, goodness and the other fruits of the spirit to build a rapport with the students. However, do not mistake acts of kindness as replacements for teaching and learning anti-discriminatory practices. This has to be done very intentionally, and one of the simplest ways to do so is through discussion. It is much easier for students and families to engage in civil discourse with you when you have demonstrated a sincere interest in the child’s intellectual and social-emotional development.

Consider these strategies to build genuine relationships with your students and their families:

  • Find uninterrupted time in your lesson plans or in transitions to and from your class to listen to and learn about all of your students, especially your Black, Indigenous and other children of color.
  • Do not dismiss or minimize their feelings or experiences because you cannot relate. If something happened and a student is upset or hurt, do not try and play devil’s advocate. Listen first, then empathize and seek to understand.
  • Prepare to facilitate Socratic seminars on topics that will lead to a diverse community and democratic structure in the classroom.
  • Be appropriately vulnerable and tell them about your life outside of teaching, including some mistakes you have made, whether in school, sports or friendships.

2. Advocate for Safety and Social-Emotional Development

Educators are in a powerful position to elevate conversations about compassion, humility and respect. They can advocate for students’ best interest, especially when it comes to children living in an environment without equitable extracurricular opportunities and mentors, as well as resources for their social and emotional development and well-being. The school year will have its own challenges and adjustments. Although less visible in some settings, civil unrest should not simply be ignored during the continuation of remote or hybrid learning. All students deserve to be supported and encouraged, and educators have the responsibility to advocate for all children.

Consider these strategies to advocate for the safety and social-emotional development of all children:

  • As an educator, learn more about the social injustices occurring in America and around the world by reading books or articles.
  • Attend district governing board meetings. If they are public, read the minutes from past meetings to learn about initiatives, priorities and other details of the board.
  • Join a professional and/or civic organization that demonstrates advocacy for the equitable treatment of all children.

3. Identify Any Biases in the Curriculum or Instruction

Take some time to analyze the curriculum that you will be teaching. Will you be using a curriculum map? Are the topics and objectives being addressed equitable? For example, in addition to learning about the American Civil War, World War II and the Holocaust, is there an equitable time devoted to topics about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, the struggles of the Native Nations and the Equal Rights Amendment?

In many instances, teachers, schools and districts can identify the curricular and instructional needs of their students and determine strategies and resources for a diversified and inclusive learning experience. The same way educators can advocate for children in the classroom, they can advocate in the governing board room. Partner with colleagues at your school site and beyond to discuss the social needs of students and collaborate with school administration to fulfill the identified needs. Also, be sure to attend governing board meetings and advocate for legislature that minimizes or eliminates inequitable representation across the curriculum. By engaging in this type of advocacy, you are contributing to the elimination of any biases that may be present in the curriculum.

Consider these strategies to identify any biases that may exist across the curriculum and within your instruction:

  • Partner with an educator of color in your network or via social media to learn about culturally relevant instructional practices and resources that would benefit the diversified and inclusive learning experiences of all students.
  • Evaluate the instructional time spent on certain standards to determine the level of appropriateness and balance, including instruction on non-standard related items.
  • Refresh your lesson plans to include writing prompts, books, videos and other resources that support diverse representation and an inclusive learning environment.
  • Invite guest speakers or share age-appropriate videos of speakers who promote and humanize social responsibility and the ethical treatment of all people.

4. Create Consistent Opportunities to Receive Feedback

One of the most effective areas for engaging students and their families is meaningful, student-driven feedback. The process can be a 360-degree process that gives students and their families opportunities to share their perspectives on the curriculum and the learning process. Humbling yourself to receive informal and formal feedback comes from building genuine relationships. A variety of systems can be put into place to engage with students and family.

For example, educators can be intentional about creating opportunities for students to share their thoughts about the course content, instructional strategies and their learning experiences prior to the end of the quarter or semester. You can ask students specific questions, not just “How am I doing as your teacher?” and teach them how to provide specific and measurable feedback so you can further develop your teaching practice and improve professionally.

Consider these strategies to create consistent opportunities to receive student and family feedback:

  • Add a section to your weekly homework folders where students and parents can ask questions and communicate with you.
  • Create an online forum or “Question Box” where students can ask questions or suggest appropriate topics of conversation.
  • Send out monthly or quarterly surveys asking about specific items related to the curriculum, instruction, the student’s development and ways they can be improved.

As educators continue to grow in their abilities to support the whole child’s learning and social-emotional development, they sometimes have to move outside of their comfort zone. You can start by reflecting on ways you can exemplify the character traits of humility, compassion and respect both inside and outside of the classroom. Stretch yourself to incorporate current events and developments from your community into your instruction. Incorporate topics on civil discourse to create more well-rounded students who will be contributing members of a democratic society.

Want more? Check out all of the articles from Teaching Tuesday and return each week for a new post. To learn more about the College of Education and our degree programs, visit our website and join in our efforts to elevate the education profession.

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