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8 Powerful Ways to Promote Equity in the Classroom

Maria Kampen

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Every student in my classroom deserves an equal chance. 

Agree or disagree?

Responding to the level of diversity in your classroom is more important than ever. But all too often, our education system reinforces the same inequalities it was designed to overcome. 

Actively promoting equity in the classroom helps remove barriers so all of your students can succeed. And when every student has the resources they need, the entire classroom thrives!

We put together a list of eight steps you can take today to build an open and equitable classroom for all your students. 

But first, let’s dive into the what and why of equity in the classroom. 

What does equity in the classroom mean?

A teacher smiles at two young female students as they write in binders.

Equity in the classroom means making sure every student has the resources and support they need to be successful

In an equitable classroom, individual factors don’t hold back students from reaching their full learning potential — factors like:

  • Race
  • Culture
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation 
  • Immigration status
  • Individual experiences
  • Socio-economic status

Equity versus equality

Equity and equality in the classroom aren’t the same thing. Equality means every student gets the same resources and support, which sounds good in theory but doesn’t always work in practice. 

Imagine handing out a math assignment to students. Every student has their assignment, plus a calculator, pencil and paper. Equal, right?

But it’s not equitable. 

To make the assignment equitable, teachers have to understand their students and provide targeted support. This could include helping ESL students understand instructions in an unfamiliar language, providing text-to-speech technology for visually impaired students or giving students with ADHD a quiet space to complete the assignment. 

When you provide these supports for your students, you’re making sure physical ability, language skills and other needs don’t negatively impact their ability to do well.

Cartoon of a bird, monkey, penguin, elephant, fish, seal and dog standing in front of a tree. A man at a desk in front of them says, "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: Please climb that tree."

As Clayton Carr — 3rd grade teacher and member of Prodigy’s Champions Club — puts it:

“I talk to my students and establish what the difference is between equality and equity. Equality is everyone being treated the same, whereas equity is everyone getting what they need to succeed. After addressing that with my students and reinforcing it, I’m able to meet my students’ needs for isolated seating, fidget cubes for stress, or standing during testing, intervention and small groups in Zoom.”

Why equity in the classroom is important

Students are diverse, but our education system isn’t. It often fails to adequately provide for:

  • Students of color,
  • Neurodivergent students,
  • Students living in poverty,
  • Students with physical and mental disabilities and more. 

The 2015-16 school year was the first year in which the majority of public school students in American were minorities. In 2018, 12.6 million children were in families living in poverty. Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted existing socio-economic inequalities in our education system. And in recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted important conversations about racial justice and equality in schools around the world. 

Students and teachers all bring unique perspectives to the classroom, including different:

  • Biases
  • Traumas
  • Identities
  • Experiences
  • Assumptions
  • Backgrounds 

There’s no such thing as a typical student. And if education doesn’t actively work to break down existing barriers, it ends up reinforcing the inequalities that were there all along.

When equity in the classroom is a priority, all students benefit:

“A positive transfer effect of the demand to accommodate students with learning differences may be to disrupt this structural bias and stretch our education systems to support and even foster diversity.” — Jutta Treviranus, Director of OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre

Teachers like you need to be aware of these issues, examine what they’re bringing to the classroom and find meaningful ways to foster equity in the classroom. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 outlines three levels that can work to foster equity in education:

  1. Institutional — What the district and school administration value, and the policies they put in place.
  2. Personal — How teachers engage with the complicated emotional and cognitive processes needed to work towards equity.
  3. Instructional — Any books, lesson plans, assignments or teaching strategies you use in the classroom.

Equity often depends on a school’s culture and leadership, but there are always ways to promote it at a classroom level. 

Let’s dive into eight ways you can start creating a more equitable classroom today, whether you teach remotely or in the classroom.

8 meaningful equity in the classroom strategies

1. Start with yourself

Female teacher with red hair stands in front of a blackboard talking to a student who has their back to the camera.

It’s not just students bringing assumptions, experiences, biases and backgrounds into the classroom.

The first step to building equity in the classroom is to challenge your own beliefs. Of course you’re not deliberately excluding students, but there’s always work to be done that advances equity. 

Examine your assumptions about:

When you’re aware of your own biases, influences and cultural background, you’re better equipped to thoughtfully engage with your students and build equity in the classroom from the ground up

2. Model equity for your students

Whether you scaffold your lessons or reinforce classroom rules, modeling is a tried-and-true method of learning. 

Modeling equity in the classroom can help students see and understand appropriate words and actions to use. 

When you teach, where do you stand in the classroom? Moving around the classroom as you teach can have two major benefits:

  1. It helps you tune in to how students are learning and where they might need support
  2. It moves the balance of power throughout the whole classroom, instead of just up at the front. 

It’s a way of making literal space for students to join in the learning process and encourage them to participate. 

If you have the space, try going even farther and re-organizing desks so students are sitting in a circle or as part of smaller groups. Use flexible seating and have your classroom model the ideal learning process — collaborative, open and inviting. 

Other techniques to help model equity in the classroom:

  • Hold your students to high expectations — Students will only perform as well as you expect them to. Don’t let assumptions based on past grades, attitudes or other external factors color your opinion of students. 
  • In informal and formal conversations, check your assumptions — Instead of asking students how their Christmas was, ask them what they did during their winter break. Keep discussion questions open-ended to accommodate a range of responses and lived experiences. 
  • Don’t shy away from hard conversations — Students of all ages are grappling with the effects of COVID-19, questions about racial justice and other pressing issues. Open space in your classroom to have difficult conversations honestly and empathetically.

3. Be flexible with online learning

Student sits at at desk at home, writing in a notebook and watching a female teacher lecture in front of a blackboard on the computer in front of her.

Remote and hybrid learning have dramatically highlighted existing inequalities among students when it comes to internet access, food security, family situations and more.

You know this already, but it bears repeating: flexibility and compassion can make a world of difference in creating an equitable learning environment. 

Working with families to meet individual needs is essential. Lindsay Guthrie, a member of Prodigy’s Champions Club and computer lab teacher, says:

“We work with each child and have identified the students that are having difficulty with being online or are having technology issues and are checking in every day to see how we can help. We’ve even tried handing out hotspots where we can.”

Whether students are looking after younger siblings so parents can work, working at a part-time job or unable to access a device, work together to understand the barriers they face and create solutions to overcome them.

Some best practices for remote learning include:

  • Deliver a mix of in-person activities and pre-recorded lessons.
  • Give time frames to complete assignments and tests, so students can complete them around their schedule.
  • Work with students and respect their needs. Connect with them to understand their situations and find solutions. 
  • Provide fun video backgrounds or let students leave cameras off. Not all students will be comfortable letting their class get a glimpse into their home. 

Students have their own needs under normal circumstances — and remote learning is not a normal circumstance. Championing your students, getting to know them and encouraging them to succeed regardless is a solid step towards equity.

4. Address inappropriate remarks

Every student comes to the classroom with their own set of biases, assumptions and prejudices. And sometimes they voice them in ways that are inappropriate, leaning on stereotypes and false information. 

Open dialogue is important in an equitable classroom. But part of building equity is shutting down insensitive remarks so every student feels comfortable bringing their whole selves to class. 

When a student uses language that doesn’t follow classroom guidelines, follow these steps:

  • Pause — Stop the lesson immediately to focus on the problem. If you let it sit, any discussion loses its impact.
  • Address — Bring attention to the remark without shaming the student. Explain why it doesn’t promote equity and identify why the statement is harmful. 
  • Discuss — Have a respectful class discussion around the biases and background knowledge that might have prompted the students to make the comment. 

It can be tricky at first, but discussing inappropriate remarks immediately is a powerful tool for promoting equity — much more powerful than calling out the student and passing judgment without a discussion. 

5. Create an equitable classroom environment

A teacher smiles at three students working on a math problem on a whiteboard.

Small classroom changes can have a big impact on you and your students. Equity isn’t just a one-time action, it’s an ongoing process that should be baked into your classroom expectations and procedures.

Hanover Research highlighted everyday ways teachers can promote equity in the classroom:

  • Use random response strategies
  • Ask challenging questions equitably of all students
  • Use multiple ways of assessing student understanding
  • Create classroom rules collaboratively and enforce them fairly
  • Seek multiple perspectives and different answers to questions
  • Show students the why behind how things are done when possible
  • Acknowledge every student’s comment or response, even if it’s incorrect
  • Keep all religious holidays in mind when creating your schedule — not just holidays school is closed for
  • Teach appropriate language around asking questions about other students' cultures. One student isn’t a representative of their entire culture, but they can share their specific experiences

At the start of a school year or new unit, it can be useful to run activities that help students articulate their own cultural backgrounds and understand where their classmates are starting from.

Run a fun and informative cultural chest activity to build an equitable classroom from the beginning. 

  1. Have students bring in three objects that describe them and aspects of their social identity, and put them in a bag or a box. Share your box first, modeling self-awareness and reflection as you talk about your cultural and social identity. 
  2. Encourage students to decorate the outside of their box or bag with images that describe how they believe others see them. Give each student three to five minutes to present their box to the class. 
  3. After all the presentations have finished, debrief with a journal writing session or a class discussion. Ask students if they learned anything new about their classmates or themselves, and ask them to reflect on how their cultural identity influences the decision they make, activities they do and things they believe. 

6. Accommodate different learning styles

A teacher works one on one with a kindergarten student working at a wooden table.

Every classroom has formal ways of accommodating students (IEPs, educational assistants, assistive technology) and informal ways (moving a student closer to the front to help them hear, providing one-on-one support with tricky concepts).

In order to promote equity in your classroom, it’s important to understand your students and how they learn best. 

This can be harder when you’re teaching remotely, but try sending out a survey, connecting with parents and meeting with students individually to get a feel for the needs and strengths in your classroom. 

As Caralena Luthi, a special education teacher and member of Prodigy’s Champions Club, puts it:

“I provide accommodations to students with special needs on a daily basis. I have to think about how everything can be accessible for their needs. I have audio recordings, videos to watch, interactive online lessons, editable documents, live lessons and more.”

In general, some best practices include:

  • Make your online teaching materials accessible. Provide captions on your videos, use synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods for students with varied schedules and record lessons so students can reference them later. 
  • Use different materials and ways to connect students to the lesson. Whether you’re teaching remotely or in the classroom, use a combination of videos, written materials, worksheets and hands-on activities to introduce students to new concepts.
  • Use individual, paired and group activities. When students learn together, they understand different learning styles and learn respect for each other. Intentional cooperative learning strategies give every student responsibility and help them learn from each other.

Accessibility looks different in every classroom, and it’s always evolving. As the director of OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre noted:

“We assign the label of “disabled” when it is either impossible or extremely difficult to conform to standard expectations. As such these are the students that most feel the effects of educational inflexibility. Conversely, they may also be the greatest impetus for greater systemic adaptability, to the benefit of all students.”

Building an equitable and accessible classroom doesn’t just benefit students who need extra support — it benefits every student.

7. Examine your teaching materials

Library bookshelf filled with colorful books

Part of building an equitable classroom is examining the voices present in your teaching materials. 

What stories get told in your classroom? Especially in the humanities and social sciences, teaching materials can often be limited to Western, white, male and middle-class narratives. 

Lesley Pike, another member of Prodigy’s Champions Club and elementary teacher, says:

“I always think about what books I’m reading aloud to my class and what message I’m sending. Does every student in my class see themselves in a book that we read? Can they identify with the problem? The character? Am I exposing my students to new learning? Or am I only showing them what they already know and see?”

Incorporate literature from authors of color and work with your students to examine historical narratives for bias and missing voices — for example, a discussion about the civil rights movement can examine how it intersects with gender equality, immigration and the stories of Latino, Hispanic and Native American peoples. 

If it’s not possible to use new texts or teaching materials, use them as an object lesson and work with students to critique the biases and assumptions they find.

Keep discussion questions open-ended to invite a variety of responses. Write math word problems that incorporate aspects of the different cultures represented in your classroom. 

8. Give students a voice

What better way to build equity in the classroom than promoting the voices of your students?

Every student has unique experiences and perspectives — harness them! Students want and need meaningful ways to voice their opinions in the classroom, so involve them in planning classroom events and actively seek their feedback on what’s happening in the classroom. 

This is especially important when students are learning remotely and you have fewer ways to gauge understanding, engagement and enthusiasm. 

To make sure involvement is equitable, try these strategies:

  • Seek out the perspectives of students who don’t share as much, and make sure that outgoing students don’t dominate. Unequal opportunities for involvement can do serious harm to equity in your classroom. 
  • Find ways for students to offer input in different ways. Class discussions are a great tool, but not every student feels comfortable sharing with the whole class. Set up an online form or hold office hours for one-on-one discussions with students.
  • Implement the feedback students give. When students see that you value their input and take it seriously, they understand that their voices and opinions matter. Where possible, take feedback seriously and build it into your classroom and teaching. 

When every student has a voice in the classroom, you’re well on your way to equality.

Conclusion: Equity in the classroom

Equity in the classroom is a process, not an immediate result. And promoting equity can have a whole host of benefits for every student in your classroom. 

In one OECD study on equity in education around the world, researchers noted:

“Achieving greater equity in education is not only a social-justice imperative, it is also a way to use resources more efficiently, and to increase the supply of knowledge and skills that fuel economic growth and promote social cohesion. Not least, how we treat the most vulnerable students shows who we are as a society.”

Consider the eight steps above and ask yourself: What can I do today to start building a more equitable classroom?

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