In many schools, chronically underserved students, such as those from low-income families or ethnic minority backgrounds, continue to underperform while historically privileged students succeed. The underrepresented students typically haven’t had the academic support they need and doubt their own academic capacity. Since teachers have close relationships with students, parents and administrators, they play an important role in understanding student struggles and influencing change at the classroom, school and even district-wide level.
Here’s how to become a champion for underrepresented students and help level the playing field across your school.
Understand and Embrace Your Role in Equality
Teachers are responsible for establishing classroom norms early on in the school year. This responsibility can be used as an opportunity to create a more equitable environment in which everyone’s needs are heard and met.
It’s not just about setting rules: It’s about embodying these rules and leading by example.
“Students will see if the teacher reinforces these norms so it is essential that the teacher is comfortable with enforcing all such norms of equality,” says education writer Janelle Cox at TeachHub. She explains that teachers have the power to create a classroom where everyone feels safe to share their opinions, ideas and needs without being ridiculed.
This is a fundamental aspect of championing for underrepresented students because it creates a space for students to share their struggles and needs with you, which enables you to help them more effectively.
First teachers must make a point to address their own circumstances around privilege, race and socioeconomic status. How have our backgrounds as students, and later teachers, influenced our current understanding of representation and equity?
High school teacher Julia E. Torres says these are some of the hardest, yet most important questions teachers must tackle before approaching issues of equity. “We all need to do that internal work of wrestling with our own privileges, biases and assumptions about learning and learners if we want our classrooms to be truly equitable,” she writes.
Once the internal process has been started, teachers can then work reduce stereotyping in the classroom. Psychologists Steve Stroessner and Catherine Good provide a helpful framework for teachers that want to reduce this threat.
Many of these activities focus around helping students craft and understand their own identity. For example, moving identity questions to the end of a test, or encouraging self-affirmation by asking students to think about their valued traits, can help students understand their place in the world without the influence of stereotyping.
This was first demonstrated in a 1995 study which showed that black students performed more poorly than white students only when their race was emphasized. “The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.”
Becoming a Teacher Leader
Championing for student rights requires that you step up to the plate and take the lead. The impact of teacher leaders on equity can be seen in an example from Oak Grove School District in San Jose, California.
Here, teachers that were already skilled with classroom technology, like chromebooks, were appointed to teach less tech-savvy educators how they worked. The goal of this project was to make technology more accessible to teachers across the district, thereby closing the achievement and financial gap preventing technological equity.
“We knew from the beginning of the project that our goal was to support teachers as they made the shift from traditional to technology-integrated instruction,” superintendent José L. Manzo says. Having teachers as leaders was key to providing teacher learners the support and guidance they needed.
Another way to take a proactive role in learning equity is to pay closer attention to gifted and talented students of all backgrounds. “Gifted programs that require advanced academic achievement for receiving services create the unintended outcome of under-identifying—and thereby denying appropriately advanced instruction to—some students with exceptional potential,” says Dina Brulles at the National Association for Gifted Children.
Certain groups of students, like those who aren’t academically advanced or who don’t speak English, tend to be less represented in gifted and talented programs because different schools have widely different assessments and qualifications for such programs.
Teachers can work to implement culturally sensitive procedures for identifying gifted students, and can pay special attention to the successes of students from underserved backgrounds. Comparing overall student demographic data to data on gifted and talented students can also shed light on who is being excluded.
Another way to lead by example is to talk to your administrators and district leaders about how equity can be improved. Making a public declaration about the need for equity is key to instilling lasting change, explains Sam O’Bryant, senior director at SchoolSeed Foundation. He points out that in 2015, DC public schools then-chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the need for new investments in black and latino male students.
Such announcements, O’Bryant adds, need to be made publicly in front of an audience, with media included, in order to be effective. They must also entail specific details about how the plan will be carried out.
While teachers might not have the authority to give such a presentation, they can influence their administrators by teaming up with fellow teachers and asking for changes to be made. To find out where support and help is most needed, teachers can play a role in bringing school climate issues to light.
Administrators, teachers, students, and parents should be engaged in meetings, discussions and surveys that assess school climate and safety, says Caroline Waldman at The Alliance for Education. “School leaders should gather and incorporate the feedback of all of these groups in any school climate improvement work,” she writes. The feedback can be used to determine which students are most in need, and what can be done on a school and district-wide level to suit those students’ needs.
Creating a Community to Support Underserved Students
Schools play an active role in creating supportive communities for underserved students. At the core of this community is the teacher-student relationship and family involvement.
California College Preparatory Academy is a great example of this approach. The school focuses on improving the educational and socio-economic opportunities for traditionally underrepresented student groups.
The story of CAL Prep exemplifies that teacher-student relationships are key for helping students understand and adapt to advanced curriculum, says author and psychologist Rhona S. Weinstein. In fact, both students and parents were more receptive to difficult standards when the teacher was seen as a supportive resource for the student. “We came to understand how proactive schools needed to be in building collaboration with families,” she tells research scientist Jonathan Wai at The Creativity Post.
Another way to engage families and create a more supportive student community is to host workshops. Parents and guardians workshops are beneficial for a multitude of reasons, says Gail L. Thompson, Ph.D., executive director of equity at Illuminate Education. These include:
- They help parents feel more welcome at the school, which can make them more willing to participate in the future.
- They equip parents with essential skills and tools they need to support their children academically.
- They show both students and their parents that you care about their long-term success, which can foster mutual respect.
Studies prove that parental engagement plays a major rule in student success. One tried-and-true way to increase participation by families and community members is to involve them in PTA meetings — their involvement can increase equity for all students.
The National PTA sets out a number of tools and tips for engaging families traditionally underrepresented at local meetings. Marketing materials and printable flyers are available in both English and Spanish, which can help make meetings more accessible.
Another resource that focuses on creating a supportive community for students is Classroom Champions. This is helpful for teachers who want to play a larger role in advocating for student equality. The program connects national team level athletes with underserved schools to provide meaningful mentorship to students who need it most. These mentorship programs focus on important skills such as goal setting, leadership and community involvement, all while fostering healthy relationships between mentors and mentees.
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