Equity in the High School Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide

Equity in the High School Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide

Students come to class from many different backgrounds and experiences, and it’s the teacher’s role to determine how to create equitable classroom practices so that all learners can progress toward their goals. But what does equity in the classroom actually mean, and more importantly, what does it look like in practice? Let’s take a look.

Equity vs. Equality in the Classroom: What’s the Difference? 

While students are all equal in their rights and agency, what they need to achieve their goals may be quite different due to their interests, capacities, and lived experiences. That’s where equity in the classroom can play a major role. By knowing students as individual learners, teachers can make sure that the student receives the right resources for them—not necessarily the same resources as everyone. Equity, then, provides individualized supports that help learners overcome their specific barriers to learning. These could include economic backgrounds, access, systemic racism, or neurodiverse learning styles. Equity means making sure learners have the right resources they need to learn, whereas equality means providing the same resources to everyone, regardless of whether the individual learner can make use of them. 

Does this mean that teachers should have different expectations for students? Not at all. High expectations and a grounding in academic rigor—along with student agency and meaningful, interconnected learning experiences—are essential for student success. But the pathway to that success is shaped by equitable classroom practices.

[Learn more about what it means to prepare all learners for college, career, and real-life by checking out the XQ Learner Goals. The five outcomes aim to develop students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for all that the future has to offer.]

Why is equity in the classroom important? 

Equity is foundational to teaching and learning since every learner is unique in their skills, interests, and readiness to learn. Equity in the classroom begins by knowing each learner. What are the student’s circumstances? How might that impact their ability to focus today? A learner experiencing food insecurity will have very different needs and learning readiness than one who does not wonder how they will get their next meal. The same holds true for other aspects of a learner’s lived experience. 

As a teacher, your curiosity about students and attention to them is one of the most powerful tools you have to inspire a desire to learn. First and foremost, it helps create a caring, trusting relationship between you and your students, and builds a sense of community within your classroom and school. Second, when you know what students need, you can work with them to find the right resources to guide them as they pursue their goals—which is equity in action. 

Finally, by incorporating equitable classroom practices, your learning environment can become a safe haven for addressing systemic injustices, rather than a place where such issues may be perpetuated inadvertently.

Practices for Promoting Equity and Fairness in the Classroom. 

Equity Practice 1: Reflect on your identity and beliefs.

As a teacher, you are a powerful model for creating equity in the classroom. But your background and beliefs can either reinforce your messages—or undercut them. So taking time for self-reflection is an important step to ensure alignment between what you say and how you act. What assumptions do you bring to the classroom? How inclusive are your practices? Do quiet students have a chance to be heard? Are BIPOC students able to see themselves reflected in your instructional choices?

“I think that the journey for an educator to become anti-racist has to start with self-reflection. It has to start by asking teachers to think about their own privilege—to think about how they tailor lessons and assessment practices to center Whiteness. That reflection is essential. Because if they don’t interrogate race—if they’re not constantly thinking about their own privilege—they’re contributing to inequities, whether they realize it or not.”

From an Interview with Rich Milner, Professor of Education, Vanderbilt University.

Equity Practice 2: Create a classroom culture where all voices are welcome.

Student agency in learning makes for a richer experience for all students. By ensuring that you seek out diverse voices, you model that this is an expected part of learning, and help students develop empathy as they hear voices and discover experiences that may be different from their own.

“To prioritize belonging means investing in the idea that instead of one linear pathway to achieve success, success is defined and redefined by students themselves, and rooted in their value systems.”

From an article on Belonging and its critical impact on student mental health written by Casey Pettit, director of strategic partnerships at Project Wayfinder.

Equity Practice 3: Know your students’ needs.

As a high school teacher, you may interact with over 100 learners a day, so understanding their specific learning needs may feel overwhelming. Yet it’s vital to understand this to employ equitable teaching strategies. Early in the term, you can invite students to share their needs in ways that are private and respectful, through conferences, digital communications, or other methods. Use formative assessment practices to gain immediate feedback on where each learner is on gaining and mastering knowledge, and adapt based on the input.

“By providing dedicated spaces and times for informal connection, students can name, process, and accept what may be a steady stream of new thoughts and feelings in the midst of crisis, while also providing a consistent community space for connection and collaboration between students.”

From an article on Building caring, trusting relationships in a remote learning world (pt. 1) by Sophie Klimcak, former senior associate at XQ.

Equity Practice 4: Leverage technology to diversify teaching. 

A smart use of technology can help you meet learners where they are. Using information from different systems can help you adapt material to meet different reading levels, eliminate distractions, or provide support for neurodiverse learning needs.

“For most students who receive special education services, contact with their providers is often a lifeline when they are in school, and this communication becomes even more important during the transition to remote learning. If possible, set up regular video consultations. Empower providers to help students with their own goals around the house. Make sure that during remote class meetings, the same support personnel for students is present virtually.”

From XQ’s article, Student Shares All: How to support students with disabilities, written by Josh Stern, an education activist.

Equity Practice 5: Take a whole child approach to create a safe space to learn.

A whole-child approach to learning ensures that your students are seen and heard, and that your classroom is a positive, safe place for them to learn. This involves creating positive relationships with learners, designing rich learning experiences that allow them to express multiple dimensions of themselves, a focus on developing mindsets and skills that support learning, and leveraging integrated networks of support to meet learners where they are.

“The whole child approach—an approach that considers not only the academic content and cognitive abilities of the learner at each level of schooling but also a student’s social-emotional and background factors—provides insights into how youth learn and grow.”

From an article on How schools can meet the moment with programs to teach the whole child written by Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School.

What does equity in the classroom look like in practice? 

Equity in the high school classroom can take many forms, especially for XQ schools. Let these examples of equity in the classroom show you how to promote equitable practices with your students. 

Purdue Polytechnic High School, in Indiana, used professional development from the Peace Learning Center to ground staff in equitable practices. Keeana Warren, who attended the training, says: “We know that it is not necessary to require people to take on our cultural norms to get a voice and seat at the table. It is important for our team to give students voice and choice and to leave space for open and honest dialogue when we fall short.”

At Washington Leadership Academy, an XQ school in Washington DC, the team uses computer science to give learners a new lens on equity. The majority of WLA’s students are people of color from low-income circumstances. Together, they study the intersection of technology and public policy, listen to guest speakers, often people of color who work in the tech sector, and learn how tech can strengthen their communities.

When the Brooklyn Laboratory School, an XQ school in Brooklyn, New York, received funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, they sought out input from the people most affected by the hardships of covid-19 – students and their families. “If we really want to understand what families and scholars need to succeed in school when they return to campus, we need to include them in the process,” said Kristin Levine, of the Academic Committee of the Board at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools. “We need to put the needs of the most vulnerable students at the center of whatever we do.”

Read more about equitable teaching practices:

Learn more about equity in the high school classroom: