Demystify DEI for New Teachers

Topics: Equity and Diversity, Teacher Effectiveness

Early in their careers, classroom teachers often lack clear direction on how to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their classrooms and school buildings. While they might have been trained in programs with courses that cover DEI topics and might promote anti-racist practices, applying these concepts in their own classrooms is a formidable task.

While new teachers are often enthusiastic about equitable teaching and building a representative curriculum, they are near the bottom of the K–12 hierarchy, and they might have little influence and less job security than more experienced colleagues.

Principals, assistant principals, and other district leaders can help new teachers be heard and build equity by ensuring that all instructional staff speak the same language when it comes to topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

To address these issues, new teachers must develop a shared language that includes key vocabulary. They need to know the four levels of racism—intrapersonal, interpersonal, structural, and institutional; they need to know the distinction between equity and equality; and they need to know how racial equity work is designed to lead to a state of racial justice. This is only part of the process, however, as new teachers will need to experiment with bringing these principles and ideas to life in their classrooms and beyond.

Activities That Build Equity

Principals might suggest a few activities to encourage new teachers to begin the work of building equity in their classrooms:

  • Practice being introspective. To improve, teachers need to better understand their own beliefs and ideas, particularly those that might have a negative impact on students. They should review beliefs, perspectives, values, implicit and explicit biases, and assumptions periodically to discover areas in which they need to rethink what was taught to them in their own K–12 education or family context.
  • Create a safe space. Safe spaces might look different according to the setting, but students must feel seen, respected, and safe in their classrooms and feel that they have a voice in the way the classroom is run. New teachers need to set up classroom rules and expectations that reinforce safety and must commit to addressing issues as they arise in class.
  • Diversify the curriculum. While new teachers might not have much impact on the curriculum taught, teachers can work with the materials they have to make it as representative and rich as possible. This might involve changing the texts used for a class, supplementing texts with other resources, working with colleagues and curriculum directors to change the curriculum, and ensuring that whatever diversity exists in the state curriculum is taught to the students.
  • Expand the idea of the curriculum beyond the textbook or PowerPoint deck. New teachers can place value on students’ lived experiences to help them connect to class content. Involve families, local assets, local nonprofits, and other organizations as resources; the more students are able to connect to their own realities, the more buy-in they will have.
  • Help teachers avoid speaking “at” students. For new teachers, building positive relationships is among the most challenging of tasks. Once teachers have a stronger sense of the strengths of their class, they can provide students with opportunities to develop and showcase leadership. The goal is for teachers to create a collaborative space where students can actively engage with and contribute to the learning process.

Principals can encourage teachers to understand the racial dynamics in their classroom and address those dynamics effectively. Issues of racial equity and diversity will arise in classrooms and school communities daily during classroom discussions, in the workplace environment, or as institutionalized and punitive systems.

In classrooms, such issues might reveal themselves in the form of hurtful comments as young children begin experimenting with the impact of their words and emotions on others. Children might weaponize language to comment on peers’ race, dress, or academic achievement.

In the workplace environment, colleagues might find themselves faced with forms of identity discrimination and be treated differently by those with whom they work based on race. And in addition to common interpersonal issues of racial equity and diversity, historically racist or punitive systems that developed in school systems are often overlooked.

Beyond the Classroom

Principals and administrators can also help new teachers make connections with others in their building, combating the sense of isolation that leads many in the field to quit. Teachers have often thought about autonomy as being able to close the classroom door, but for a school to become an increasingly equitable place for students, the teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders must collaborate intentionally.

Even for the newest teachers, the first step is to build positive relationships with colleagues. This means meeting people where they are, finding points of connection, asking what you care about and what you do together to achieve it, and getting buy-in from colleagues to move forward.

This energy can be part of existing or new DEI efforts. Building upon one-on-one conversations, teachers might help organize a multidimensional DEI- and racial equity-focused committee composed of faculty, administrators, parents, community members, and students. School buildings and districts might organize appropriate and meaningful affinity groups to provide support and fight isolation among teachers and staff of color and other groups.

Buildingwide efforts aimed at new teachers can lead to further important racial equity work. Addressing overall climate, creating in-school or afterschool educational opportunities for students, and reviewing disciplinary policies for evidence of bias are just a few efforts your teachers can spearhead if you get them onboard with equity efforts early in their careers.

Tiana Lawrence is director of Quality Management at the Coalition for a Better Acre in Lowell, Massachusetts, and an adjunct professor at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.

Maria Buttafuoco is an adjunct professor of education at Merrimack College.

Russ Olwell is dean of education and K–16 partnerships at Middlesex Community College in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.