Creating Inclusive Classrooms

"networking icon with an orange background"As instructors and educators we have the responsibility to offer inclusive and accessible education to all. Students come to Queen's from a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds. Supporting all students in succeeding in the Queen's context requires that we make expectations explicit, provide clear instructions, check our own assumptions and judgements about academic work, and actively work against racism and other forms of oppression.

"Path in a wooded area."As Paul Kivel writes in Uprooting Racism (1995), assume racism/oppression continues to happen, both subtly and blatantly, every day. Initiate discussions about racism/oppression. Notice who is at the center of power. Notice who in your classroom is speaking, and who is not, and ask yourself why that might be. Notice how racism is minimized, denied and justified. Understand connections between racism and other forms of oppression. And self-educate about racism, colonialism past and present, resistance, and change.

Institutionally, Queen’s University has made commitments to address the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the recommendations of the Queen’s University Truth and Reconciliation Commission Task Force Final Report Yakwanastahentéha / Aankenjigemi / Extending the Rafters, and the recommendations of the Principal’s Implementation Committee on Racism, Diversity and Inclusion Report. As employees and students at Queen’s, it is our obligation to work towards these commitments.

As we consider what this might look like in the classroom, we must not boil down the language of equity, diversity and inclusion (see Stewart 2017) or the significance of and nuances among a variety of related but distinct movements including inclusivity, decolonization, Indigenization, and anti-racism. We also must recognize that the work of creating inclusive classrooms is ongoing. It is a process rather than a check-box task for completion.

The Centre for Teaching and Learning has many general resources on aspects of inclusive teaching, as does the Queen’s Human Rights and Equity Office, Queen’s Library, and Student Academic Success Services. We refer you to those resources (many of which are listed below) for general information and self-education. We believe that the goal of inclusive pedagogies must be intersectional, multifaceted, and multi-leveled. This guide will focus on specific situations and scenarios that you might encounter as a TA.

Inclusive Classrooms as a TA

Many resources on inclusive pedagogies focus on elements under a course instructor’s control, including the syllabus, reading list, and overall course design. These may seem out of reach for a teaching assistant, but there are still many ways that you can bring greater inclusivity into your teaching responsibilities. The suggestions below are designed to address a variety of teaching contexts: face-to-face, remote, seminar, tutorial, lab, office hours, etc.

Class Climate:

  • At the first meeting, establish and/or share group guidelines for how students and instructors will treat one another.
  • Remind students of group guidelines periodically through the semester, and refer to them when addressing problematic behaviour.
  • Educate yourself on common macro- and micro-aggressions in face-to-face and online environments, and be on the alert for them throughout your teaching assignment.
  • Use examples that are culturally inclusive rather than culturally specific whenever possible (e.g. “This concept is just like a coffee with lots of sugar and cream” not “This concept is just like a Double Double”).

Class Discussions:

  • For online discussions, ask another TA in your course to monitor the chat so that you can focus on the verbal discussion. If another course TA is not available, acknowledge to your students that your attention is divided and invite them to raise any issues during or after the session.
  • If a situation emerges and you don’t know what to do in the moment, acknowledge it’s happened and say you’ll follow up at the next meeting. Make sure you gather additional information and then return to the conversation as promised.
  • When possible, post discussion questions ahead of time to allow students time to prepare.
  • Notice who speaks and who doesn’t. Rather than singling out a student for not speaking during a discussion, if you’re concerned, ask them to stick around for a few minutes after the session or reach out by email.

Discussion Forums:

  • Set clear guidelines for participation, both in terms of content expectations and behavioural expectations.
  • Create or reference a netiquette guide (see this sample from the University of Waterloo).
  • Regularly monitor posts for macro- and micro-aggressions and racist assumptions. Respond appropriately.
  • Consider these strategies for responding to biased or offensive comments from noted expert Diane J. Goodman.

Giving Feedback on Written Work:

  • Academic conventions and writing styles differ across cultures. Make expectations explicit and help guide students through the writing, reading, and research processes they are expected to engage in.
  • Be aware of your own assumptions, values, and approaches that may affect how you view and judge academic writing.
  • Encourage individual perspectives in academic writing.
  • Know your limits. If a paper or comment is too violent (racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc.) and you feel you cannot respond to it, consider asking for support from other TAs in the course or the course instructor.

Interactions Between You and Students:

  • Be aware of your own implicit biases and how they may impact the way you engage with students.
  • Be aware of your own identities and how they may shape students’ behaviours towards you.
  • Recognize and respect your own limits, both in terms of knowledge and ability/strength to speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from the course instructor or other TAs.
  • Ask students to share their preferred name and pronouns if they feel comfortable; share your own if you feel comfortable. Being brave in teaching spaces can encourage students to take risks, too.

Interactions Between You and the Instructor/Teaching Team:

  • Bring concerns to the attention of the instructor/teaching team. If this feels uncomfortable, consider raising the issue with one colleague first, or finding another person to support you when you raise the issue.
  • Be prepared to take on a role of respectful education of your colleagues and supervisors—have an introductory resource or two (perhaps this one!) at the ready in case the instructor/teaching team are not as knowledgeable on the topic as you’d hoped.
  • Recognize and respect your own limits, both in terms of knowledge and ability/strength to speak up. The burden of anti-racist education often falls on those who are most impacted by racism, and if the burden feels too much, calling on an ally or stepping back from the situation are perfectly acceptable options.

"Where do I learn more icon"Where do I learn more? For more information, refer to the following guide compiled by Student Academic Success Services (SASS): Learning Strategies for an Intercultural Classroom


On Equity, Inclusivity, and Accessibility:

On Decolonization: