This post is from NCTE member Nathan Jones.
As an educator, I relish a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, places of origin, and perspectives. Perhaps no place had such an environment quite like Sullivan, a university with open enrollment, for which I previously taught. Despite the melting pot of our classrooms, one specific issue continued to keep me up at night: the comings and goings of underrepresented students who would begin my courses with excitement and goals of achieving a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, but who would soon disappear from the course. Seeing the consistent imbalance of those who dropped out due either to other time constraints or to lack of preparation forced me to recognize that underrepresented communities, neglected through decades of systematic racism and diaspora, needed more support and programming to achieve higher education goals.
The unique environment at Sullivan required me to adjust my approach. Some students were single parents with full-time jobs with inconsistent schedules; some had been previously unhoused, recovering from addiction; others had partners who were imprisoned. The prospect of attending class and managing the workload along with the additional pressures and demands on their time and mental space often did not align. One may argue that students should know what the requirements are to be successful, regardless of their individual baggage. Most of my students did understand, but they were also convinced when they registered for class that they could overcome the obstacles. My question: Is this promise simply an abstract idea, wishful thinking, or are there concrete and real ways to specifically provide a path that is navigable in such realities?
These and other similar questions forced me to change my approach to teaching and managing fair expectations. Could I enforce the same requirements for attendance and due dates on those working around the clock while raising young children as I did on the person whose only responsibility was to attend class during the day? On the other hand, did it serve my students to lower expectations? It raised many questions in my approach to the classroom.
The good news is that many schools and educators are more than willing to find nontraditional ways to support students of underrepresented communities who come to class with less preparation or personal/familial support, along with additional stresses and demanding responsibilities. Social programs that provide campus food pantries, “I-Care Closets” that help with clothing and supplies, and even bus passes can make a large difference for at-risk students. These programs help address immediate needs and provide a supportive environment that is inclusive rather than another roadblock.
Other possibilities that can help make higher learning more accessible include trauma-informed training, peer-to-peer mentoring, hybrid options for meeting attendance requirements, and adoption of underrepresented texts and curriculum. On a micro level, there are educators willing to use various teaching modalities, offer help with fundamentals, and put in extra time. However, not all are willing or able to be as flexible.
How can the educational world adapt to the needs of underrepresented communities to meet the will and desire to break through previously unmovable obstacles? Students and educators require more support to solidify a path for students from underrepresented communities to overcome challenges that are unique to them. Of course, there will always be educators and administrators who find ways to serve everyone and help students succeed, but my hope is to see foundational and consistent efforts open to all students implemented across higher education.
Let’s keep this conversation at the forefront of the priorities of educational institutions and advance actionable efforts to make significant changes.
Nathan Jones teaches college composition and literature courses in central Kentucky. He is keenly interested in creating more dynamic and inclusive learning environments, and breaking down barriers in the writing classroom. You can connect with him via Twitter at @mandolinjones or via email at email@example.com.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.