Interviews With The Experts: Creating Welcoming & Inclusive Classrooms (Part II)

September 27, 2021

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

Earlier this month, we explored the foundation of creating welcoming and inclusive classrooms with Dr. Maria Akinyele by discussing component 1b: Knowing and Valuing Students. We learned that any environment that is welcoming and inclusive first needs to begin by meeting a basic human need – the need to be valued, seen, and heard. Once we’ve achieved that, how do we then use that knowledge to build environments that are based in respect and rapport? And why are those environments so critical for student learning and success? 

Today, Dr. Akinyele, Assistant Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, will turn the tables and interview Brian Johnson, Assistant Director of Learning Design and Development to understand why component 2a: Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport is important and how schools and educators can build on component 1a to get there. Brian specializes in culturally responsive pedagogy, special education, and creating learning environments where students and teachers thrive towards excellence. He holds a BA in Marketing from University of Kentucky, MST in Adolescent Education from Pace University and an advanced certification in Special Education from St. Rose College.

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

Schools should be a microcosm of the world and therefore should be a place where students can learn and experiment with how they are going to show up within that world. We want our students to learn to be empathetic, to be curious, and to successfully navigate spaces with those who are different from them. Welcoming and inclusive classrooms are important because they lay the foundation for how students will communicate and interact with other people. We want to provide students with a place where they can take risks, feel respected, and feel supported to explore who they want to be. 

How does component 2a – Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport – build on component 1b to help create welcoming and inclusive classrooms?

Component 1b: Knowing and Valuing Students is an essential foundation that ensures you understand your students’ needs, wants, and ways of thinking. Once you master that, you can translate it into your physical space, the nonverbal ways you communicate, and the norms you set for how you speak to and treat one another. Component 2a is more expansive because it moves beyond the focus being solely on the educator and begins to encompass all interactions with a classroom space. Once individuals feel seen, valued, and heard, as Maria explained, they then can practice how to empathetically and safely learn together.

What are some key strategies for prioritizing component 2a across an entire school community? In other words, how can administrators support this?

For administrators to support component 2a, they need to be explicit in their vision, provide examples, and be a consistent model. They can begin by hosting a staff meeting focused on 2a and facilitating discussion on all the ways educators can create and reinforce respect and rapport in their classrooms. Once that’s done, perhaps the most important thing an administrator can do is model and celebrate. The stronger the model, the more educators will understand what it looks like in practice. And when teachers have good ideas or practices, share them broadly and celebrate them authentically. 

What are some key strategies for achieving component 2a in your classroom? What does this look like in daily practice?

Modeling and celebration can be just as important at the classroom level. When an educator models for students how to respect and communicate with others, even during disagreements, it sets the tone for the entire classroom. They can post sentence starters around the room, so that students know what it looks and sounds like to communicate respectfully. They can intentionally design lessons that promote dialogue, where they can elevate different points of view and then celebrate publicly when students push back respectfully. You can’t model and practice respect and rapport unless you’re in settings that promote interaction. Fill your classroom with collaborative activities that bolster the kind of interaction you want to see.

What are some student behaviors that are present when component 2a is successfully prioritized by an educator and/or school?

Component 2a can come to life in concrete and subtle ways. Concretely, you may see bulletin boards celebrating students who take risks or hear positive praise in moments of celebration, tension, or even disagreement. You can also look for more subtle signs. Do students feel responsible for each other? Do they take ownership of their learning and demonstrate awareness of those around them? And do they advocate, not just for themselves but for the group? Those behaviors are indicative that the environment promotes respect and rapport and builds a foundation that accelerates both academic and social-emotional learning.

How does prioritizing component 2a contribute to improved student learning?

Prioritizing component 2a, especially after mastering component 1b, means that school communities and educators are far less worried about classroom management and student behavior. And if you take that concern off the table, you become freed up to think through all the other elements that promote learning. Suddenly, you become more able to think through your instructional practices and assessments, adjust how you communicate, engage actively in individual and classroom conversations, and innovate and differentiate to meet the needs of every student. In classrooms that have mastered respect and rapport, you see students who are ready and eager to learn and support one another. And, when that is the norm, educators have the space to get creative about the process of learning.