Teaching Tuesday: Secrets of Civic Engagement in the Classroom

Dr. Tracy Vasquez and Dr. Marjaneh Gilpatrick, faculty

female teacher working with young students in the classroom

Humility, compassion, and respect are three characteristics that educators need to exercise in their practice. While many community members 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. In either case, both strategies are necessary for enhancing our abilities as a school community 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 can be held tactfully in the classroom when students are prepared emotionally and developmentally. While educators should be mindful of their students’ ages and maturity levels, thoughtfully crafted discussion starters can help students process incoming information about their local and global communities.

Some conversations will be better suited for certain age groups. Many of our students may not have opportunities to discuss what they see, hear or what they understand with another responsible and unbiased adult. Processing their thoughts and emotions about civic events, either in oral or written communication outlets, can additionally support students in developing their virtues and in expanding elements of their faith, with the ultimate goal of growing the fruits of the Holy Spirit. 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 colleagues.

Build Genuine Relationships With Your Students and Their Families

Much of the work that can be done to inspire and relate to students so that 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.

Teaching is not simply about disseminating or facilitating information so students can learn. It is important that we remember to show students care and compassion. Be an example of patience, goodness and the other fruits of the Holy Spirit to build rapport with the students. However, do not mistake acts of kindness as replacements for teaching and learning anti-discriminatory practices. One of the simplest ways to do so is through developmentally appropriate 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.

Strategies to build genuine relationships with your students and their families:

  • Find uninterrupted time in your lesson plans or in transition to and from your class to listen to and learn about all your students.
  • 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 and then empathize and seek to understand.
  • Prepare to facilitate Socratic seminars on topics that will lead to a diverse community and democracy.
  • Be appropriately vulnerable and tell them about your life outside of teaching, including the mistakes you have made (e.g., in school, sports, friendships, etc.).

Advocate for the Safety and Social Emotional Development of All Children

As educators, we are in a powerful position to elevate the conversations about compassion, humility and respect. We can advocate for students’ best interests especially when there are children who live in an environment where there may not be equitable extracurricular opportunities and mentors as well as resources for their social and emotional development and well-being. All students deserve to be supported and encouraged and, as educators, we have the responsibility to advocate for all children.

Strategies to advocate for the safety and social emotional development of all children:

  • As an educator, learn more about the social injustices occurring in the United States and globally by reading books or articles.
  • Add the district governing board meetings to your calendar and plan to attend. If public, read the minutes from past meetings to learn about the 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.

Identify Biases That May Exist Across the Curriculum and Part of Your Instruction

Take some time to analyze the curriculum that you will be teaching. Is there a curriculum map that you will be using? 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 such as the Native Nations struggles or the Equal Rights Amendment?

In many instances, teachers, schools, and districts can identify the curricular and instructional needs of their students to determine strategies and resources for a diversified and inclusive learning experience. The same way we can advocate for children in the classroom, we can advocate in the governing board room.

Partner with colleagues at your school site and beyond to discuss the social needs of students. 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 eliminating areas of opportunity that may be present in the curriculum.

Strategies to identify any areas of opportunity that may exist across the curriculum and as a part of your instruction:

  • Partner with an educator 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 a diverse representation and inclusive learning environment.
  • Plan to invite guest speakers or share age-appropriate videos of speakers who promote and humanize social responsibility and the ethical treatment of all people.

Create Consistent Opportunities to Receive Student and Family Feedback

Perhaps one of the areas that is most effective for engaging students and their families is meaningful feedback. The feedback process is most effective when it is student driven. The process can be a 360-degree process that allows students and their families opportunities to share perspective on the curriculum and the learning process. Humbling ourselves 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 the 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 you can teach them how to provide specific, measurable feedback that you can use to further develop your teaching practice and improve professionally.

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 can communicate back to 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 we continue to grow as educators in our abilities to support the whole child’s learning and social emotional development, we sometimes must move outside of our 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.

At Grand Canyon University’s College of Education, our teaching and learning cycle provides a structure for reflection for teacher and principal candidates. It provides guidance based on research regarding the professional teaching and learning process and is grounded in our rich Christian heritage. Just as the teacher and principal candidates personally move through the practices of learning, leading and serving, they also progress through the teaching and learning cycle. By doing so, they are better able to have a systematic positive impact on classroom instruction and student learning. Learn more about earning your education degree from GCU and return each week for a new Teaching Tuesday post.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.