Promoting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the ClassroomJanuary 12, 2022
By Jana Rausch
Changing school demographics combined with increased national attention on race have thrust “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”—commonly known as “DEI”—into the spotlight. Given that school settings are important sources for personal growth and development, educators have taken a closer look at their approaches to foster positive environments where everyone is heard and valued. No matter where you are in your implementation of DEI strategies, these tips from Milken Educator Award experts on the topic are useful.
Click below to learn from Assistant Principal Princess François-Estévez (NY ’19) on setting up the right structures to promote DEI in a school, Gina Benz (SD ’15) on empowering culturally responsive students, and Dr. Joshua Cole (VA ’06) on how to prepare new teachers to support education equity.
Building the Structure from the Ground Up
Under Princess’ tenure as assistant principal, Brooklyn’s Math, Engineering, and Science Academy (MESA) boasts regular, staff professional development on DEI; a dedicated committee that creates awareness around Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month; and consistently collects feedback from students and staff on how they can improve. But it wasn’t always this way and progress didn’t happen overnight; it has been the result of starting small with interested staff and Princess’ leadership in both coordinating the efforts and allowing her colleagues to take ownership of responsibilities. These have included educational workshops, a book club, affinity staff groups by race, and focus groups on “allyship”—the act of uniting with another to promote common interests.
Princess’ Advice for Taking Action
Start small. Take stock of your staff. Are there staff members interested in putting a cultural assembly or workshop together? Creating focus groups? Starting a book club? Collecting staff and student feedback on their own experiences and needs? One person or a group of people invested in this work can motivate others to follow.
Make DEI a focus of professional development. Any approach to promoting DEI works best if it is embedded in what teachers and staff do, instead of a one-off activity. That way, staff can set expectations and have accountability for meeting them. You can go as far as appointing a DEI director along with a couple of associates. Why not create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals for DEI like you do with instruction? For example, increase your percentage of students feeling comfortable talking about DEI by 20%? MESA makes involvement in DEI mandatory, dedicating each trimester to a particular focus (for example, establishing norms or community-building). Once DEI structures are in place, schools can take steps toward reevaluating curriculum and incorporating learning into lesson planning.
Collect data every year. How is your school performing in its practices to promote DEI? It’s difficult to assess whether the bases are covered unless you collect specific data from staff and students. The MESA team asked staff and students about their personal experiences with feeling included in the school, such as, “Do you feel connected to people of your same race?” Asking direct questions can help you find patterns as well as areas you might have missed. Princess views this process as “eye-opening”; her team had learned that Asians, a small population at the school, felt unseen—which led to programming around AAPI Month and other activities. Another way to obtain data is to conduct an “equity audit”—a comprehensive tool that allows you to rate your DEI practices in categories spanning school culture and climate to teacher pedagogy and classroom management.
Share best practices. Do you have a teacher or group of teachers who are creating a positive classroom environment for all students? Have them invite peers into their classroom to see these practices in action.
Empowering Student Voice
For English teacher Gina Benz in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, writing is an ultimate form of self-expression. So it’s no surprise that she centers her DEI approach around instilling strong reading and writing skills in her students. “I see my work as helping students hear each other’s stories and tell their own,” Gina says. “When we listen closely to each other’s stories, everything changes.” Identifying herself as a “middle-class white woman from middle America,” Gina is keenly aware of her responsibility to learn about her students’ cultures and experiences and ensure that they are represented in her lessons. Gina’s situation is not unique: She is among the 98% of white teachers in her district, while about 60% of the students are white. National trends show similar disparities, which is one of the reasons why Gina became actively involved in her district’s Teacher Pathway program. The program, which provides mentors to high schoolers who want to pursue a career in education, is helping to diversify the local teacher force by recruiting students from underrepresented races and cultures.
Gina’s Advice for Taking Action
Include diverse cultures and perspectives in your lessons. Representation matters. Be intentional and careful in selecting literature. Does it have diverse characters? A diversity of opinions? Put yourself in your students’ shoes: Would they feel included? Would they be able to resonate with the experiences or lessons shared in the texts?
Create a welcoming environment for self-expression and understanding. Words are powerful. The more students read and write, the more confident and assertive they will be in school and life. Help students find their voice through literature, texts and personal stories. Encourage them to communicate their thoughts and feelings and learn from one another. Having a safe space for students to express themselves helps you become a more reflective teacher. “I try to live out the late [educator and author] Stephen Covey’s advice to seek to understand before seeking to be understood,” Gina says. “I listen and acknowledge that my students are my best teachers.”
Enrich your DEI education outside of school. There is a treasure trove of resources to deepen your education of diversity, equity and inclusion. Read books, watch movies, listen to podcasts and participate in webinars, lectures and other local events or activities. (See Gina’s recommendations at the end of this article.)
Developing the Hearts and Minds of Future Educators
Equity in education has been top of mind for Dr. Joshua Cole throughout his career, first as a “bright-eyed, bushy-tailed” 23-year-old teaching in rural Michigan and inner-city Detroit, then as a teacher and administrator in suburban Richmond, Virginia, and now as executive director of strategic engagement and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education.
In schools, Joshua helped lead efforts to address the needs of populations with large transient rates, high percentages of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, and students with learning disabilities as well as supported fellow staff through the process. He brings his cumulative experience to VCU, where he works to develop culturally responsive, critically reflective educators from the outset.
A key way this is done is through the Innovative Teacher Pipeline, one of the Office of Strategic Engagement’s signature programs. The program provides DEI-focused professional development, the opportunity to teach in urban and “hard-to-staff” schools, engage community-based learning, participate in training on pedagogy and practice, and attend a seminar series on how to become an antiracist educator. Joshua’s team is coaching 20 teaching candidates who were selected for the program this year.
Joshua’s Advice for Taking Action
Check your ego at the door. No DEI program will work if your heart and mind aren’t in it. To truly engage in DEI, you need to be open-minded, empathetic and willing to be vulnerable. The first step is to put your ego aside and commit to developing a trust in and compassion for others. Be ready to draw from your own life experiences, but more so, to learn from others about life experiences you haven’t had that will help you in your journey.
Make DEI a priority in job interviews. As you’re interviewing for your first teacher job, ask the principal what the school is doing to promote DEI. Inquire specifics about school demographics and the needs the school is aiming to meet. Is there adequate support to meet those needs? Do the school’s values jibe with your desire to grow as a culturally responsive, reflective teacher? Is there a place for you to take an active role in promoting DEI?
Never stop learning. DEI is a kind of learning that evolves and deepens over time. Recent events have demonstrated that while progress has been made, there is a long road ahead. We need to remain comfortable in sometimes uncomfortable and hard conversations. We learn new lessons and skills, and grow stronger in our resolve to create a nurturing environment for all.
Princess, Gina and Joshua are proof that an individual’s dedication and leadership can have a profound, lasting effect on an issue central to the strength of our national—and global—education community.
“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs teaches us that people will not be at their best for learning if their physiological, safety, and sense of belonging needs are not met first,” Gina says. “DEI creates fertile soil where the seeds of education are not just more likely to grow, but to thrive.”
Get Started: Gina Benz’s Recommended Resources
- “Blindspot” by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald
- “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
- “Stamped” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
- “Enrique's Journey” by Sonia Nazario
- “There There” by Tommy Orange
- “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls
- “The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Code Switch
- School Colors
- Blue Babies Pink
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