I started my math teaching career at the high school level, and for a while I supplemented my income by working at the homework hotline one evening a week. The hotline was housed in the administration building, and the phone bank just happened to be in the special education area. One evening I noticed a homemade sign on the wall:
Equity is not when everyone gets the same. Equity is when everyone gets what they need.
“No, no,” I thought, shaking my head. “Equity is when we treat everyone the same.” Treating everyone the same meant, to me, making sure all students received the same instruction, the same resources, the same attention. Seems perfectly reasonable.
Fast forward a bit and another poster appears on my radar. This one said:
Would you deny CPR to a child just because not all children need CPR?
Realizing that my students’ mental and emotional needs were just as deserving of individualized support as their physical needs was a defining moment in my teaching career. Just as I would obviously provide CPR to a child who wasn’t breathing, I should provide additional supports and resources to students who are having cognitive or emotional struggles. It seems like a no-brainer to me now, but before then I had completely bought in to the concept of fairness—meaning that every student should get the same from me and my school, regardless of their individual needs. And I’m sorry to say that this belief is more common in education than we would like.
How had my focus on fairness rather than equity play out in practice in my teaching? I realized, among other things, that
- My rigid stance on due dates had meant students were receiving grades that did not reflect their understanding or abilities.
- Students I had thought were lazy were actually attempting to hide their lack of understanding behind a wall of indifference.
- Some of my students faced hardships I could never have imagined, and a little compassion on my part could go a long way in salvaging their semester and their faith in humanity.
As I’ve moved from teaching high school to teaching—and developing curriculum—at the college level, I’ve seen rigidity manifest in a variety of ways. Students who haven’t learned to navigate college’s complex landscape may miss financial aid deadlines, take unnecessary classes, and remain unaware of available supports. Uri Treisman has written eloquently about the teacher’s role in knowing your students so that you can intervene in such situations and connect them with appropriate services. I ask you to also think about ways to equitably support students, instead of rigidly adhering to fairness, within your classrooms and departments.
If we fully embrace equity in our classrooms and departments what might that look like?
- Day one. Consider how you open class on the first day. Are you fostering a businesslike but welcoming atmosphere or delivering a speech about rules and syllabi? Including mathematical content as well as learning community activities on the first day signals a productive and intellectually safe (safe to take risks, safe to fail and try again) classroom climate.
- Homework. If you see value in homework, are you honoring that value by assigning grades for it? Conversely, does your classroom culture message that the grade is more important than the knowledge and skills acquired through the assignment? Thoughtfully using online homework platforms makes the giving and grading of homework almost automatic, and also facilitates allowing students extra time when appropriate.
- Tutoring supports. Have your available tutors been trained in appropriate methods of support? Does the tutoring center have a welcoming atmosphere? Are tutors trained to greet students and introduce themselves by name? Do they encourage students to work together? Students are sometimes afraid or embarrassed to enter the tutoring center. Offering to meet them there, rather than in your office, can get them over their initial anxiety. And speaking of….
- Office hours. Make sure your students know they can come see you! I’ve had students tell me that they thought office hours were a time for me to work in my office and they didn’t want to disturb me. Ask them to stay after class for a quick visit, and then invite them to walk with you to the office.
- Early intervention. Many campuses have intervention requirements that are triggered by various student circumstances; are you following these requirements? By aggregating classroom data and flagging potential problems automatically, technology makes intervention so much easier than it was in the past. I’ve often had students tell me they didn’t know anyone cared until I alerted support services.
- Personal intervention. Sending an alert to support services is good, since the staff can coordinate when there are alerts from multiple faculty members. But it only takes a few seconds to also send the student a quick email or even make a personal phone call or text. It lets the student know that you are not “tattling” on them but are concerned and have their back.
- Your personal growth. When is the last time you tried to learn something new? We sometimes forget how hard learning can be and lose our empathy for students who are struggling with the mathematics—or with the technology. Put yourself in their shoes by trying something you’ve never tried before.
- Departmental culture. As you work to create a supportive environment in your classroom and office, infect your department! Help any reluctant colleagues to see that students are people to be valued and supported. For too long, there has been a culture of “shape up or ship out.” We in higher education—and our broader society—can no longer afford that (if we ever could).
What strategies do you use to level the playing field by supporting students who are struggling to adjust to college? What are your ideas for changing the culture in your classroom and department? I hope you’ll join in the conversation in the comments section below.
About the Author
For the last 15 years, I’ve been working at the postsecondary level, teaching developmental and college-level mathematics as well as teacher prep courses before taking a role at the Dana Center, where I work with outstanding math faculty on curriculum and pedagogy.