Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Classroom Inclusion: Making Students Feel Welcome

Classroom Inclusion: Making Students Feel Welcome

With Shawn Bailey, Ed.D, Midway (12) ISD, and Alicia Hinkle, Irving ISD

This article is a companion piece to a virtual session presented by Bailey and Hinkle as part of the Gen ATPE program, which aims to provide special learning opportunities for ATPE members ages 30 and younger. Any ATPE member may earn one hour of continuing professional education (CPE) credit by viewing the archived webinar in the ATPE Professional Learning Portal.

What does classroom inclusion look like? How do you make a diverse group of students feel welcome in your classroom? Is there more than one right way? Let’s put Dr. Shawn Bailey, an ATPE member in Midway (12) ISD, and Alicia Hinkle, an ATPE member in Irving ISD, on the “Hot Seat” to get some answers.

Bailey: For educators, the “Hot Seat” simply means “the position of a person who carries full responsibility for something, including facing criticism or being answerable for decisions or actions.” The way we make students feel in our classroom matters. The first several weeks of a new school year are always filled with policies and procedures to establish norms for optimal learning opportunities. As teachers, we create seating charts and quickly learn who demands our undivided attention to help us make meaningful connections, build trust, and create a safe environment for all students to live in over the next 10 months. Over several class periods, a single classroom can hold a different vibe and personality because of the people in it. To establish a rapport that results in a learning partnership, students need to see the teacher as someone they can relate to—hence the “Hot Seat.”

I remember the first time I introduced the “Hot Seat” to a group of middle school students. They took it as an opportunity to “roast” me. As a new teacher, I was mortified, but the feedback was helpful. I was unsure of how inclusion was supposed to look, how to make every student feel welcome, and if there was a “right” way that I was missing. Therefore, I asked the students to inform me about my approach to teaching and how it was serving them as learners. Students provided feedback on what I was doing well and what I could improve upon. The students and I would evaluate my progress over several grading periods, and by the end of the year their feedback would indicate if I had listened to what mattered to them. Positive, healthy relationships with my students became very important to me, so I began researching and reading books on how to connect with my students authentically. Kids can tell if you fake it. Students will respect you more when you fumble and are honest with them. Let’s be REAL.

What does classroom inclusion look like?

Bailey: The adage “fake it ’til you make it” never worked for me. My journey was more like “failing forward” and learning from all of the pain-filled mistakes. Don’t be afraid of a challenge. That’s why my becoming the student and allowing the students to become the teacher has worked so well for me. The “Hot Seat” spearheads the vulnerability students seldom get to see from their teacher. In addition, it teaches individuals how to think critically about their learning styles and needs. In the Bailey classroom, inclusion looks like safety and laughter while learning. I laugh a lot, for a variety of reasons. Students feel comfortable laughing at me and with me. No two days or classroom experiences are ever the same, and for that I am thankful.

How do you make a diverse group of students feel welcome in your classroom?

Bailey: “Kidwatching” is a great way to observe and learn about your students. This practice was introduced by education professor Yetta Goodman and encourages teachers to select two or three students to actively watch and monitor how you, the teacher, respond and interact with the student. As I became aware of my own biases and worldviews, I was able to pinpoint and target reflectively the importance of building those positive relationships. The “Hot Seat” means carrying full responsibility for my actions, thoughts, and words as an educator.

Reviewing the feedback and progressing proactively forward provided students with visual, authentic change in my manners and approach to their learning needs, and the observable shift let them know that their comments mattered to me. My students teach me how to be a better teacher. The positive interaction, even when corrective to maintain structure, makes students feel safe and welcome. We all need the safety of boundaries and limits.

Inclusion in the classroom is a whole-person method of teaching and learning that encourages diversity and gives all students the same chance to learn. In an inclusive classroom, kids from different backgrounds, with additional abilities, and with different needs all learn together. Individualized support is a big part of this learning setting, where teachers work closely together to tailor instruction and curriculum to meet the needs of each student. The main goal is to create an atmosphere of acceptance and respect where every student feels valued and included and where parents are actively involved in their children’s education.

To reach these goals, inclusive classrooms place a high value on teacher collaboration, professional development, and a commitment to teaching methods that are flexible and tools that are easy to use. The focus is not just on physical presence but also on creating an inclusive culture that gives all students, no matter what their needs or backgrounds are, the same educational chances.

Is there more than one right way?

Bailey: Positive engagement with our teachers looks different from classroom to classroom, campus to campus, and district to district. The teacher on the “Hot Seat” makes you aware of student needs. Empowering your students to become the teacher and you the student is a great way to grow and assess your classroom culture. There has never been a “one way fits all” approach to growing as a teacher and connecting with students. Classroom inclusion is about being Ready, Respectful, and Responsible as a teacher, seeking the good of the whole class. At least that’s how it’s done in Midway ISD (12).

Student survey

Bailey: Allowing your students to put you on the “Hot Seat” a few times over the school year is a great way for you and your students to both grow and bond in an inclusive, welcoming classroom. What my students think of my teaching matters to me. Therefore, their direct input and reflective review of my response to what matters to them and the learning in our shared space over the school year says, “That’s important.”

How do you keep your biases and triggers in check?

Hinkle: Managing biases and triggers is a vital component of being a successful and equitable educator, and it begins with self-awareness and deliberate contemplation. To keep biases in check, teachers must be aware of their own preconceptions, assumptions, and prejudices. This self-awareness is an important first step. It enables educators to identify biases that may be influencing their behaviors, decisions, or relationships with students.

Biases, if acknowledged, can be addressed through constant learning and personal development. Teachers can actively seek professional development activities that emphasize cultural competency, diversity, and equity in education. Educators become more equipped to face and minimize biases by broadening their knowledge and understanding of diverse cultures, backgrounds, and experiences.

Furthermore, keeping open lines of contact with colleagues, mentors, and even students can assist teachers in keeping their biases under control. Seeking feedback and alternative viewpoints on teaching practices can provide significant insights into areas where biases may be influencing the classroom environment. Avoid scholarly segregation on campuses and within classrooms, and overcome that biased mindset with open communication and receptiveness. At Irving ISD’s MacArthur High School in Region 10, the mission “is to ensure learning for all by providing an equitable, collaborative, student-centered environment.” Our mission statement should guide our learning while fostering a sense of acceptance and acknowledgment. The emphasis is on “all”—not just Advanced Placement, GT, and honors students but every student. Moreover, mindfulness is essential for managing triggers and biases. When educators find themselves in circumstances where prejudices may be present, pausing to reflect can be extremely beneficial. This pause allows teachers to respond deliberately rather than impulsively, giving them time to assess how their actions will affect their students and the learning environment.

Becoming a culturally responsive educator fundamentally entails cultivating self-awareness, engaging in ongoing learning, modifying instructional materials, and promoting an environment of open and inclusive communication. By actively and intentionally addressing one’s prejudices and triggers, educators can establish an inclusive learning environment that fosters a sense of value and respect for every student, boosting their overall educational experience.

Shawn Bailey, Ed.D., is an eighth grade reading and language arts teacher in Midway (12) ISD.

Alicia Hinkle teaches student leadership and AP Macroeconomics/AP Government at Irving ISD’s MacArthur High School. She is a former African American studies teacher/curriculum writer.