Creating Identity-Safe Classrooms

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Hand With Marker Writing The Word Who Are You?

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is your classroom identity safe?

Identity-safe classrooms are warm ecosystems in which teachers endeavour to ensure that all children feel that their social identity is an asset rather than a barrier to success. Children feel welcomed, supported and valued whoever they are and whatever their background.

Teachers want the best for pupils and seek to be fair and aim to create strong culturally competent classroom communities. We might all think that we respectfully acknowledge each and every individual. We might also think that we help all children to feel secure in their identities and free to be who they are.

But do we really? Are we unwittingly allowing our implicit biases influence our teaching and relationships with children? Are we vigilant of stereotype threat?

I’m not biased

Research shows that unconscious bias is widespread in schools and that teachers show implicit bias with children as young as preschool age. It’s impossible to be bias-free so these biases need constant monitoring and we need to fight them.

Measuring unconscious bias is possible through hidden bias tests developed by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington. They created “Project Implicit” and Implicit Association Tests or IATs. You can take one of their tests here. You can also sign up for a unconscious bias course with e-learning supplier Engage in Learning. Taking these implicit bias tests helps us to recognise any unconscious attitudes, emotions or feelings we may have. These can include negative or positive stereotypes about a person or a group.

Perusing the Learning Policy Institute report Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success reminds us that we need to understand how our attitudes toward pupils can significantly shape their learning. It recommends we avoid labelling students and reminds us that “Human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyses healthy development and learning.”

Identify yourself

Unfortunately our buried biases can reveal themselves in action and yes, we are hooked on labels. We might unintentionally underestimate children and fail to pay attention to who each pupil is. There is a strong chance we might prejudge and misjudge their intelligence, potential, experiences and background. We might therefore have a classroom that is identity precarious if we fail to appreciate a child’s interests, lifestyle, family roots and talent.

Steele and Cohn-Vargas (2013) point out that an identity-safe environment values diversity by creating belonging and validating each child’s background and all the many components of social identity such as gender, culture, religion and language.

In their book they discuss the importance of creating a classroom environment where all children feel accepted, included and involved in their own learning. They highlight the research and findings of the Stanford Integrated Schools Project which found a link between identity-safe teaching and enhanced student performance. They also found that children in identity safe classrooms:

  • liked school more
  • were interested in challenging work
  • felt a stronger sense of belonging
  • had a sense of autonomy
  • believed that working hard would improve learning
  • felt their teacher and classmates helped them.

Steele and Cohn-Vargas (2015) explain that identity-safe teaching includes a whole constellation of practices but four components are crucial

1 Child-centered teaching

A child-centred approach promotes autonomy, cooperation and student voice:

  • Listening for student voices ensures that each child can contribute to and shape classroom life.
  • Teaching for understanding assures children learn new knowledge and integrate it into what they already know.
  • Focusing on cooperation rather than competition encourages children to learn from and help others.
  • Classroom autonomy promotes responsibility and belonging in each individual.
2 Cultivating diversity as a resource

Approaching diversity in this way provides challenging curriculum and high expectations for all children:

  • Using diversity as a resource for teaching draws from every child’s life and incorporates difference into the daily life of the class.
  • High expectations and academic rigour support all children in learning to analyse, synthesise, evaluate and strive to grow intellectually.
  • Challenging curriculum motivates children with meaningful, purposeful learning as opposed to rote teaching and remediation.
3 Classroom relationships

Classroom relationships are based on trusting, positive interactions with the teacher and among children:

  • Teacher warmth and availability to support learning builds a trusting, encouraging relationship with each child based on belief that he or she can succeed and achieve at high levels.
  • Positive student relationships promote interpersonal understanding and caring among students in a climate free of bullying and social cruelty.

4. Caring classroom environments

In caring classroom environments, social skills are taught and practiced, and they help children care for one another in an emotionally and physically safe space:

In the following video, Dr Dorothy Steele explains more about identity-safe classrooms:

Identity-safe classrooms and schools are essential especially when the communities in which many children live are soaked in prejudice, implicit bias and stereotypes. Schools have always had a powerful role to play in building relationships, creating belonging and reducing harm and hurt.

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