Inclusion Starts on Day 1: Making Classroom Empathy a Priority

January 3, 2020 Andrea Franckowiak

Over the years, when I have advised freshmen and helped them register, the following situation has repeated itself: as I ask the student to peruse the English course offerings, he/she will state that any section is fine, except for the section taught by the “foreigner,” invariably pointing to my last name.  Once I explain that although unusual, the name is in fact mine, the student usually registers for my section since I have been such a helpful and nice advisor. 

But that’s not really the heart of the problem, is it? Too often our students enter our classrooms with little to no interactions with anyone or anything different from themselves. College, as a place of higher learning, has to tackle some of these implied (and outright) biases head-on. And the best place to start? The classroom. How can faculty  prepare students in our classrooms for the diverse world they will encounter?

  1. Inclusion Begins on the First Day of Class

  • Greet Everyone: First, greet students when they enter the classroom. This sets a precedent – both for you and the students themselves – that this will be a welcoming environment for all. It’s simple, sure, but everyone likes to be welcomed and classroom tone is important to establish early. 
  • Learn Their Names: Next, learn the names of your students and make sure you are pronouncing each name correctly. Taking the time to learn students’ names shows the students they are an important part of your class and that they matter to you. 
  • Get Students Talking: Finally, use icebreakers continuously throughout the semester. Icebreakers are silly, and many times might elicit groans and eye rolls. But you know what icebreakers also do? They promote interaction, bonding, and understanding, which helps with a sense of belonging. Those silly little anecdotes and stories that come from icebreakers? That’s what people remember quickly about each other, helping to foster a sense of personalization between students in the classroom.
  1. Engage Students Equally

  • Stop and Take Stock of Something for a Moment. What types of questions do you ask your students? Observe who is asked what questions in order to ensure you are engaging students equally. 
    • “What” questions require facts for answers. 
    • “How” questions require students to explain.
    • “Why” questions require students to explain more. 
  • Challenge Everyone: Are you asking challenging questions equally to all students? Treating students equally will help them feel included; students will also see how everyone’s voice matters to you.
  1. Little Things Make a Big Difference

  • Be Conscientious in Your Language: Choose the language in your syllabus carefully and considerately. Be conscious about pronoun usage and make sure to emphasize hard work (their hard work) is what is required for success in your course.  (Hard work is accessible to all).
  • Consistent Feedback: Provide early feedback and provide feedback often.  This isn’t just about grades, although current research indicates that low-stakes testing in the first three weeks has a positive impact on student success; it’s about demonstrating to students that you care and are invested in their success in your class.
  • Encourage Problem-Solving & Highlight Success: Problem-solving is probably the most useful skill you can teach students. Encourage them with ways to improve their own problem-solving abilities and champion small successes of students doing well. Be conscious to select all different types of students – shy students, boisterous students, C students, A+ students, etc. – highlighting the success of individuals, whatever the level or moment, can mean all the difference in them feeling included and respected.
  1. Talk About Differences and Share Perspectives

  • Acknowledge the Issue(s): It’s impossible to talk about diversity and inclusion without acknowledging it. Instructor’s primary role is, of course, to teach their curriculum but that should also include tackling some tougher topics, like inclusion, implicit and explicit bias, stereotypes, etc.
  • Create an Opportunity to Share: one of the best ways to make a classroom inclusive is to let students get to know people from backgrounds different than their own. So, create opportunities and assignments that allow students to share their stories. This could range from students talking or presenting on controversial topics or something as simple as sharing their history and motivation for being here in school.
  • Emphasize Respect Above All Else: if students don’t feel safe to share or feel like they’re respected in a classroom then all the inclusive policies in the world are useless. Establish with your students that they don’t always have to agree but they do have to treat each other respectfully. Any derogatory language, aggressive confrontation, personal attacks, and other disrespectful behavior should not be tolerated.  
  1. Demonstrate Empathy.

  • The Cornerstones of Empathy: Kindness and acceptance of differences are critical for us to use with our students and equally important for faculty to role model in the classroom. 
  • Try Some Quick Activities: Students must see how embracing diversity is possible. There are limitless free activities available on the internet that will only take five or ten minutes of class time.

Establishing an inclusive environment doesn’t happen overnight but starting on Day 1 of your class can make it a natural and integrated bedrock principle. The result of doing so are students who learn about and better understand the importance of inclusion, diversity, equality, and empathy.  With a little effort, we can close the gaps in our classroom, improve student success, and prepare students for a diverse workplace.  

About the Author

Andrea Franckowiak

Andrea Franckowiak is an Associate Professor of English at Dyersburg State Community College, located in the corner of Northwest Tennessee. She has worked at DSCC for 22 years. She teaches Composition I and II, World Literature, and the freshman seminar course, both on-ground and online. She is the Chair of the English Department, Coordinator of the freshman seminar course, Director of the Academic Success Centers, which offers tutoring services, review sessions, workshops, and a Midterm Recovery program. Andrea is passionate about student success and the positive impact that well-developed courses and programs can have on students; more so, she loves being in the classroom. Andrea is an educator, a trainer, a course and curriculum designer, a program architect, and a presenter on a local, state, and national level.

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