Breaking Down Educational Equity Strategies

Chelsea Penney
March 3, 2022

As the government and school districts begin to see the success and potential of expanding virtual education opportunities, it is important that all students are being considered as we move forward in these efforts. Millions of students of color and in high-poverty communities fell behind in their education during the coronavirus pandemic. To continue to innovate K-12 learning to meet the needs of all students, we must determine a more equitable path forward to support students from all walks of life with the tools they need to succeed. Teachers must engage students who have been negatively impacted the most as demonstrated by higher rates of learning loss.

Expert educators Dr. Melanie Battles, Catherine Graven and Lisa Tafoya join Dr. April Willis for this webinar. 

​​What have we learned about the need for quality virtual instruction in the P-12 environment?

Lisa Tafoya: I think the thing that we've learned about quality virtual instruction is being able to provide the appropriate resources. It's all about being able to be flexible, be adaptable and make sure that these students have access to the resources that they need.But I really do think that you need passionate teachers and people who know how to find things.

Dr. April Willis: We need those educators, and we need access. That's what virtual instruction is allowing us to do. We have a greater candidate pool than we've ever had before because now we're no longer bound to who can drive into our campus. We also have greater access than we've ever had before because everything is at our fingertips. 

It does sometimes pose some problems because now we're competing for attention from students. When they're using the device to learn when they could very well just click another button and use it to play a video game, why choose to show up to your class when they have access to some very entertaining alternatives? Part of that is having those relationships and setting those expectations and just being able to be the teacher that every student deserves, so they choose to come to your class every day.

Melanie Battles: I've always taught in person so as a first-year virtual teacher, I noticed that there is always the same theme of communicating with students about who you are as a person. That is vital to really help develop these relationships, so you can understand who they are. Even with my students being virtual, one thing that I worked on with them is having those one-on-one non-academic check-ins, whether it was weekly or bi-weekly, having that opportunity to talk. Because one thing we know is that we can't take a student outside and have a conversation, or we can't see him in the hallways as we would in person. How can we create those connections with our students, so that we can have the leverage needed in order to push them to the next level of learning and understanding? So for me really getting to know them on a one-on-one basis was a really big thing. Communication and being very intentional about utilizing that within your teacher training practices. Just as you will plan a test every week or you plan a review at the end of your week, plan those times with your students one-on-one. Just talk about who they are as peopl, because we are people who are teaching and we need to understand that they are students who are learning, not just products of the system of education. We are humans operating in the system, and we need to make the connection the best we can with a virtual plan.

Dr. April Willis: To take it one step further, it's not just about recognizing the need for human connection for students to teachers, but also teachers to other teachers. Oftentimes in the virtual world, we're hearing so many teachers feel that they are on an island, they feel like they're doing this alone because they don't have connection. They don't have that teacher work room or teacher lounge where they can decompress or talk about what's going on or ask fellow teachers, what's working and what's not working. But we still are in this together as a team. Our PLCs look a little different probably, and it doesn't mean that they don't exist anymore. Understanding how to continue to foster and cultivate those relationships with our colleagues is really important because we know about this mass exodus that's happening right now with teachers across the country. It is not a fun place for a lot of people who are really struggling with how to manage their own needs and the tools and resources they have available to them. 

Melanie Battles: I think it's important for us as Proximity Learning teachers to make sure that we reach out to the TAs. I had a recent change, where one of the teacher assistants left and another one came in. I just took the initiative to reach out to her, introduce myself and she said, “I appreciate that.” I know that we're busy, and we have things going on. It’s important to take that extra step to connect with the teacher assistant, so that we can get to know our students holistically from their eyes. That is a really vital step for connection. Teacher to teacher, human to human as adults is important too.

Catherine Graven: The word that's missing from that is LIVE quality virtual instruction. The previous year, a lot of teachers were forced to try to do asynchronous and weren’t meeting with the students as often. I really feel that the live virtual instruction that we offer is high-quality. I am a big supporter of instant feedback in a classroom. A student who gets feedback two or three days later does not have a greater understanding than a student who can access that straightaway.

How has virtual instruction helped to level the playing field for all students?

Catherine Graven: It's reaching students that may not have had the opportunity to have quality education: students in rural communities or students who have medical issues, who weren't able to attend before the pandemic, and now that has only increased their chances of not being able to attend. Again we're moving away from asynchronous, which is good. It's giving that live, quality education to students in areas that weren't necessarily able to access that before.

Lisa Tafoya: I work with students in West Virginia, many of whom do have medical issues. I also have students in brick-and-mortar schools where there are no teachers because of that mass exodus that is currently taking place. I feel like it's helping so much that Proximity Learning is helping to get that education to them in a way that they would not otherwise be getting. Otherwise, they're stuck with subs or unqualified instructors. Here, they've been trying to get parents to substitute. It's a huge deal. I love the fact that even in our district where I live, they are using Proximity Learning as a resource to get that live instruction to the students. I really do feel like this is helping level the playing field.

How important is it to have diverse educators when ensuring equitable instruction for all students?

Melanie Battles: Representation is a really, really big part of culturally responsive teaching. Oftentimes our students need to see educators who like them or have a diverse lens from different cultures. I think it’s very important because you can understand the culture that the students come from. You can understand the parenting styles a bit better. There is an opportunity for us to stop any kind of blaming of cultural ways that we don't understand. If I'm a part of a diverse culture, they understand what it means to be marginalized or to be pushed aside because we are not the dominant culture here in America. It gives us that connection, so I think it is vital to students. I was looking at the young lady who created Abbott Elementary and she shared that this show was actually named after her sixth-grade teacher. She was on Jimmy Kimmel, and the teacher popped up and looked so much like her. This teacher she never forgot, so much so that she's created a hit show right now, after this teacher’s last name. I think that's really important to understand that diverse educators really bring in that spirit of representation that students need. Even if they're not of that race, students need to see a myriad of cultures when they come across teachers. I just think it's important.

Lisa Tafoya: Coming from a Hispanic family I absolutely agree with everything Dr. Battles had to say because sometimes you need that diversity in order to be able to relate to them. Once you can get on their level and say, “I’m just like you, I came from a family background just like yours so I understand what you're going through, what your culture is.” It helps you to relate to them better. Even if you're not from the same culture, you get to relate collectively better with your students. As far as diversity in educators is concerned, I think it's very important to have educators that are diverse in all classrooms.

Dr. April Willis: Being able to let students know, “I see you. I might have a similar story to you. It's not the same story, but I have something in common with you.” I grew up in a bicultural home. My mother is from Iran, so I'm half Persian. She spoke four languages. English was her last one. My dad was in the military, so we definitely had one of those upbringings. We've got a militaristic father and a mother from the Middle East. That's a big clash. Being able to make those connections with them and just letting them know that you are also human and that we are all going through a story. Our story is very unique to us, and we've got so much to bring to the table because of it. I love that idea of being able to let your students know you see them. “I see your story, and I can not always relate to your story, but I get it.”

Catherine Graven: I think it's important that there are role models to show people that you can achieve anything, you can dream anything and there's a bigger world out there. I've taught in quite a lot of rural schools. I’m teaching about the beach, but they've never seen the sea. Coming from a different country and moving into America, I feel like I do have a lot more insight into what it's like outside. There is a bigger world out there. I think having people from diverse backgrounds and different cultures really opens students' eyes to those possible opportunities.

What is something you wish someone would have prepared you for when you first started to teach virtually?

Dr. April Willis: We have to be creative on how we're going to continue to maintain relationships with parents. We want their child to be successful. Even though we're not there, we can't give them the high fives, we can't give them the handshakes, we can't give them the pat on the back, we are still very much rooting for your child to experience success in the classroom. We're going to make ourselves as accessible as possible, so sometimes that looks like having office hours, sending newsletters out more often than we would have typically have sent them out, having a texting tree, having opportunities to hop on the phone with your families, although you might be all over the time zone. It might feel a little bit different but getting creative as to what it looks like to maintain those relationships. Let them know that we may not be physically in the same place, but mentally we want the same thing. I think that that's really important for us to be able to convey to those families. 

Have you identified key factors that may increase the educational potential of students of color to enroll in and graduate from a higher ED institution?

Catherine Graven: I actually used to work in an adult education program back in New Mexico. I would see a lot of access to resources, but the follow on support from that as well. I was very lucky at a time when a new director came in, and she wanted to completely rebuild the program. We started a c3 program where we were teaching other colleges how we could improve those resources and support for communities of color specifically because that's the area that we came from. Students in rural areas would also find that they wouldn't have access to those resources or know how to use them correctly. Someone can give me a pile of paperwork and go here you go. You can apply for all these scholarships and grants until someone sits down with you to go over that. This new director was definitely changing that. She was bringing more staff, supporting and having one-on-one mentorships. She had three advisors who would sit them down one-on-one and help them work through those resources.

Dr. April Willis: I’m hearing two things: one is the idea of exposure. Letting you know that these tools exist, these resources exist, these scholarships exist. There's a school for this thing that you love, but probably nobody told you. There’s this idea or misconception of what college might mean. College is for people who want to be doctors, lawyers and teachers. But it is so much more than that. If we can start to increase awareness around what is available for you in higher ED. It's not just the academics, there are vocational studies available as well that are going to make you just as successful. We need to make sure that they understand all of that exists. Break down some of those barriers like, “How do I apply for a student loan?” “When do I know that a student loan is right for me?” “How can I apply for a scholarship?””Where do I find those scholarships?” “How long in advance do I need to make these applications happen before the day I actually want to start?” Having this roadmap for students who have never had that person in their life to walk them through some of these things before. First generation college students have a lot on their plate. I was a first generation college student and figured it out with the help of guidance counselors and parents who were able to invest more in me at the time. There are a lot of different variables for people, but being able to create the exposure and then provide that guidance along the way is very important.

Melanie Battles: There is more than one option because how you're collecting student debt is a big issue. If that is not the route for that student, I believe in how important it is to have that mentorship and make sure that no child is left without a roadmap to decide what it is they want to do. If we are thinking about how to strategically use social-emotional learning within the framework of our teaching and learning, we take students through the journey of identity and belonging. They get to know more about themselves so many of our young people and even adults don't really know what their strengths are or the places where they want to grow. Until you can understand that, it's going to be harder for you to figure out if college or a vocational school is better.
I have a 15-year-old and she's shown interest in culinary arts. She has a strong interest in pre-med, so I put her in different groups. We're thinking pre-med, so she's in a mentorship group with other Black and brown students who look like her. Black doctors can let her know that this is accessible to you and people who look like you. I also think that it's important for us to think about exposure. I've taken kids on HBCU college tours. For those who don't know, those are historically Black colleges and universities and getting our students to understand that even if you are not at a space where you feel like you're competitive, none of that has to matter. Really unpacking this industrialized complex of education producing robots because our kids are saying that YouTube is making money. They're seeing that going viral is the way to go, so we can't convince them of the old narrative that you must go to college to get the degree to get the job. There are other avenues now that they are seeing, so we've got to create an environment where we're able to help them to form whomever it is they want to be, but also let them know that you are on a journey of life. You will always be becoming. And it may change. You may want to be this and explore this and then you may want to be that. That's the beauty of life. It's exploration and curiosity, so I think if we accept that and put that into classrooms, then we can give our students a leg up to let them know you can explore what you want to be, but first, you need to see who it is that you really are and the value that you bring to the world.

Are there parts of virtual instruction that are not helping the need to provide equitable access to students of color?

Lisa Tafoya: I think there are parts of virtual instruction that don't work for everybody. We already know that we have different types of learners. For instance, I’m a kinesthetic learner. My children are kinesthetic learners. But I also can listen and write things down. The lack of paper is kind of problematic for some of these kids and not because they're not tech-savvy because they are. It's just that they have a harder time getting it done in the time period that they're expected to get it done. It puts a lot of pressure on them, and it stresses them out. It leads to frustration that is hard to pull back from.

Dr. April Willis: We are really good at being flexible. When we recognize students are having a problem with something, we are going to start to brainstorm what are all the ways that we can work with you, so that we will mitigate this problem. It doesn't mean we always get to eliminate it, but we're going to do everything we can because this is the situation that we're in, and we want you to be as successful as possible. Sometimes that means we do some creative problem-solving. I agree there is not a one-size-fits-all for education. There should be options and opportunities for students to figure out where they fit in best, and we need to do a better job as educators as we continue to evolve with what delivery of instruction looks like because for some students, they are thriving in the virtual world. These are kiddos who might have been left behind or fallen through the cracks, and now they have the opportunity to progress through their education oftentimes at their own pace. They have the opportunity to pause lectures and let it sink in and listen to something again. When before if you missed a lecture for a dentist appointment, you are done if you didn't have a friend you trusted to take notes. Too bad you lost the learning for the day. But now we have the opportunity to listen to that learning on our own time, have it repeated for us, so there are some students who are absolutely thriving in this. We also know there are some who are not as well, so when we start to notice we're starting to lose engagement or we're starting to see discipline issues, we're starting to see behavior issues, that's the time where we need to start coming up with creative solutions for those kiddos specifically. 

Catherine Graven: You can also go back to basics and say those students that don't have the opportunity for internet and computers. In the world that we are currently living in, districts are having to provide those things. Not everybody has access to the Internet. One of the districts that I worked in actually built remote wifi vehicles. They built six buses that they could take out into the local communities, but again, not every district has that opportunity or the money and resources to be able to provide that to students. I don't think we realize there are large amounts of students in the communities that don't have access to technology and the internet. That is where we would be losing the equitable access pressure.

What professional development session or topic would you recommend other virtual administrators or educators explore?

Catherine Graven: EdTech in general - keep on top of it. Look at the new resources that are coming out, play with them, try it with the kids and see what they like and don't like.

Lisa Tafoya: for those students that do struggle with the paper and pen thing. I have found helps tremendously because you do it all together as a class. You can see all their work as it's being done, and they get the grade. They don't have to worry about it.

Melanie Battles: I think culturally responsive teaching and social-emotional learning is a must. If we're going to talk about equity, we have to make sure that the teachers have the mindset and framework to be culturally responsive to all diverse communities and to naturally embed that SEL not as a separate thing, but as a natural part of the learning process.

When you encounter a challenge and virtual education, where do you go to find solutions?

Melanie Battles: YouTube is always my favorite. Proximity Learning always has open office hours. I really do appreciate so many resources being available and consistent from Proximity Learning. YouTube is my first goal, just to figure it out on my own, but if not somebody’s got a office hours  I can jump into.

Lisa Tafoya: I will go to the school's websites and see what resources they have in their library and what they're using for their students who are brick and mortar. Obviously, nearpod is a favorite and, of course, my Proximity Learning colleagues are the best.

Catherine Graven: When I found out who my team members were, I created a Google chat with them. I invited them all in, and we chat every day. We brainstorm, and we have our meetings once a week too. I'm very blessed to have an awesome team who will support each other.

Dr. April Willis: I love to confer with students because oftentimes if I'm having a challenge, who knows technology better than young people? I will ask them, “Can you tell me how to do this or where to find this?” Not only am I going to likely get the right answer, but also I'm letting them know that you have so much to teach other people. I am allowing the students to feel the sense of empowerment that they might not have had the opportunity to experience before. It is giving them authority, letting them know that your teacher doesn't know it all. I love being able to get my students involved. There's no better way to learn something than to teach it. We're letting them continue to grow in their learning experiences, but we are also having their peers learn from them, which is also very powerful. They have this sense of accomplishment. We're increasing their confidence. I mean talk about embedding SEL in a really organic way! We've got a great growth mindset, which is allowing us to continue to persevere when this challenge feels like we can overcome it, or we know that this was a really tough day but we have resiliency so we are going to come right back even stronger. When we narrate some of those things it doesn't mean we're doing direct teach SEL, it means we're connecting the dots for those students.

If you’re having trouble engaging students of color with virtual learning canvas modules, what are you doing to solve problems with students who are not engaging?

Catherine Graven: Yes, canvas can be repetitive and very lecture-like, so what I tend to do is add things into those. My favorite at the moment is blooket. It’s a new resource like kahoot, but it turns them into a virtual video game. So they are learning while playing a video game, I'm tricking them. My fourth graders are like “We're playing another game!” and I’m like “We're learning cause and effect!” So that's really engaging my students.

Lisa Tafoya: I use nearpod a lot because it gets them to interact. is a favorite. Kahoot, quizlet, brain pop. But they really get into the kahoot, so if I tell them that we're going to have a kahoot after we have a crash course lesson, then they are all about it and they are paying attention. They're on it.

Dr. April Willis: Resources alone won't solve your problems. I think it absolutely is a combination of resources and relationships. If they do not feel you are showing up for them, they will not show up for you. It doesn't matter how many games you play, you need to be able to have that connection with students. Let them know you care for them, you love them, you want them to be successful, you are going to support them and everything that it takes and that you will stay on top of them for accountability.

Is anyone successful with getting students to show their faces on camera and what are you doing?

Melanie Battles: I've seen the struggle when the pandemic first started where teachers were so big on the cameras need to be on. I need to see your faces and then it becomes a question of compliance and control. One thing about the human brain I'm reading in Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull is control. Cognition, control, fear and pleasure are four of the functions of the brain, and so the student needs to feel like they are in control. Last week with a group of kids I've had since the beginning of the school year, I said, “I would appreciate it if everyone would turn on their cameras. I'd love to see your faces,” and I left it alone. When one came on I said, “Thank you so much Ariana for turning on your camera. I appreciate that, I really do.” Another one came on, “Thank you Mark for doing that.” Just recognizing that everybody's camera came on I didn't have to make a big tirade about it or get into a whole argument or discussion. I tell them that they're beautiful people. That's how I greet them every day, good morning beautiful people. I give them freedom in the classroom to be themselves and I don't worry about compliance and control. The relationship first, then they'll do the things that need to be done once you have the relationship.

Interested in learning more about spreading equity and becoming a virtual teacher? Click here.

about the author
Chelsea Penney

Chelsea Penney earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing from University of Colorado Denver and her Masters of Science in Marketing from Texas A&M University Commerce. She loves living in Austin, TX and working on the frontline as Content Marketing Manager for Proximity Learning.

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