Safe Zone

Ways to Foster an Inclusive Classroom

Top Ten Ways to Foster an Inclusive Classroom by Jennifer McWeeny, Ph.D. (April 23, 2012)

  1. Continuously Build Ground for Discussion: Recognize that honest, productive discussions about racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other oppressions do not just happen by themselves. Considerable “ground” must be built amongst the students and between the students and professor before such conversations can take place. From the first day of class, allow students ample opportunity to get to know each other personally and get to know you and how you are as a teacher. For example, encourage students to learn each other’s names and to learn something interesting about each of their classmates. Share about yourself in ways that you are comfortable with and invite students to ask questions about you. Ask the students to establish ground rules for discussion at the beginning of the semester. Continue building ground throughout the semester.
  2. Know Students Have Experienced Intolerance, Oppression, and Abuse: Teach as if you know that you have survivors of hate crimes, harassment, intolerance, prejudice, domestic abuse, incest, and rape in your class, even if you think otherwise. Do not assume that because a student looks privileged that they are in all contexts and circumstances. Likewise, do not assume that if a student is black, for example, that they have experienced racism and/or are willing to discuss this in class. Be aware that many students who are LGBTQ are not “out” about their sexual identity. In addition, be aware that a student’s “race” or ethnicity is not necessarily obvious. For example, just because you are a woman and have not experienced a form of sexism does not mean that other women in the class have not either.
  3. View Oppressions as Structural and Systemic: View oppressions such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism as structural, institutional, and insidious rather than only as explicit harms that one individual commits against another. Start with the idea that we are all guilty in perpetuating these systems of oppression and that we are differently privileged by these systems in different contexts. This approach shifts the question from “Was person X racist or not?” to “What can we all do to expose racism and decolonize ourselves from our racist tendencies and behaviors?”
  4. Emphasize the Complexity of Oppression: Emphasize multiple and intersecting forms of oppression and familiarize yourself with the concept of “intersectionality,” which marks the ways that racism and sexism, for example, change in fundamental ways when they come together in the lives of women of color. Challenge students to think about whether a sexist person is necessarily homophobic or whether a racist person is necessarily sexist. Avoid generalizations in the classroom. Encourage students to accept responsibility for their thoughts and views and ground discussions in particular cases. For example, do not allow the slippage that occurs when a student says “All men are driven by sex” or “All women want to look pretty” just because he or she experiences the world this way. Finally, do not ignore the neutral, privileged identities in discussions. For example, consider the racial characteristics of whiteness, the gender characteristics of masculinity, and the characteristics of heterosexuality when talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia.
  5. Be Mindful of Your Language and Approach: Phrasing your lectures or questions in certain ways can be alienating to some students even if you do not intend this reaction. For example, coming out about your sexuality by frequently referencing your husband of wife or referencing examples that indicate you have a certain kind of class background (e.g. prep school, vacations, expensive cars, summer homes, etc.) can silence students in the class who do not share your background. Using “partner language” instead of “husband” and “wife” can signal to LGBTQ students that you are aware of perspectives that are not backed by cultural norms and standards and that you are supportive of them. Likewise, asking questions like “Does racism exist in contemporary America?” can signal to students of color that you are, at the start, questioning their experience. Consider beginning instead with concrete examples of racism and asking, “How can we address this problem?”
  6. Attend to Whose Voices are Represented in Each Class: Be aware of who is speaking on each topic. For example, are most of the students speaking about sexism male? Are most of the students speaking about racism white? Consider sharing your observations about the dynamics of representation with the class and use this as a teaching moment. Aim for a goal of having every student speak every class and figure out ways to bring this about.
  7. Be Attentive to Non-Verbal Dynamics: Be attentive to the body language and expressions of individual students as well as to the group dynamics. Be aware of side conversations, giggling, or cellular phone use during serious discussions. Students often interpret their classmates’ side comments or lack of attention as dismissal or condemnation. At the same time, many students use avoidance strategies or otherwise displace resistance during serious discussions as modes of denial. Consider whether any students are being “silenced” by the content or manner of the discussion. Provide opportunities to check in with students one-on-one in office hours, journal assignments, or surveys about the group dynamics.
  8. Model Authentic Behavior for Students: Be explicit with your students about what you are trying to accomplish in your pedagogy and about where your strategies did not work as you expected them to. Do not ignore difficult issues, because you are uncomfortable with them and you assume that students will be too. Silence has the potential to be just as hurtful as explicit intolerance. Be prepared for a situation where you become embarrassed or uncomfortable in class. See these situations as teaching moments, rather than as causes for embarrassment. Let the students know that you are learning about these issues too. Do not be afraid to include anecdotes about your personal life to the degree that you are comfortable doing so.
  9. Take Students Seriously and Avoid Defensive Behavior: If a student raises a concern that you or another student have said something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., in class, listen to the student and take what she or he has to say very seriously, even if her or his comments seem to you to be unfounded. We are all differentially positioned in systems of privilege and therefore we all have a lot to learn from each other about oppressions. Be honest with the student about how you are understanding her or his perspective and take time to think about the student’s concerns. Consult with other faculty members about the situation and ask the student how she or he would like to move forward. Do not become defensive or accusatory of the student.
  10. Ensure Adequate Support for Yourself: Remember that teaching about oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, rape, and hate crimes is not easy for anyone, even specialists in the field. Make time to prepare yourself mentally for these days and give yourself time to unwind emotionally. Get a good night’s sleep, eat well, and consider exercise to release some of the difficult conversations from your body. Consider forming a group with other faculty members who teach on these topics so that you have people with whom to discuss your experiences. Remember that if you are emotionally exhausted that you will be less able to help students.