Interviews with the Experts: Creating Welcoming & Inclusive Classrooms (Part I)

September 14, 2021

Part I: Brian Johnson (Assistant Director of Learning Design and Development) interviews Maria Akinyele (Assistant Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships)

As a new school year begins, students across the country are walking into classrooms, in many cases after months at home coping with an unprecedented year of uncertainty and trauma. For school communities, it may be more important than ever to ensure their hallways and classrooms are welcoming and inclusive for every student.

Wondering how to achieve this? In 2022, the Danielson Group will roll out an updated Framework for Teaching (FFT), which will feature a stronger focus on topics such as welcoming and inclusive classrooms, social-emotional learning, and culturally responsive pedagogy. Updated components 1b: Knowing and Valuing Students and 2a: Cultivating Respectful and Affirming Environments offer some key insights into the strategies and tactics educators can use to build welcoming and inclusive classrooms. This month, two members of the Danielson Group’s staff will interview one another about these components, explaining how educators and school communities can bring them to life this year.

To begin, Brian Johnson, Assistant Director of Learning Design and Development, will interview Dr. Maria Akinyele, Assistant Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships. Maria specializes in leadership development, culturally responsive pedagogies, and literacy instruction within urban schools. She holds bachelors degrees in History and Women Studies with a concentration in African American Studies from Williams College; a Ph.D. in Urban Education from the CUNY Graduate Center; and a certificate in Organizational Development and Change Leadership from Georgetown University.

What does “creating welcoming and inclusive classrooms” mean to you? Why does it matter?

All human beings have an innate desire to be seen, valued, and heard. In order to foster an effective learning environment, we need to first satisfy that desire. That means considering the needs of every unique human we teach and recognizing what each needs to feel validated and acknowledged. This has to show up in every facet of a school and classroom, from assignments we design to bulletin boards that acknowledge the full spectrum of the human experiences, from 1:1 conversations to broader school culture. When teachers are able to create welcoming and inclusive classrooms that affirm each child’s humanity FIRST, that is when great academic things can happen.

Why is component 1b – Knowing and Valuing Students – an important precursor to creating welcoming and inclusive classrooms?

Being able to demonstrate knowledge of our students is the foundation for academic and social-emotional success. In a highly effective classroom, it should drive not only relationship building but also lesson planning. If an educator can understand the unique identities, strengths, and challenges that each student brings into their space, they can use that knowledge to create a classroom that is fully supportive of every student’s learning needs. The more we know about the full identity of our students the more we are able to design a learning experience that reaches everyone and seamlessly ties together social-emotional and academic progress.

What are some key strategies for prioritizing component 1b across an entire school community? In other words, how can administrators support this?

At a school level, the best thing an administrator can do to facilitate component 1b is give educators time. Give them time to prioritize investigative learning where they can gather information about students, work independently to use what they know and value about students to structure their curriculum and lessons, and engage in professional learning to discuss and reflect on what they’ve observed. Do not make the assumption that the typical school day allows for this type of deep, focused work. It usually doesn’t. Demonstrate this is a school-wide priority by building time for it in multiple ways and multiple spaces.

What are some key strategies for achieving component 1b in your classroom? What does this look like in daily practice?

As educators, use the time given to you by administrators to conduct student surveys, hold student interviews, and invite whole class discussion that illuminates students’ identities. Once you’ve done that, you should engage in a constant process of intentional discovery and positive affirmation of  their identity. Also, educators should aim to have a positive touch point with every student, at least once a day. That may sound like a lot but these touches can be small. Look for opportunities to have a human interaction with each student, one where you engage directly with them about their interests, strengths, or concerns.

What are some student behaviors that are present when component 1b is successfully prioritized by an educator and/or school?

When students feel known and valued, the entire space changes. You begin to see a wider range of human emotions because students feel a sense of safety. Classrooms become joyful spaces, where students can show up authentically and take risks because they are confident that their self worth will never be compromised in the eyes of their teachers or peers. One of my favorite aspects of welcoming and inclusive classrooms is that the space becomes additive – students bring in the fullness of their unique identities and understand they don’t have to subtract any part of who they are to feel like they belong. 

How does prioritizing component 1b contribute to improved student learning?

Welcoming and inclusive classrooms create a sense of safety and allow for a more interactive learning experience. In order to actively engage in your own learning, you have to feel safe to make mistakes and be uncomfortable as you grow. The process of growth is inherently one that requires moving outside your comfort zone. If students are going to push past a particular point to reach the next level of their development, they will do so much more successfully when they feel safe to participate and engage in that process.