Simple Steps to a More Inclusive Classroom
Last week, I wrote about some major questions to ask when designing course policies and assignments to ensure they are as inclusive as possible. Today I want to offer a few simple tips for enacting those inclusive policies on a daily basis in the classroom, especially for those still early in their teaching careers. As with my previous post, what follows is not meant to be exhaustive in any way; it is, at most, a bare minimum. I hope, however, that this post might offer a tiny handful of concrete ideas that might be useful in learning how to approach these issues as we teach.
1. Monitor your visual design on syllabi, assignment sheets, PowerPoints, etc.
Having pretty slides for your lecture is great—but having readable slides is what matters. Think about common forms of color blindness when choosing your color schemes, to help avoid confusion. Additionally, make sure your text is large enough and in a clear enough font to be read from the back of the classroom, ideally by those with more limited vision. Making your slides (and other course materials) available for students’ personal reference during the lecture itself can also help in this area.*
*Two things for those saying, “But then they won’t have to pay attention!” One: you cannot force students to pay attention if they don’t want to. Two: chances are everything students need to learn won’t be spelled out for them on the PowerPoint slides. I would argue that it’s better to make these items available to help those who want to pay attention better than to withhold them in some abstract punishment for those who do not.
2. Make providing clear and effective captions for screenreaders part of your classroom practice.
Regardless of whether you have a student with visual impairment in your class, it’s good practice to start including descriptive captions on any images you use—and to encourage students to do the same in their work. If we make doing so a standard practice in our classrooms, it might be more likely to continue in the workplace.
3. Turn on subtitles for any films or videos you show in class.
Whenever possible, make use of the closed captioning feature. Students who lip-read may not seek out accommodations or otherwise make their presence in your classroom known, but it might be more difficult for them to follow films you show in class. (Especially with the less-than-ideal acoustics of many classrooms.) International students may face a similar challenge in following dialogue. Subtitles can help.
4. Face your students when you’re lecturing.
In a similar vein, try to save your speaking for when you’re not facing and/or writing on the board. Being able to see your face can be immensely helpful for some students when it comes to understanding your meaning.
5. Mind your rants about the ills of technology, especially when you have a student in need of accommodations.
On Twitter recently, I saw someone discussing how frustrating it was to be a student whose accommodations allowed her to keep her laptop out when she was in classes that frequently asked everyone else to put theirs away. It singled her out, making her visibly separate. This wasn’t helped by professors that went on at length about the value taking notes by hand when she literally couldn’t.* It’s important to be mindful of those who may not be able to fulfill our “ideal” relationship with technology so that we don’t malign their existence within the classroom space.
*In very bad form, I can’t track down the initial Twitter conversation, as it came from someone I don’t follow. I’m going to keep looking, and will link if/when I do find it.
6. Know how you want to respond to students who cross lines—and PRACTICE doing so.
Many of us have commentary on our syllabi about the importance of respecting other students during fraught class discussions, or about our ability to ask students to leave the classroom if necessary. But it’s one thing to have a policy in writing, and another, far more difficult thing to enforce said policy in the moment. Before entering the classroom, and at various points throughout the semester, it can be valuable to envision what that moment might look like. How will you know a line has been crossed? How will you convey that to your students? When will you simply address the problem in class and move on, and when will you have to demand that a student leave the classroom? These answers may evolve as you move through the semester (and as you move through your teaching career). Nonetheless, asking the questions is a valuable exercise.
Also a valuable exercise: practicing to be ready to handle those moments as they occur. If you know you struggle with confrontation, write scripts and practice saying them out loud. Say them until you get bored with them, and then say them some more. Become so comfortable with the words that, in a moment running high with tension, they come naturally to you.
Ultimately, we as instructors are the primary authority in our classrooms. We aren’t going to get everything right—but when a student says or does something harmful to their classmates’ ability to learn and to feel safe while doing so, it is up to us to handle that situation as effectively as possible in the moment.
7. Learn all of the resources available to help you when you need it.
Teaching is no different than any other area of our lives: we can only be effective if we aren’t so utterly overwhelmed that we struggle to function. Therefore, you should make researching your own options part of your course planning. Areas to consider:
- What is the protocol at your institution for removal of a student who refuses to leave and/or otherwise becomes threatening?
- If you need to call campus police and/or an ambulance for any reason, is there a landline in the classroom available for your use? Or will you need to have your cell phone close by? Do you have the direct line programmed into your phone?
- If you learn information that has you concerned for a student’s mental health, physical health, or safety, to whom can you refer them? Sometimes a student may just need five minutes to rant about their roommate during office hours, which is a resource we can often provide. But sometimes we encounter students with more serious problems beyond our capabilities, and it’s important to know when and how to pass off that responsibility.
- What counseling resources are available to you? For young scholars in particular, the combination of graduate school and teaching can be toxic to their mental health. Do not hesitate to seek out someone who can help you learn to navigate all of the stressors that will undoubtedly crop up. Doing so early, before they become a crisis point, can be utterly invaluable—and will make you a better teacher.
8. Listen to your students.
Creating an inclusive classroom is a process, and one that will look different from semester to semester—and quite likely from section to section. When your students voice a need or concern, listen to them. Do what you can to adapt, and to make your students know that you will treat their voices with the respect they deserve. You cannot be all things to all students, but you can make sure your students have an environment in which they have the best shot at learning possible.