Fostering Equity and Inclusion in the Classroom

In the United States, we live in a climate where higher education institutions and organizations have diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism at the forefront of their missions, visions, and strategic plans. However, as a Black academic or Blackademic, educator and DEIA champion, I am not sure I always see institutions and organizations walking the walk and doing the work it takes to live up to those missions, visions, and strategic plans. This piece will offer insight to educators on small steps they can take at the individual level to foster inclusion and equity in their classrooms. 

As a scholar who studies many areas within language, literacy, and culture, I acknowledge the importance of my identities and intersections as a Black, gay male. I also am mindful of the many intersections my students bring to the classroom.

From day one, I tell my students that I can only be myself and encourage them to figure out what they want to bring to our space. Additionally, I share that if I am not having fun, they probably aren’t either. With that being said, here are some tips to creating an inclusive environment in the classroom:

1. Be Yourself (A Human)

While this may seem basic, many faculty and educators forget that it is okay to show all sides of their personalities. As humans, we are whole creative beings, so we should actively resist the pressure to only “act” or “be” a certain way in front of the class. We should let it be known if we are having an awesome day.

We should also let it be known if we are having a tough day. The more our students see us as humans and not authority figures, the more they open up and share about themselves. To clarify, if you are having a rough day, I am not saying to go in with an attitude. However, I am saying to acknowledge that your day isn’t going well, and that you will try your best to leave it at the door and support the course as best as possible.

This practical modeling lets students know it’s okay to have an off day and still press on. Creating this type of space allows for the creation of permission and autonomy that students may use to stay engaged, focused, and retained, not just in your course but also at the institution.

2. Learn Every Student’s Name

No matter how big or small the course is, faculty should go out of their way to identify each student by name. This approach lets students know that we see them and care enough to learn their names. To take it further, I always encourage my students to share their preferred pronouns and/or nickname with me. I also model an introduction so students can use the skills necessary to inform others of what they like to be called.

At the beginning of each semester, I say, “Hello. My name is Dr. Antione Tomlin. You MAY call me Dr. Tomlin.” Then I encourage them to use my same template to introduce themselves and tell us what we MAY call them. This level of awareness creates a space for all to take control and have confidence over their name, identity, and whole being.

3. Ask and Use Preferred Pronouns 

Using preferred pronouns is of the utmost importance, especially within the classroom. An easy way to honor names and pronouns is to ask students how they prefer to be addressed at the start of the semester. Just as you would ask a student their preferred name, you can request their preferred pronouns as well. I do this by asking students to create name tents at the start of the semester.

I encourage them to write their preferred name and pronouns, along with a picture that tells us something about them that they would like us to know. I collect the name tents at the end of each class and redistribute each class after. This helps me remember each student’s name and helps them learn each other’s names too.

I have received such great feedback from students about how this small thing makes a big difference in their comfortability and a sense of purpose and belongingness in the course.

4. Ask “What” not “Why” Questions  

I have made it a point center questions around  “what” instead of “why”. “What” questions create open-ended dialogue and space for conversations to evolve. “Why” questions could create a space of judgment and defensiveness. For example, instead of asking a student, “Why did you do it that way?” I will say, “What is important about doing it that way?” This allows the student to dig deep, think, and respond more insightfully than defensively.

As educators, we should not be interrogating or intimidating our students; we should encourage curiosity and dialogue, and “what” questions do just that. Additionally, as educators, we should be open to responses that are not traditionally aligned with what we expect an answer to be. For example, when I ask a question to my class, sure I have a general idea of what I am hoping for an answer; however, I do not dismiss answers that fall outside of that personal/internal expectation. I often respond to those answers and say, “Oh, that’s interesting, tell me more about that perspective.”

This way encourages dialogue and allows me to see the student’s perspective and how they arrived at the answer they did. This approach reinforces my stance on encouraging students to participate and share and allows for personal and lived experiences to be inserted into the learning space, creating additional opportunities for all perspectives to be heard and honored.

Inclusion and Diversity with Feedback  

Moreover, I will share some of the thoughts from my students in a winter course I am currently teaching. Anonymously, I asked my students to document what I have done to make them feel included and valued in the class. Some of the things my students shared included the following statements:

  • “Very welcoming”
  • “Interacting with students with funny and joyful comments”
  • “Very observant and included students in conversation”
  • “Kind and inviting”
  • “Open conversations and knew everyone by name”
  • “Prompt responses to emails and patience and knowledgeable”

While I enjoyed reading my students’ feedback and appreciate their experience, as an educator, I always continue to look for opportunities to learn and grow. I encourage my fellow educators to do the same. Enhance what is working in your classrooms, and scrap what is not. Continuous improvement is vital, and creating assessment and evaluation opportunities helps us see what needs to be tweaked. So, please, use the tips that work for you, scrap those that do not, and create new ones.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to give a personal shoutout to my students for providing their feedback and experiences as I gathered information to write this post. Thank you, Erin Archer, Corey Ford, Ean McChesney, Jade Nadal, Kaden Noble, and Deasia Warren. I am forever grateful.

Do you have additional tips to add to the list? Or have specific strategies to help academics gaining or progressing in an administrative position? Please share. Feel free to send your responses via Twitter @TomlinAntione so that we can continue this conversation!

Author’s Bio:

Antione D. Tomlin

Dr. Antione D. Tomlin earned his PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and is an assistant professor + Chair of the Academic Literacies Department at Anne Arundel Community College.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusion or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.