Three Recommendations to Increase Equitable Learning Environments

Arms raised of different ethnicities with a lightbulb in their hands

“What are your thoughts and feelings about teaching students in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities?” In the spring of 2021, we, as an interdisciplinary team of faculty (elementary and early childhood education, secondary education, special education, and teaching English to speakers of other languages), asked teacher candidates in a predominantly white university in the Northeast to answer this question. 

Collaborating with colleagues who look to improve and increase equitable learning and teaching environments revealed to us that the work of social justice takes many hands, many minds, and many conversations. Like many in the education community (Todd & Smith, 2019), we saw in our teacher candidates a tendency toward seeing racism as something that they were not responsible for because they treated all the children they work with equally. We suspected that we were not having meaningful conversations about race. We sought, through this study, to understand at a deeper level how our teacher candidates actually saw BIPOC children and how they viewed their preparation to teach them.

Using a survey and focus groups, we analyzed the experiences that have impacted candidates’ (preservice and in-service teachers) thoughts and feelings in an effort to inform the teacher preparation field. These findings led to recommendations for all who strive to increase equitable learning environments.

Our candidates were given the Social Justice-Inclusion Survey (SJ-IS) that asked them to reflect on a scenario about changes to the demographic makeup of one’s classroom. The demographics of our participants were 81 white candidates, five Cape Verdean, five Black/African American, five Asian, four Middle Eastern/North African, two Hispanic/Latinx, one Brazilian, one Portuguese American, and three preferred not to answer. Ninety-five of the 107 participants completed the survey. Below is an excerpt from the survey: 

“…you will be transferred to a new school. The administrator goes on to say that the student demographics of your classroom include 90% POC (i.e. Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, and multiracial) and 10% white or European parentage. You walk out of the meeting feeling . . .” (Social Justice Inclusion Survey)

The candidates were asked to share their feelings by selecting adjectives with which they identified, such as “prepared, somewhat scared, neutral, anxious, calm, etc.” Each of the 17 adjective pairs ranged from negative to positive feelings (i.e. nervous, somewhat nervous, neutral, somewhat calm, calm). 

The survey data revealed that over half of the study participants were willing and interested to work with students from BIPOC communities. When asked if participants accepted or opposed the idea, most revealed that they were accepting or somewhat accepting of the scenario. Most candidates reported feeling cooperative or somewhat cooperative and optimistic or somewhat optimistic.

Of the 95 responses, more felt somewhat anxious than relaxed. Fifty-eight of the candidates felt comfortable or somewhat comfortable; however, 51 candidates felt nervous or somewhat nervous. Over half of the candidates felt prepared or somewhat prepared; however, 28% of the candidates felt somewhat unprepared or unprepared.

After the candidates completed the survey, we asked interested participants to volunteer and share deeper thoughts in focus groups with semi-structured interview questions. There were three Cape Verdean participants and four white participants. Each focus group lasted from 35 minutes to 60 minutes. Two researchers from the interdisciplinary team met with one to three participants. We coded the focus group data by reviewing the videos of the sessions and identifying themes that aligned with our initial research question. Notable findings among the candidates’ thoughts and feelings are discussed below:

Candidates wanted and needed more conversations related to social justice issues, particularly issues surrounding race. Candidates explained how in their teacher education coursework, there is a focus on culture, language, and diversity in general without an explicit focus on racial and social justice; topics are “avoided” and “overlooked” in course content. The candidates participating in this study expressed a desire for “more discussions,” and “opportunities or events to address biases.” They also want to facilitate these discussions in their future P-12 classrooms (“introducing the conversation at a young age, elementary”) and learn how to facilitate them. 

One of the three BIPOC candidates, a Cape Verdean international student, underscored that pressure is often put on students from BIPOC communities to lead these conversations when in fact they should be integrated into the course content and facilitated by faculty and students from a variety of backgrounds. He shared that he had been asked to run an extra-curricular book club about racial justice but felt unprepared to do so. He went on to say that it’s “difficult to navigate conversations where we do not create tension” and shared a sentiment that was common among all study participants: he wants more opportunities to learn how to navigate challenging conversations about racial and social justice. 

Furthermore, candidates in this study were hesitant to discuss issues of racial and social justice, saying, “I don’t want to say it wrong” or “I don’t know if that is the correct term.” In these focus groups, there was mention of how topics of race were also “tip-toed” around in their teacher education classes.  

A second finding that emerged from focus group data was the need to counteract unintentional biases and/or negative connotations when discussing social justice topics in teacher education classes. Three of four white candidates in the study discussed the “depressing” environment of P-12 schools. One of the candidates mentioned the “suffering” among the students. Thus, while white candidates were largely positive about teaching BIPOC on the survey, when asked to describe diverse P-12 schools and school children, they revealed a tendency to stereotype, victimize, and negatively generalize. Five out of the seven candidates talked explicitly about how treating students as “normal” and “all the same” was the goal. At times, participants were explicit about striving for colorblindness and at other times, it was implied in their goals for teaching. The focus group data revealed that white candidates were unaware that being colorblind was not ideal and embraced white-centric, racially evasive pedagogy. There was also little discussion in the focus groups about the differences between and among groups within the BIPOC acronym or the complexity of navigating intercultural and interracial dynamics in a classroom.

From this analysis, we have three recommendations for those who strive to increase equitable learning environments. The recommendations serve as a guide particularly for educators, teacher candidates, and in-service teachers, but can be applied to other settings. 

1. Embed antiracist, equity conversations into the school community and course content. 

Educators can host open forums and discussions to talk about thoughts and feelings—not just about culture, language, and difference—but about racial and social justice and the implications for identity development. We recommend fellow educators use the Social Justice Standards in order to structure the conversations around social justice.

2. Facilitate community-wide (e.g. P-12 students, preservice/in-service teachers, administrators, educators, other stakeholders) reads that address unintentional biases and/or negative connotations.  

Interdisciplinary community reads should be required components of course curricula in order to reach students who do not usually opt-in independently. Teacher educators should select texts that highlight the strength, resilience, and beauty of BIPOC communities to serve as a guide for addressing biases and/or negative connotations and to set the groundwork for deeper discussions. 

(Recommended texts: Teaching Race: How to Help Students to Unmask and Challenge Racism by Stephen D. Brookfield; Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay, This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons On How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell, Unconscious Bias in Schools by Tracey A. Benson and Sarah E. Fiarman)

3. Create opportunities to foster and practice intercultural communication through an intersectionality lens. 

Students should actually practice talking about racial and social justice to gain confidence and fluency in the language of the field and heighten their awareness of their own language use. Educators can guide students to not be scared to say the “wrong thing” and inform them of subtle differences in and among communities so that marginalized communities are not seen as one homogenous group (Watch: The Danger of a Single Story TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

Engaging in this research has shown us the value of moving beyond teaching silos and learning from and with those outside of one’s department or area to improve equitable teaching environments. Taking the time to listen to candidates’ reflections on racial and social justice outside of course content has provided opportunities to critically explore students’ thoughts and feelings. This study has immediately informed our practice as we look to revise our teaching practices and methods this coming spring 2022 semester. We are looking forward to another iteration of this study and welcome feedback about our work as we deepen our data collection and analysis.

Dr. Sheena Manuel is an assistant professor of special education at Bridgewater State University. Prior to BSU, Manuel spent seven years advocating for and teaching blind students across the north central/I20 corridor of Louisiana for Louisiana Tech University’s Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness. Sheena’s research interests include teacher candidates’ dispositions toward specific marginalized populations, blindness education, and social justice.

Emily Spitzman, PhD, is an assistant professor of TESOL at Bridgewater State University where she researches critical intercultural communication in practice, culturally responsive family engagement, and linguistic awareness among teachers. Prior to her work in teacher education, she taught English to adult immigrants and international students. She has also co-developed and co-taught English language classes for parents/caregivers in Brockton.

Dr. Jacquelynne Boivin is an assistant professor of elementary and early childhood education at Bridgewater State University. She is a former elementary school teacher who uses her past experience in the field to contextualize her instruction in teacher-preparation. Dr. Boivin’s research specialization is in multicultural education and anti-racist pedagogy. She is the author of the book, Exploring the Role of the School Principal in Predominantly White Middle Schools: School Leadership to Promote Multicultural Understanding and co-editor of the upcoming book Education as the Driving Force of Equity for the Marginalized. In addition, she teaches courses in math methods and anti-racist education, as well as supervises student teachers and serves as a mentor for honors thesis projects. Her largest passion is authentically connecting academics and pedagogy with social justice.

Dr. Jeanne Carey Ingle is an associate professor of elementary and early childhood education. She teaches courses in English learner education, equity in education and educational technology. Her research includes PK-12 teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching in a multilingual classroom, English learner access to STEM education and using immersive technologies to prepare pre-service teachers. Dr. Ingle has written numerous articles and book chapters for academic and practitioner publications. She is the co-chair for the honors program for Elementary and Early Childhood Education and is the coordinator for the Adrian Tinsley Program Undergraduate Research Grant. Dr. Ingle was recently awarded the Bridgewater State University 2020/2021 Honors Outstanding Faculty Award. 

Kevin McGowan, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood education in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, College of Education and Health Sciences located at Bridgewater State University (BSU).  McGowan is also the academic director for the Martin Richard Institute for Social Justice located at BSU.  He worked for the District of Columbia Public Schools Head Start Program as a prekindergarten teacher, instructional coach, and early childhood administrator.  His scholarship focuses on diversity, equity, and empathy in early childhood education. 

Melissa Winchell is an associate professor in Secondary Education and Educational Leadership at Bridgewater State University. As a 23-year veteran of Massachusetts urban public education, she is vice president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME). Winchell’s research interests are in social justice pedagogy, especially in critical cultural competence, disability studies, and teaching and learning in higher education. Winchell is founder of the non-profit Inclusion Matters, co-founder of the educational consulting company EquityEDU, and a volunteer activist with the Federation for Children with Special Needs and the Department of Developmental Services.


Adichie, C. (2009, July). The Danger of a Single Story [Video]. TED Conferences.

Benson, T. A., Singleton, G. E., & Fiarman, S. E. (2019). Unconscious bias in schools : A developmental approach to exploring race and racism. Harvard Education Press.

Brookfield, S. (2019). Teaching race: how to help students unmask and challenge racism (First edition.). Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.

Jewell, T., & Durand, A. (2020). This book is anti-racist. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Kay, M. R. (2018). Not light, but fire : How to lead meaningful race conversations in the classroom. Stenhouse Publishers.

Teaching Tolerance. (2016). Social justice standards: The teaching tolerance anti-bias framework. Retrieved from

Todd, R., & Smith, J. (2019). Multicultural teacher education matters. The Journal of the Research Association of Minority Professors, 20(1), 1.