Have you ever had a special teacher who you thought was ‘real’? That teacher, who happens to be a white woman, truly ‘felt’ you, believed in you and respected others like you. She was interested, concerned and demonstrated her concern by always managing to teach something about people who look like you, came from where you did, and shared similar experiences.
Black history was important to the learning process, and it didn’t have to be Black History Month for her to teach you about ‘your’ people. She taught about the Portuguese, indigenous peoples and the Pilgrims, enslaved and slave owners all throughout the school year. No special occasion needed; nobody told her that she had to do it. She just did, because she saw you-all of you.
She would make sure that you were engaged in the classroom, calling on you, not to embarrass you, but inviting you to think and contribute. She didn’t always understand what was going on in class between you and a classmate, but she surely made it her business to know you. Forget about it.
She also had a good relationship with the adults at home. That was not always a good thing-for you. But, it was a really great thing for your best interest.
This teacher, in a class with both black and white kids, made sure that instruction wasn’t all about the white people’s experiences. She brought equity into the room. Everyone learned about everyone else, and in so doing, she became an agent of change and fostered social justice in her classroom.
Because the instructional context is balanced, for cultural responsiveness and relevance, your classroom was without race-based cliques. You know what it looks like in many multiracial environments; black kids with black kids and whites with whites. This as if we live in separate societies. Our realities and experiences may be different, but everyone coexists with the others in her classroom.
A multicultural teacher, practicing inclusive pedagogy, makes concerted efforts to explore the cultural dynamics of a select group in as non-stereotypical fashion as possible. She is more open than closed off from recognizing the intersectionality of identity and its influence on learning outcomes. Inclusive pedagogy is an approach that attends to individual differences between learners while actively avoiding the marginalization of some learners and/or the continued exclusion of particular groups, for example, ethnic minority students, those from culturally diverse backgrounds, non-native language speakers, students with additional needs, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may be disadvantaged by poverty.
This list of identity markers is neither exhaustive nor unitary but is intended to denote some of the aspects of individuality that account for individual differences and may interact with other variables to create barriers to learning that can result in underachievement.
The strategic idea of teachers as change agents in reducing educational inequalities is linked to research showing teachers are the most significant in-school factor influencing student achievement. The idea of an inclusive education is built upon learning how to respect and respond to human differences in ways that include, rather than exclude, learners from what is ordinarily available in the daily routines of instruction at school.
The act of extending what is ordinarily available, as opposed to doing something ‘additional’ or ‘different’ for some is a complex pedagogical endeavor that requires a shift in thinking away from commonly accepted ways of providing for everyone by differentiating for some. It is distinctive in that it accepts the notion of individual differences between learners without relying predominately on individualized approaches for responding to such differences.
Further, the inclusive pedagogical approach is distinguished from conceptualizations of inclusive education that focus specifically on students with special educational needs. Research, since the 1980s, has clearly shown how school structures can create special educational needs that have disproportionate effects on vulnerable groups.
Teachers can and should be prepared if they are to contribute to a justice agenda by working in ways that avoid the repetition of exclusion and the perpetuation of inequitable educational outcomes for some groups of learners. Preparing teachers as agents of change to promote social justice and inclusion requires clarity not only about what teachers need to know, do and believe but how they will exercise their agency as teachers when adopting this approach.
One of the most relevant areas of competence for promoting inclusive practice to be developed in teacher education is teachers’ understanding of how broader social forces influence exclusion and disadvantage. Furthermore, teachers committed to social justice and inclusion must be capable of building appropriate professional relations with students and other actors in order to respond adequately to students’ diverse needs. Supportive relationships and knowing students is particularly important when teaching students from diverse backgrounds.
Teachers who are able to act as agents of social justice need experience of working with families from a variety of cultures and social contexts in order to understand how home (and other) environments influence educational outcomes.
Begin with an acknowledgment that teachers are complex agents whose practices are highly contextualized and they cannot simply be regulated to do things differently. It is necessary to make theoretical sense out of how teachers make a difference, and how they engage with school practices that are effective for addressing exclusion and underachievement.
This is important because it is how teachers address the issue of inclusion in their daily practice – reflected in their knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about learners and learning, as well as in the things that they do, and the responses that they make when the students they teach encounter barriers to learning – that determines their inclusive pedagogical approach.