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On Becoming a More Inclusive Educator

Updated: May 17, 2023

Oregon State University

As we enter Fall 2020, “inclusive teaching, " has become more than just a hot topic—it’s an essential part of course design and pedagogy. However, even as educators desire to become more inclusive, many find themselves unsure how to get started. This short article provides a place to begin, a structure to work within, and the confidence to address this challenging issue.

First, a definition.

If you spend time online, you'll find many different ways to describe inclusive pedagogy. Some focus on an internal goal, often described as creating classrooms where all students feel supported, respected, and engaged. Others look externally, to addressing systemic issues of social justice and inequality. My approach is to think of inclusive teaching as a mindset that we bring to our pedagogy and our classrooms. This mindset reminds us that our job is to educate all of our students, which requires consciously considering whether all of our students have access to our content, our community, and our services.

Next, it is important to consider why we are undertaking this work.

I situate my answer to this question within the extensive literature surrounding unconscious bias, and the more recent movement toward becoming an antiracist (Kendi, 2019). As an antiracist educator, I acknowledge that years of racist policies and laws have shaped our classrooms, colleges, and society at large. For me, being antiracist means recognizing this history and actively seeking to make change. It also means identifying my unconscious biases in areas of race, gender, language, and ethnicity. For example, research tells me that unconsciously, I am more likely to respond to students in online classes who have names that suggest students are white and male (Baker et al., 2018). I am also likely to perceive non-native English speakers as less competent and intelligent (Nelson et al., 2012). The goal of identifying biases like these isn't to say I am a bad person, nor that I intend to discriminate. But research suggests my unconscious may work against me.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon me, and all of us, to create structures that surface unconscious biases and deliberately look for ways to foster more inclusive cultures.

There are other answers to the question of why we pursue inclusive teaching. Your why may be situated in a desire to advocate for people with disabilities. You may be in a position of privilege and desire to be an ally for marginalized individuals and communities. Please know that your why is just as valid as mine. I offer you my why because I believe it is an essential part of constructing an inclusive pedagogy.

Because we are research-based educators, we often look to the research to give us the answers. How do we create a more inclusive classroom? I break the literature down into three primary buckets and offer take-aways from each:

1. In the first bucket, I include research related to Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

2. In the second, I include theories of cultural competency.

3. In the third, I include a wide variety of research centered around the general concept of inclusive teaching and inclusive pedagogy.

Each of these areas provides significant and unique insight into how we create more inclusive classroom spaces. Particularly relevant for UDL is the question of access. UDL encourages us as educators to assume we will have diverse learners and plan accordingly by providing them with multiple means of demonstrating mastery and numerous ways of engaging with and accessing content (Rose et al., 2006). The second bucket, culturally relevant pedagogy (also known as culturally competent or culturally responsive pedagogy), refers to teaching practices that recognize students' inherent value of diverse cultural and ethnic heritages and explicitly draw on those perspectives in the classroom (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

In the third bucket, we find a wide variety of studies that have considered both the benefits of inclusion and related methods of improving student outcomes (e.g., Reyes et al., 2012). Here again, it is difficult to summarize the literature in a few sentences, but I would suggest that we can draw two significant conclusions:

1. Students learn more when they feel included, welcomed, and treated part of the classroom community.

2. Students achieve higher academic outcomes when there are positive student-teacher relationships and a sense that an instructor cares about them.

With this background in mind, I offer educators the following model and pathway for creating more inclusive classrooms. This model aims to identify the primary points of impact where research has identified positive strategies for improving student outcomes and making classrooms more inclusive. This model is deliberately non-sequential. Instructors should not feel that they must move through a specific process to become "inclusive." Remember, inclusive teaching is not an end-goal—it is a mindset. This work is ongoing; there is always an opportunity to engage more deeply with the process and create positive change.

In this model, you see that personal reflection becomes the living background of the inclusive classroom. To engage in this process, ask yourself why you do the work you do, your goals, and how your background and history may inform the person you bring into the classroom. Consider how your background may differ from your students, and where you may overlap. Reflect on power differentials that may exist on various levels between you and your students, and how those may impact student learning. Are there places you can cede control and foster co-creation of knowledge?

Concerning the teacher-content node, be mindful that much of the content in the form of textbooks, case studies, and popular media may not reflect diverse students' experiences or histories. Consider where you can add more diverse voices, student perspectives, and cultural backgrounds to your content. Consider also where the material you teach may reinforce inequitable social structures—can you intentionally address these social structures and consider social justice issues in your curriculum?

About the teacher-structure node, keep in mind that community, engagement, and caring matters. Can you improve the sense of community among your students? Are there ways to make your lessons more active and engaging across a variety of modalities and styles? Have you considered issues of access and created opportunities for multiple means of assessment, engagement, and representation in your content?

Finally, concerning the teacher-student node, reflect on your relationships with your students. Even in a large lecture class, can you create more opportunities to get to know your students? Have you communicated your interest in their success? How could you demonstrate your caring and where you can interact positively and directly?

There is no entirely inclusive educator, nor is there a single path to becoming more inclusive. I encourage all educators to consider where they can engage with this vital process. Your students will be better off for it, and I submit that you will be as well.

Discussion Questions

  1. There are many definitions of inclusive teaching—how would you define it? What resonates with you, and what will guide your practice?

  2. There are many reasons why educators strive to become more inclusive. What is your why? Why are you reading this blog? What drives you in this work?

  3. Consider the questions included above with the description of the model. Where do you see an opportunity to make your classroom more inclusive? Write down three concrete changes you could make to your class and how you would implement them.


Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Retrieved from

Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. (Random House: New York.)

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedgagoy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Nelson, Jr., L. R., Signorella, M. L., and Botti, K. G. (2016). Accent, Gender, and Perceived Competence. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 38(2), 166–185.

Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom Emotional Climate, Student Engagement, and Academic Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(3), 700-712.

Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnson, C. S., Daley, S. G., Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal Designs for learning in postsecondary education: reflections on principles and their application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19 (2), 135-151.

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