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Managing Your Classroom for Equity and Social Justice

When I think back to when I was training to be a teacher there was not a topic I hated more than "classroom management". I remember the course I took on the subject reading a text about how to maintain control and order in the classroom. And while most of my early conversations in teaching revolved around how I should embrace more authoritarian styles of classroom management, I wanted to seek, search out and experiment with what and how classroom management could look like when approached from a more just, equitable and democratic model. This task has proven to be difficult as I have never been a student in such a classroom and although there is ample research to advocate for equity and democratic practices in the classroom, putting these practices into place has been both a struggle and a worthwhile adventure. I've outlined my approach to classroom management below in no particular order. Just a few things I've learned over the years in working to create classrooms that foster equitable and democratic relationships between teachers and students.

Relationships

If I had to describe my classroom management style, I would probably call it relational. I firmly believe that making connections and building relationships with students is the most important thing I can do to let them know that they matter, their success in my class is important to me, and I care about them as human beings. Everything from welcoming my students at the door, asking questions about their lives and making time to have conversations outside the classroom context goes a long way to ensuring that students feel respected and feel good about coming to my class.

Classroom Culture

A big part of creating an equitable classroom culture is to ensure I understand how many of the issues of the outside world impact the lives of my students. Issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and colonialism all impact students. When students are struggling or acting out in my class I want to ensure that I don't merely react to the behaviour but instead compassionately respond to the root issues of how a student is acting out. With the many responsibilities we have as teachers, we can sometimes default into looking at our students through a deficit lens, which places the blame of misbehaviour on them or we begin to seek out character flaws in students. An equitable educator should be responsive to the classroom environment and how that impacts certain students and also understand that many students are dealing with very serious issues outside the classroom, which can perpetuate acting out and non-compliance in the classroom. This is a long-term problem to solve in any class but it never hurts to pull a student aside to offer support and a chance to have a conversation about the behaviour you're witnessing to get to the heart of the issue for that student.

Restorative Justice

Engaging in acts of restorative justice goes a long way to ensuring that your most difficult students feel that not only do they have to meet high expectations but that you are invested in their success in your class. It can also offer opportunities for conflict between students to be settled equitably and have consequences that treat the student with dignity and respect. I'm taking a year-long course in restorative justice this year through Simon Fraser University and I hope to be writing about this in much more detail in the future.

Youth Voice and Democratic Classrooms

I firmly believe that if teachers act as authoritarians in our classrooms and schools then we cannot expect our students to function in a democratic society. The majority of teachers I've worked with over the years want our students to be engaged and contribute to their communities in a positive way. However, how can we expect students to become engaged and learn democratic citizenship skills if they are never required to practice this in schools? Schools should be one of the most important training grounds for a democracy and our classrooms management models can offer us a lot of hope. In my classroom, I often make a classroom charter at the beginning of the year to discuss important rules, norms, and expectations that students should adhere to for a successful classroom. It's also essential that students continually have voice and choice throughout their learning on issues of classroom rules, discipline, and assessment. I've incorporated conferencing and portfolio's into my classroom over the last 3 or 4 years and it has really improved communication between myself and students as well as offering students opportunity to have a say on how they demonstrate their knowledge and opinions of how the classroom can be improved. Most importantly, I meet with a small group of students (of different backgrounds and abilities) every week to discuss what's working and not working in my classroom. This feedback is invaluable and goes a long way to not only improving as a teacher but students seeing that their voices and ideas actually matter.

Culturally Relevant and Engaging Lessons

Lastly, one of my best classroom management strategies is to offer students lessons and learning opportunities that are culturally relevant, engaging, academically challenging and fun. If students see themselves in what they're learning they can easily make connections and see the importance of why they're learning about this. I will admit that this can be challenging with a set curriculum but part of the fun in working with the curriculum is seeing new possibilities of how outcomes can be presented in new ways. Improving my teaching practice by involving elements of hip hop, art and call and response techniques have helped me to engage even the most reluctant of learners. Music, and especially in our times, hip-hop is such a powerful tool. I can say without a doubt that many students can learn more from a song than they will from a textbook. Bring these tools into your classroom and push yourself to teach in ways that aren't comfortable for you. That process of growth in becoming a more effective educator has helped me with my classroom management in ways I can't even begin to explain. But most of all, we want to spark a joy and love of learning in our classrooms that are connected to the real lived experiences of youth.


Classroom management will never be an overnight success for any teacher. It requires a process of experimentation, building relationships and meeting the unique needs of each class you teach. I am by no means an expert but for those of you hoping to create a classroom built on the principles of equity and justice, I hope that you have found the above strategies and ideas worthwhile. If we believe in a different way of relating to young people then we have to reimagine our role as teachers in the classroom. Give up the power and control and embrace an equitable relationship where teachers and students can create successful and equitable classrooms together. For a more detailed review and toolkit for classroom management, check out Teaching Tolerance's work, "Reframing Classroom Management: A Toolkit for Educators".

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