The Role of Social Justice in the Classroom

During the last decade, conversations surrounding social justice issues, systematic inequalities and institutional disparities have greatly increased. So, naturally, these conversations reach classroom environments as well.

Many students, particularly marginalized social groups, already confront these issues daily. But as K-12 students grow and take notice of current events, they will encounter social justice as a concept. Therefore, school administrators and teachers must prepare to help connect their classroom environments and school spaces with students’ life experiences to guide them through this learning process.

By nature, all students are affected differently by the intersectional consequences of social inequities, which means educators should adapt and approach conversations constructively to account for these differences. Having the right approach is critical when engaging in these conversations with students. Educators can learn more about social inequities and how to help students understand social justice in an online Master of Education (M.Ed.) – Educational Leadership program.

This post from Working in the Schools (WITS), a nonprofit organization that offers teachers professional development and mentorship, suggests some best practices when entering into conversations about social justice in the classrooms:

Respect and Build Upon Students’ Existing Experiences and Knowledge

Creating a respectful, open space is vital in building an atmosphere for honest conversations: “In order to foster classroom social justice, teachers must first build a safe, encouraging place where students can speak about their experiences and beliefs,” according to WITS. These spaces help students feel that their perspective is valuable, so educators can build a more direct connection with them by tapping into their personal experiences. Teachers can achieve this through surveys and conferences with students and use findings to generate ideas for their lessons.

Be Open About Personal Identity and Potential for Bias

Just as students bring their own perspectives to the table, so do teachers. Rather than presenting themselves as unquestionable experts on these topics, teachers should address their own life experiences with students and the possibilities for bias. Teachers must take inventory of their feelings and reactions and not allow biases to encroach on learning environments. Outside of the classroom, it is also vital for teachers to educate themselves about systematic inequalities to hone the necessary knowledge for mitigating those effects in the classroom.

While many of these interactions occur in the classroom, leadership establishes the school culture surrounding social justice issues. Administrators at K-12 schools are responsible for building an inclusive school atmosphere where students feel comfortable discussing social justice openly and where teachers feel supported. Education resource Resilient Educator offers suggestions for what administrators can do to encourage this.

Create a “Community of Conscience”

Just as teachers set a positive tone and model acceptable behaviors in their classrooms, administrators carry out the same task for the whole school. Showing respect, kindness and conscientiousness for all students helps ensure their “voices, opinions and ideas are valued and respected by their instructor and peers.” In addition, administrators can offer teachers strategies and tools such as conversation models to help them develop sound classroom practices.

Utilize Data to Inform Leadership

In a 2020 academic article on approaches to social justice leadership for principals, authors reported on the successful use of school data to identify racial disparity in a school. The principal, the subject of the report, noticed a major inequity in the population percentage of Black male students versus the rate of discipline reports. They discovered a need to shift the school’s core values to be fairer, particularly for Black male students. This shift was just the beginning of the process, but data-informed leadership became the “impetus for enacting social justice leadership.”

In a program such as Eastern Washington University’s online M.Ed. – Educational Leadership program, graduates will learn valuable skills and knowledge that enable them to create a robust learning environment. Coursework, like the Transformation of Learning & Teaching course, teaches graduates how to build school environments that are equitable, inclusive and welcoming for all students and their families.

Graduates can enact important social justice best practices in various leadership and administration roles. They will have experience in curriculum, law, planning, management and leadership to achieve cultural equity in learning spaces.

Learn more about Eastern Washington University’s online M.Ed. – Educational Leadership program.

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