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In light of current events and the social justice awakening, educators need to invest intentional thought and care in their practices concerning racial equity. As students begin to return to school, we have a unique opportunity to create inclusive spaces where all students feel comfortable to learn and grow.

The world has changed tremendously in a matter of months. Students are experiencing the current context in a way that may be difficult for adults to understand. Schools are a microcosm of society, and the impact of the pandemic followed by the nation-wide energy surrounding racial equity touches the lives of all learners. So the questions we face as teachers include: How do we handle this with care to capitalize on the positive aspects of the situation? How might we use our transition back to school as a positive opportunity for all students? Most importantly, what does equity look like for all learners as they navigate these tumultuous times?

The answer to these questions? Reflective practice based on empathy. Empathy is a worthwhile investment of educators’ energies and it may have invaluable results. The better we understand diverse student perspectives, the better we can help them navigate the challenges presented by the world outside of school. The empathetic practice also helps us to create safe and inclusive spaces in our classrooms, offering students an environment conducive to productive discussion and authentic learning.

How do we practice empathy and create inclusive spaces during challenging times?  I have found the following approaches constructive for evoking the perspectives of all learners and for achieving equity through compassion:

Five Ways for Promoting Equity in the K-12 Classroom

Just Listen

As educators, many of us love to talk. Strong verbal communication skills are a part of our job. We also may have strong opinions about current events. I would suggest that students benefit when we stop talking, stop advising, and stop expressing personal opinions. A listening ear that is non-evaluative can mean a lot to a student and communicates how much we value their thoughts, feelings and needs.

With practice and intention, we develop the skill of listening. Tuning in to what students are sharing can help us improve as listeners. Focusing on their communication, and not our response, is essential. Another element of listening that can be challenging during distance learning is attention to nonverbal communication. Student posture, gestures, and facial expressions can tell us a lot about their message. Again, this requires that we focus on the student, not on our thoughts or the next to-do list item. Paraphrasing what students have shared can help us affirm that we have heard and understood their messages.

We can also listen to students by getting to know their needs, preferences, and interests through a variety of tools. Online inventories can offer a quick snapshot of the student’s mindset at a particular point in time and can provide conversation starters for discussions.  

Empower Everyone

Every student who walks into our classroom responds to current events based on their cultural lens. Each learner’s home life involves norms, routines, and values based on the practices of adult role models. When we devalue a student’s culture by forcing our opinions on them, we harm our relationship with the learner. Empowering students means that we invite them to think about their perspective as they grow toward independence from their family of origin. It does not mean we push them to agree with our acculturation and view.

Flip the Switch

Students may be experiencing a high level of stress as they transition back to school. The current events surrounding racial equity may compound their sense of uncertainty, and they may be doubting their safety.  Cultivating a sense of belonging and security in our classrooms has never been more critical. How do we do this? When we observe things going down the ‘negative rabbit hole,’ we can ‘flip the switch’ to the positive as we highlight the potential good in any situation. Focus on progress, not perfection, and point out places where students are demonstrating strength and resilience.

Suspend Judgment

It can be easy to pass judgment on students, families, and even colleagues when they disagree with our opinions. Many recent events are highly polarizing, such as the right way to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and the best approach to police reform, not to mention the upcoming presidential election.  No matter how passionate we are about our personal opinions, it never serves us to judge others when they disagree with us. Doing so can create a wedge in the relationship, which can harm outcomes for the student.

Eyes on the Prize

Teachers and students are in school for one purpose:  learning. This includes academics, social, emotional, and behavioral development. Engaging students and families in shared goal-setting and conveying that ‘we are all in this together’ is a highly valuable exercise at this time. If you turn on the news or log on to social media, it’s easy to find people and groups in opposition. School may be a place where students find unity and cohesion as we all work toward achievement outcomes. A collective focus on learning prepares students for success in adult life and offers a place where we all come together.

When we engage students in a renewed focus on their futures, we must find ways to convey hope and optimism. At times, the world appears bleak, and students may question where they will fit into society as they transition to adult life. We communicate hope when we highlight student successes and identify areas in which we can see they are ready for ‘real life.’ Finding and celebrating the small accomplishments of each of our students builds belief in their self-efficacy. It is also crucial that we foster independence and offer students the chance to surprise themselves with their capabilities. Hope-building begins with a deep understanding of each student and ‘what makes them tick.’ We must base our practice on empathy in order to infuse students with a belief in their future capacity for success.

Final Thoughts

As teaching is an inexact art, we should value progress over perfection. It is the rare educator who consistently applies these approaches throughout daily interactions with students; however, daily reflection about how we engage students — and others — stimulates personal growth conducive to building deeper connections. Enacting these approaches with regularity helps us learn about our students and how they are dealing with challenges they didn’t choose. The more we convey empathy in our classroom, the more likely we are to promote equity for all students.   

Rachel Jorgensen

Rachel Jorgensen, M.A., is a special education teacher and coordinator of work-based learning at Anoka Hennepin Public Schools and professor at Bethel University who has an interest in empowering students through relationships. She is the author of the book Loving Your Job in Special Education: 50 Tips and Tools and current program director for the Teacher Coordinator of Work-Based Learning Program at Bethel University, which is an online program inviting educators to bolster their skills in supporting students as they transition from school to work. Rachel is working on her second book and parenting two teenagers. Much of her time is spent driving them to their activities!