Create Equitable Educational Environments Through Positive Relationships

Creating equity in education is one of the most important and challenging goals for school leaders.  Significant gaps in access and opportunity, rooted in systemic discrimination, result in disparities in vital student learning outcomes and preparedness for college, career, and life. School leaders everywhere are seeking solutions to ensure that all students are benefitting equitably from their school experience.  

The  National Equity Project defines equity as each student receiving “what they need to develop to reach their full academic and social potential”. Because of inequities in society, achieving equity requires schools to provide an educational program and environment that systematically ensures the success of all students.  

Zaretta Hammond has outlined  three areas in which schools need to address equity:

Multicultural education involves celebrating diversity and inclusion of racial and cultural minorities in the curriculum.

Social justice work raises students’ awareness of the sociopolitical context and inequities, and it seeks to resolve these inequities of access and opportunity.

Culturally responsive teaching improves learning for all students, especially marginalized students, by establishing high trust learning partnerships and enhancing students’ information processing. 

This third area of equity work, culturally responsive teaching is the focus of this article.  

Positive relationships between students and teachers are valuable, but the specific partnership that is needed for equity is a learning partnership, a collaborative relationship between teachers and students focused on high levels of academic and non-academic learning.  In contrast, stress and lack of trust, conditions more likely to be experienced by marginalized students, inhibit learning and cognitive growth.  In order to establish learning partnerships between students and teachers that are based on trust and exist in a low stress environment, certain conditions need to be in place.  These include:

  •       Each student clearly knows that the teacher believes they can help them learn

  •       Teachers and administrators have high expectations for all students.

  •       Teachers demonstrate an understanding of their students’ individual needs.

  •       The environment is inclusive, and all students feel welcome in class.

  •       Respect exists between students and staff.

  •       Teachers and administrators treat people from different racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds          fairly.

  •       Microaggressions are eliminated.

  •       There is a sense of community in classrooms and throughout the school.

  •       Teachers provide students the help they need when it is needed.

  •       Students are expected to do work that challenges them appropriately.

These conditions create learning partnerships that increase students’ engagement and learning capacity. Their brains are literally supercharged for learning when they are in a learning environment that is physically and emotionally safe as well as structured to systematically ensure all students have strong information processing skills. 

Positive relationships between students and teachers in the form of a learning partnership facilitates deeper thinking and learning. They create an environment where all students are emotionally and cognitively ready to learn.  In this environment, teachers should create structures and routines that maximize the cultural capital of diverse learners.  The objective is to ensure that all students are active, independent learners. 

Dr. Akisha Jones Sarfo at the University of Delaware says that “race matters, but you don’t have to share a race, background, or set of experiences in order to connect”. Establishing trust-filled learning partnerships with students creates the conditions needed to maximize the learning of all students.  Feelings of marginalization are reduced. Students become more emotionally and cognitively open to learning experiences that are designed to meet mutual learning goals.    

One easy way to ensure that these learning partnerships are happening is to ask students and parents. This can occur in conversations, group discussions, and, most importantly, through surveys.  Anonymous surveys can give a school or district critical information about relationships between teachers and students. Differences can be examined between groups to identify disparities in school experiences, and specific questions should be asked to examine the aforementioned aspects of learning partnerships. Monitoring and ensuring that these conditions exist is a key strategy in the mission to create equitable educational environments.