Starting the School Year with Inclusion in Mind
Whew! For teachers, administrators and staff, the first few weeks before school and the first few weeks after school begins can be a whirlwind. There are tons of meetings, professional development, back-to-school meet and greets, and the list goes on. And if you are part of the school staff and have children of your own, the pressure to get back on schedule is even more intense!
The good news is you made it to September! You are starting to get the hang of things, and your instincts kick into high drive. Your lesson plans are completed, you have the supplies you need and your classroom is decorated perfectly. Now that you have a minute to catch your breath, look around your classroom and ask, “Is this a welcoming and inclusive environment for all my students?” That’s a question that all educators would like to say yes to immediately. I know because I have been there. As a teacher, I aimed to make sure everyone felt included.
Sometimes ensuring all students feel that they belong is easier said than done, especially if you are not used to looking through the lens of diversity and inclusion. After all, it’s a fact that we tend to gravitate toward people who are similar to us.
We must realize that every child has a unique home life. Some are the children of immigrants, some have learning disabilities, some have biracial families and others may come from an LBGTQ+ family. Promoting inclusion encourages acceptance and helps prepare students to flourish in our diverse world. Here are a few tips you can use in your classroom immediately.
Let’s Start with the Bulletin Board
I absolutely love walking into elementary teachers’ classrooms. They go all out, and you can tell they have spent significant time creating their bulletin boards. And rightfully so. Bulletin boards are one of the first things a child sees in the morning.
However, on bulletin boards, families tend to be presented as white, heteronormative, nuclear families. You can display your love for all your students, including underrepresented students, by positively portraying minority, diverse and/or LBGTQ+ family units. A child seeing a representation of their family on display can make an otherwise unfamiliar environment into something more inviting and inclusive.
You can include different flags for pride month and represent gay and lesbian family units. This can also be a place to break down gender norms. Are you grouping sports images, the color blue, dogs and trucks next to the boys, and cats, flowers, the color pink and hearts next to the girls? These unconscious biases affect children even if their little brains do not notice it.
Creating Allies Through Lesson Plans
A good lesson plan will do more than teach a child how to count; it can be the bedrock for creating empathy or compassion for people they may not have been exposed to at home.
Come up with snappy slogans and sayings that emphasize allyship and self-worth. It is an excellent way to keep them grounded if you see a child doubting themselves or engaging in behavior that only needs minimal correction.
Emphasize qualities that make every one of those children special. Kids have talents and experiences that are worlds away from perfect grades and good attendance. Organize a small talent show or a presentation day to prop up these abilities. It shows kids that worth in school does not just come out of the grade book.
Consider the books you read in class. Some teachers can fall into the trap of portraying diversity through the lens of struggle. Yes, there are inspiring tales of people of all races and ability groups overcoming adversity, but it is also validating to see them going through everyday activities.
Be Prepared to Take on the Hard Lessons
In predominantly white areas, Sesame Street and the occasional cartoon are some of the only exposure these kids get to any minority, LBGTQ+ individual or someone with a disability. Any diversion from the “norm” can lead to bullying. If a boy likes flowers or painting his nails, he might be called “gay.” Children may not include kids of other races in their games or let them play the hero because “superman is not Black.” Neurodivergent kids may be ostracized because they do not act a certain way or are considered “annoying.”
As teachers, you have an opportunity to turn these into teachable moments. If you don’t, you are reinforcing the idea that this is acceptable behavior to not only the bully but the victim. The student needs to see that people with positions of authority will stand up for them, or they risk normalizing this behavior and carrying it into adulthood.
There is only so much lesson plans can do to expose children to a diverse set of backgrounds. Humanize the lesson with family events. Celebrate all families with games, different cultural foods and an environment of casual fun.
Set Your Students Up for Success
As an educator, I know the beginning of the school year can be a bit stressful. We can’t forget how stressful it is for our students, and the stress level could be hard to manage if the students are from an underrepresented background. The reality is for that you are one of the most important role models in that kid’s life. It is a massive responsibility, but it is also a gift that not many people are afforded. Use it to create a class of compassionate children who thrive in an environment of inclusion and belonging.