Diversity and Inclusion in Teaching

Even though I was in a biology classroom, it was difficult for me because I didn’t see others like me there. I wasn’t represented in the material, nor was I made to feel represented in the student body. It made it difficult for me to find my place in that space. -TLC Panel Participant

Today, I was asked to participate in NYU Shanghai’s Teaching and Lunching Panel on issues of diversity and inclusion in the classroom. I was recommended for this, I believe, because of my research and scholarship on LGBT issues in English language teaching (ELT). It was an absorbing conversation where myself and two others—one of our academic fellows (a sort of post-doc) and one of our academic affairs staff—discussed the different ways that matters of diversity and inclusion manifest themselves in the classroom and how we as educators should respond to them. The discussion led to a fascinating question that I don’t feel I responded to adequately during the panel, but that I’d like to now in today’s blog post. And, in responding, I’d also like to synthesize what my co-panelists had to say. The question was:

What are some tools that we can include in our teaching toolkits to adequately address issues of diversity and inclusion should they arise?

Take a Beat

One of the things that we discussed is how matters of diversity and inclusion often appear as hot spots in the classroom. That is, they flare up in response to a comment or action that we may disagree with as educators. For example, one panelist shared a story of a time a student argued that they don’t believe that women should be as active in the job market as they are, that they are better suited to domestic life. The student’s response led to a bit of shock for the teacher, shock that could have resulted in a knee-jerk reaction that pushed the student out of the conversation and negatively othered them in the future.

Avoiding knee-jerk reactions means that it’s important to give ourselves a second before we respond. The panelist that brought up this story shared how she felt taken aback by the students’ comments, but that she took a moment to let the initial shock and discomfort wear off before addressing the comments through class discussion.

Taking a beat, pausing for a minute to formulate a response that is respectful to all students in the classroom is vital. Failure to do so could lead to the initial student feeling silenced. Or, and perhaps worse yet, feeling that they will only be acknowledged and allowed to contribute in the future if their beliefs match that of the teachers. So, we must pause for a moment to let the initial little shock pass so that we can reflect, quickly, before we act. Allowing ourselves a second before we respond will allow our response to be more measured and to address the educational opportunity in an adequate way.

Reflect on Our Assumptions and Beliefs

Another common thread from the panel is that we, as educators, must reflect on our deeply held assumptions and beliefs about the world and our role in it as teachers. This reflection is necessary so that we can adequately address our biases and how they may crop up in our teaching. This reflexivity will allow us to interrogate our practice to make sure that we are not silencing those students that may have differing views from us. It contributed to our making sure that discussions of difference remain respectful to all positions that are respectfully presented.

Get Comfortable with Disagreement

It’s important to keep in mind that when it comes to matters of race, gender, and sexuality in the classroom, there will be disagreements about their relative importance to the educational endeavor and even about their importance in society. There may also be disagreement about how we respond to their realization in the lived identity performances of our peers, families, acquaintances. Disagreement is a good thing. It’s so great because it’s through disagreement that we can test out our beliefs, gain perspective, and negotiate relationships and understandings. Instead of dwelling on the discomfort that conflict may bring, focus instead on how to get comfortable with disagreements and how to handling them respectfully—an important skill for our students to take with them as they go out into the world that seems to be increasingly polarized.

Understand that Teaching is not Ideologically Neutral

The act of teaching is ideologically fraught. Even the decision to not engage is reflective of taking some ideological stance. If we keep in mind that we are involved in a task that brings with it a given ideological stance—whatever that attitude maybe—we will be more prepared for the implications of this fact.

For example, deciding not to address LGBT issues that arise in the classroom is not a neutral act. It doesn’t shelter your students from the conversation. So, we must acknowledge our ideological leanings and how they seep into our teaching so that we can make this clear to students so that they can seek additional perspective as needed. Better yet, if we’re aware of our leanings and how they impact our practice, then we must control for it by building other perspectives into our lessons and teaching material.

Representation and Identities Matter

It may seem that teaching certain subjects will exempt one from having to worry about issues of diversity and inclusion. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In all subjects, identities and their representation matter. In the STEM fields, for example, the seeming absence of representation of women of color may negatively impact students that are themselves women of color from engaging with and finding a voice in the field, as is reflected in the opening epigraph from one of the TLC panelists. Likewise, not considering the identity options that our classroom materials make available to students may lead to them feeling silenced or othered by the normative discourses that are reified in these texts. Representation might also be addressed through informal conversations with students that feel under-represented and either a.) learning from their experiences so that we, as teachers, may act as a representative; or, b.) empowering the student to act as their representative in the future.

Meet the Students Where They’re At

As a TESOL specialist that does research and scholarship into LGBT issues in the field, I have a particular view of the world. We all have one that’s based on our professional and personal experiences and our theoretical leanings. It’s important to keep in mind that students are not, nor may they want to be, at the same place as we are. So, it’s important to meet students where they’re at regarding pre-existing beliefs and language to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about matters of diversity and inclusion. It’s important to remember that these conversations aren’t “missionary conversations” seeking conversion. Rather, they’re about creating spaces for respectful dialogues about these matters.

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