Teaching Social and Racial Justice in the Classroom

At a glance

The Social and Racial Justice Events of 2020–2021

The events of 2020 and 2021 brought renewed focus to social and racial justice issues nationwide. These events and the cultural discussions that followed not only impacted society at large, but also had a major influence on our education system. Teachers cited the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests, and political events as prominent stories that heightened and informed student perspectives on social and racial justice issues across the country.

Students, especially those in 4th grade and above who had greater awareness of events and media coverage, came to class talking about social and racial justice in new ways and asking educators to help them sort through and process events. This shift in student consciousness required many educators to reevaluate how to incorporate social and racial justice issues in their classroom and lessons during an academic year that was already wrought with challenges brought on by the pandemic.

In the Spring of 2021, we conducted 90-minute interviews with 12 teachers across the U.S. to better understand their experiences discussing social and racial justice topics in the classroom. Within this sample, teachers represented different grade levels, subjects, socio-economic backgrounds, urbanicity, and tenures. We also included diverse teaching models— some were fully in person, others fully remote, while a third group of teachers fell into a hybrid model.

Our objective with this qualitative research study was to:

  • Understand the impact of social justice events on teachers and students
  • Examine how teachers responded to social justice and racial inequality issues in the classroom
  • Discover how the events of 2020–2021 impacted classroom discussions around social and racial justice and what resources teachers need to make these discussions even more effective in the future

The terms social and racial justice are defined in the following manner:

Social Justice: A broader examination of issues related to economic, political, and civil inequalities and inequities and how to address them with an emphasis on making society fairer for all.

Racial Justice: A more focused examination of how systemic issues create inequalities for specific racial or ethnic groups and how to address them.

We quickly learned from our research that teachers have different perspectives about and degrees of interest in bringing discussions of social and racial justice into the classroom. This variation impacted student experiences and tended to be based on teachers’ consideration of four different factors:

  1. District Diversity: Teachers in districts with more racial, political, and economic diversity tended to see a greater need for students to understand issues of social and racial justice. In diverse communities, these issues may be apparent more frequently, and educators may already be familiar with helping students navigate differences.
  2. Political Pressures: Another factor that influenced teachers’ openness to broach topics of social and racial injustice was the political barometer of the school’s district. Teachers tended to be more concerned about discussing social and racial justice issues in more politically conservative districts, in part because this dictated how supportive administrators would be of such discussions and how willing they’d be to back up teachers. In more politically liberal districts, teachers tended to have greater confidence in administrator support when incorporating social and racial justice discussions into the classroom.
  3. Teacher’s Subject: Even with the pivotal events of 2020–2021 and students bringing up topics pertaining to social and racial justice in school, some teachers felt it wasn’t their place to incorporate these topics into their lessons if they couldn’t find a clear connection to the subject they taught. As a result, teachers of social studies (history, politics, etc.) and English language arts (ELA) tended to be more open to teaching about social and racial justice.
  4. Teacher’s Grade: Teachers see different degrees of appropriateness based on students’ cognitive reasoning and emotional maturity at different grade levels, with nuanced perspectives on how much implicit versus explicit conversation should happen.

It is important to note that there were exceptions to many of these factors. Some teachers, regardless of the level of homogeneity in the school or political stance of the community, felt compelled to bring up social and racial justice as an educational responsibility. Some teachers talked about wanting to get students out of their comfort zones and teach them new things, including empathy. Similarly, regardless of subject, some teachers considered it a responsibility to speak to students about social and racial justice, especially if students were turning to them with questions and concerns.

1. Political Sensitivity

Teachers want to educate students and be as unbiased as possible. They don’t want students to know their stance or political party, which is not always easy to do. Teachers want to be respectful of different viewpoints so that students and their families are not offended by classroom discussions. Talking about different points of view also teaches the importance of seeing multiple perspectives. However, for some educators, this isn’t always an easy task to separate who they are and what they believe.

“What I don’t want to do is give the students a biased perspective . . . As a teacher, I don’t want to get into an uncomfortable situation where I’m just another name on the news about somebody who’s said something and gone beyond the boundaries.” —Renee

2. Authentic Integration

Discussing serious topics in ways that are appropriate for students’ ages and cognitive and emotional abilities is also top of mind for educators. Teachers want to ensure that these discussions are authentically integrated into the classroom so that they meet students’ emotional needs and concerns. However, they also want to balance this with being true to the teaching topic and not having discussions on social and racial justice come off to students as “just another lesson” or feel forcibly inserted.

“There were different types of curricula put forth that were geared towards social studies and language arts. But they didn’t provide anything for math or science, so I don’t want to just strike up a conversation with these kids, like ‘hey do you want to talk about racism?’ especially on Zoom.” —Katie

3. Finding the Time and Space

One of the leading challenges educators consistently face is a lack of time. This need for more time was a challenge for teachers before the pandemic, and a lack of time was further amplified as the pandemic required teachers to learn new technologies and methods while developing lessons for the digital or socially distanced classroom. With so little time and so many requirements and standards that teachers must deliver, many teachers also struggled to find time to bring in the important, and sometimes time-consuming, discussions around social and racial justice. Teachers also struggled to find time outside of class to educate themselves on the topics to ensure an engaging and effective discussion.

4. Lack of Guidance

Many teachers and school districts were unprepared to tackle the rising importance of social and racial justice discussions during the 2020–2021 school year due to the amount of chaotic change caused by the pandemic. Districts and educators didn’t have a framework to guide them on how to bring up and discuss these topics and often didn’t have time to develop such materials as cultural and social events arose. Without clear guidance, teachers were often left to figure out solutions on their own and worried about administrators being able to provide support if they would need it. Teachers wanted more ways to connect topics around social and racial justice to lessons, curriculum, and standards they knew they needed to teach, but found very few resources that did so.

“You just don’t want to say the wrong thing.” —Macharla

Given these four challenges, teachers developed their own techniques throughout 2020–2021 for approaching social and racial justice issues in the classroom.

1. Relying on the Expertise of Others

Teachers started sharing YouTube videos and TED Talks with students, which they had personally found meaningful. These videos featured authors and speakers discussing issues like race and discrimination. Having others present on these topics made teachers feel more secure in the information being presented and reduced some of the burden on them.

2. Updating Relevant Social Studies and ELA Lessons

To help make time to discuss social and racial justice issues and ground the content in their core curriculum, teachers updated lessons on historical events like the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement to discuss the Black Lives Matter protests and events surrounding the Capitol Riots. Connecting recent events with historical ones provided some foundation and security for educators.

“I can talk about current issues if they say something like ‘well, you said to connect [to history] and that’s how I connected it.’ You can kind of cover yourself if it’s [what they’re learning about] at the time and a current issue . . . We talked about storming the Capitol, so when they brought it up, I incorporated it into the lesson around the Revolutionary War, like when people didn’t agree with King George.” —Kena

3. Allowing Space for Student Self-Teaching

Teachers who valued social and racial justice, but weren’t sure if they had the expertise, guidance or time to teach it, found one solution to be to encourage their students to do their own research and seek out answers to the questions they had on their own. Students were allowed space for self-exploration and forming their own opinions.

“My classes are pretty open. I allow them to share their experiences on a daily basis and go off on tangents. The kids are knowledgeable about what’s going on with social media, what’s being televised, all that stuff. So, it wasn’t a means of me providing them with information, it was more about having the ability to facilitate those conversations.” —Brad

4. Teaching Concepts on Social Skills and Equity (for elementary students)

Instead of directly engaging younger students in topics of social and racial justice that may have been harder to facilitate given developmental stages, educators focused on integrating more readings and discussions around fairness, accepting differences, and ethics. Teaching on these topics allowed educators to address important topics through foundational lessons that would prepare students to learn more about social and racial injustices as they grew.

“At the very least, I think it would be beneficial for my kids to reflect upon . . . their views. I don’t know if we’re at the age where we should be talking about police brutality with 12- and 13-year-olds, but I think we should definitely be talking about how your differences might help you or help others.” —Katie

5. Focusing on Student-Centered Debates and Forums (for late middle school through high school)

In contrast to teachers of elementary students, educators for older students had times when they would devote a portion of a class period to a moderated group discussion on timely social and racial justice issues. This was especially common if the teacher could sense that students were asking questions or fixated on social and cultural events dominating the media. Teachers facilitated discussions in such a way that encouraged expressing different perspectives in a respectful forum.

The 2020–2021 academic year was truly unprecedented with the challenges of shifting to remote and socially distanced education models compounded with educators and their students needing to navigate emotionally charged social and racial justice events. By exploring challenges teachers faced in teaching about social and racial justice and how they solved these issues, we were able to uncover five best practices (or lessons learned) for how social and racial justice issues can be best addressed and supported in the classroom of the future.

1. It is important that materials focus on teaching students HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think.

Many teachers across the country, at different grade levels and subject areas, agree that the education system has become too focused on students performing well on standardized tests, as opposed to teaching students how to think critically in real-world scenarios. In turn, teachers would love to see the development and incorporation of materials that help students learn how to be more critical and empathetic thinkers, to be good citizens, and to be aware of social and racial justice issues with an objective lens. Teachers also feel this approach to incorporating social and racial justice into the classroom could be not only less politically charged, but also more engaging for students.

2. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching and discussing social and racial justice. What is appropriate should depend on student body demographics, students’ grade level, and teachers’ subject.

For elementary school students, teachers want to focus on broader principles like fairness, equality, and kindness. For middle school students, whose views may be primarily influenced by parents’ opinions, teachers want to focus more on tying discussions and lessons back to history and broader social events. For high school students, teachers prioritize opportunities for student debates and respectful discussions with various perspectives.

In more conservative communities, framing discussions and activities around broader topics such as “equality” and “equity” rather than explicitly discussing social and racial justice events may be more effective. In more politically or racially homogenous communities, there is a greater need for helping teachers break students out of their “bubbles.”

3. Teachers want a variety of dynamic media and resources they can use within lessons and classroom discussions.

Teachers don’t want to be given generic and censored resources. They would prefer resources that discuss social and racial justice issues in ways that are engaging and relatable. Ideally, teachers want a range of media that can be used at different levels, so that teachers can choose what will work best for their students based on their age and political sensitivities.

4. Teachers want to ensure that conversations about social and racial justice feel authentic and engaging rather than “just another lesson.”

Student Agency: Teachers feel there is an opportunity to allow students, especially those in middle or high school, to choose and curate what sort of topics they want to learn about, discuss or debate.

Relatable Content: Teachers feel that the most compelling materials will feature stories, scenarios, and/or facts that students can see themselves in, and emotionally connect to, their own lived experience. Teachers would like to see stories and materials that feature a bit of grit and reality (in an age-appropriate manner) rather than sterilized materials.

Subject Respect: Teachers feel that explicit discussion about social and racial justice issues is best kept to humanities courses, namely social studies and ELA, rather than forcing it into every subject.

Within these types of subjects, we heard usage of and desire for:

  • History/Government: discussion of current events in comparison to prominent historical events
  • ELA: featuring more diverse authors and perspectives

Subject Integration: Teachers often feel they don’t have time to educate themselves with outside resources and that administrations can be resistant to creating extra time for content that isn’t tied to standards. As a result, many teachers would prefer materials that are easy to integrate into their current lessons rather than something they have to work on integrating themselves.

5. There is opportunity to develop resources and materials beyond curricula and the classroom.

Given the differing degrees of belief in explicitly integrating discussions and lessons around social and racial justice into the classroom, teachers also suggest a number of other ways to bring these discussions into school:

  • In the classroom: Creating space for discussion within homeroom periods, paired with prompts that ask students to look into and reflect on current events.
  • Outside the classroom: Greater proactive integration of discussions of social and racial justice issues into school culture, through broader school or grade-wide days of learning, speakers, and activities. For those in more conservative areas, extracurricular discussion groups where students can explore ideas, but do not feel they are required to participate, are encouraged.

The events of 2020–2021 shifted perspectives on social and racial justice. American youth entered classrooms more effected by, and more curious about, social and racial justice. As students turned to educators to support them through this experience, school districts, already overwhelmed with teaching during the pandemic, struggled to respond to student needs as quickly as educators hoped. As a result, teachers developed various techniques to meet student needs on their own. However, educators hope that in the future there will be more resources, guidance, standards, and support for teachers to enable students to process, cope, and learn about topics associated with social and racial justice.

Authors and Contributors

Kathleen Marker, Ph.D.
Qualitative Researcher, Quip Insights

Kuba Kierlanczyk
Qualitative Researcher, Quip Insights

Francie Alexander
Chief Research Officer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Amy Endo, Ph.D.
Education Research Director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Mila Kuznetsova
Senior Director of User Researcher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Alexa Goldberg
User Researcher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt