Back to school: Addressing inequities

Teacher assisting a student who is using a mobile device

Published: May 18th, 2021

Build Flexibility and Resilience for Access and Equity in the Classroom

The 2020 – 2021 school year highlighted global educational inequities. As educators prepare for the school year ahead, addressing these inequities will be a top priority.

Equity is key to creating an inclusive classroom. While equity and equality are often used interchangeably, there’s an important distinction between the two terms. At their core, equity and equality are more than a matter of fair vs. equal. While equality is certainly important, it does not account for the specific needs of unique individuals.  Although both equity and equality are valuable and crucially important for educators, equity should be the ultimate end goal.

A school providing every student with a computer to take home is one example of equal treatment of students. However, not all students may have internet access. To ensure equity, resources need to be allocated so that the student can also get online. Recent research from New Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group found that 15 to 16 million students and 400,000 educators lack adequate internet or computers at home. Keep these numbers in mind as you map out a realistic  journey to equity.

Because equity means offering students the resources that they need in order to be successful, there will be additional work needed on the part of educators and other school staff. Students will need to receive access to anything that they need to address and overcome challenges on an individual and personalized level. Schools that choose to prioritize equity versus equality are creating environments that truly support students by removing possible obstacles or challenges in their path to success.

It’s clear that equity is a key in your back-to-school toolkit. What actions can you take to get started addressing it?

For ideas, listen to Promethean’s Dr. John Collick as he presents EdTech strategies for a fairer world.

Recognize the Need to Create Equal Opportunities for Success

An important first step is identifying the need to create equal opportunities for every student. Simultaneously, take action by recognizing the value and importance of diversity and inclusion. These actions can include three primary pillars or areas of focus:

  1. Providing adequate services for academic and social emotional needs (for students and educators alike)
  2. Professional development and continued learning for educators
  3. Peer based student support groups

All of these adaptations will support both students and their families to ensure a more balanced transition as you think about the classroom this fall.

Ways to Create Equity in the Classroom

Providing adequate services for academic and social-emotional needs should be done on a personalized basis. Ask students and their families what would make it easier for them to be successful at school. Perhaps they need sensory items to help them focus or a special kind of chair that helps with the “wiggles” in order for them to do their work well without distraction. If you recognize that they are unable to get a meal at home, offer snacks and meals at school when possible. Hunger is a large contributing factor to a lack of engagement and learning for lower income and food insecure communities. Ensure that books, posters, decorations, and anything else in the classroom adequately represent both the students and local community.

Encourage parents or guardians to be involved by offering conversations in language that is inclusive. Consider offering solutions for anyone in need of modifications for accessibility and translation. Give both families and students the opportunity to make their voice heard and acknowledged. Do they have the tools that they need to come to school and learn the same as their peers? Are there “learning loss” gaps that occurred during remote learning or the prior school year? If yes, would the student benefit from before or after-school help in a relaxed setting? Create plans to address these areas.

Sometimes students can feel more comfortable advocating for their needs when surrounded by their peers. Are there opportunities for mentorship? Identify those interested in volunteering and empower them with resources, training, and education.

Another way to create equity in learning is to think about how you are grading work and measuring success.  Explore alternatives to giving zeros for work. Perhaps you can offer an accommodation when needed, like extending deadlines or providing students the opportunity to re-do an assignment or project. Note all efforts as successful even if the student did not complete the assignment as expected. Give awards or recognition when possible. This can be as small as telling the student you appreciated their smile or contribution for the day. Feature and or highlight different, diverse, student voices and honor each individual’s experience with integrity and respect.

These considerations may seem like quite a bit of extra work. However, you will quickly find that they can make a meaningful impact on both the engagement and continued participation of students.

Student Support

For many, there is still a stigma around mental health. Educators can work to normalize it by sharing their own personal journeys and concerns. It’s likely you have heard students  express distress or concern at any of the chaos and events happening in our world. For some, there may even be anxiety about returning to school for the year and uncertainty about how to navigate it, especially if they have experienced any hardships in the past at school or at home. When available, offer no-cost online or in-person counseling as means of support. Peer support groups that normalize and equalize every individual’s experience can be an excellent alternative. Offer training in peer mediation so that students are better equipped to handle disagreements. Consider older students (high school age for K-8) and college students (for high school) as moderators and guest speakers.

Are you willing to consider something even more outside the box that can provide tremendous value? Research has repeatedly shown that children in schools who are taught meditation perform better in class and are happier overall. Consider offering classes or segments on mindfulness or meditation basics. There are many no and low-cost sources of knowledge on this topic. These tools in conjunction with mental health resources can make all the difference to those who are suffering. When students feel equally supported, they will likely be more candid and open with their feelings and struggles.

It is likely that students will still be affected by things that they have seen or processed in the last year. Encourage them to speak up about what they are feeling by creating a safe space that fosters listening, respectful dialogue, and learning. Students must feel that they belong. Respond to conversations with, “I hear you,” to show that you value students’ voices and want to hear what they have to say.

Educators can also benefit from the same kind of support when it comes from colleagues. You may find that you better connect with your students when you share your own personal experiences and ways that you have built a supportive community with those around you.

Make Professional Development a Priority

Professional development in equity learning needs to be a priority.  Staff should continue to enhance their knowledge in this arena. This can be made possible through increased training where educators and staff are given resources to enhance their knowledge either virtually or in person. Give everyone the opportunity to ask questions, do research, learn, and grow. These continuing education programs can be made even better when led by in-house staff members of color or those who are differently abled. If it is not feasible to have staff provide ongoing education programs, bring in educators from outside your school or district. Create a library with books, tools, and online articles as a resource. The pandemic highlighted that notion that some educators lacked access to technology and resources. Resolve this concern by offering staff professional development opportunities from tech partners, especially those that offer education for teachers by teachers.

Engage community members in developing and presenting programs. Encourage online collaboration and relationship building between staff members of varied backgrounds and experiences. If you are a principal or superintendent, lead by example. Share a keynote about how you are planning to address inequity at your school. Continue the conversation throughout the year in staff meetings or specialized diversity and inclusion committees or groups.

A final area to consider is your hiring practices. Are the district teaching jobs being listed where diverse  groups that accurately represent the surrounding community have access? Could you change your recruitment and interview process? Look for talent everywhere. Consider candidates based on who they are and the unique value that they can contribute, not just where they got their education.

Create, Learn, and Iterate

Although it may feel daunting at times, educators should feel empowered to do their best to address inequity by leaning on resources, technology, partner vendors, and others in your community. If there is something you need and would benefit your education and classroom, speak up. It’s likely that you are not alone in your request. Transparency is imperative. Admit when you take mistepps, make mistakes, or misunderstand. Acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on. The process of creating equity in the classroom should involve ongoing and continuous learning, iteration, and improvement.

Ask for feedback and suggestions for improvement from students, colleagues, administrators, families, and the greater community on an ongoing basis. You’re certainly aware that 2020 and 2021 were very trying emotionally for many educators and students for a plethora of reasons. The pivot to the unchartered waters of online learning and a “new normal” highlighted the lack of equity for many. Think of this back-to-school season as an opportunity to create a brand new, completely inclusive, and diverse experience where every voice is treated with dignity, respect, and recognition.