Back-to-School with Belonging

October 12, 2022
Karen Kochel and her psychology students create guide for teachers with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities
By Madyson Fitzgerald, '23, Communications Assistant for Equity & Community

Amid national teacher shortages and a growing burden on educators, the University of Richmond and one state non-profit partnered together to provide a resource for promoting inclusivity in classrooms across Virginia. 

In collaboration with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC), Karen Kochel, ’03, associate professor of psychology, and her spring 2022 PSYC 311 community-based learning class created the "Back-to-School with Belonging" guide. The 6-page guidebook has equipped teachers across the state with tools to create a more inclusive classroom.

"There's no better purpose of childhood developmental science than to be able to apply it to promote wellbeing for children and adolescents," Kochel said. "So, to the extent that I can do that as a child developmental psychologist — the extent to which I can use my experiences and expertise to promote children's well-being — it’s a main motivation for me."

Working with schools, businesses and community organizations, VCIC helps groups achieve success through inclusion, President and CEO Jonathan Zur, ’03, said. The group has partnered with UR in a number of ways over the years, including collaboration with Kochel’s classes.

"It's really been an organic partnership that has certainly supported our organization and schools that we work with," Zur said. "It also seems to have been a win-win in terms of the students learning and their ability to have a practical application for their class assignments and research."

In the wake of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd, UR’s psychology department began to have conversations about how to use their interests, expertise, and connections to facilitate a sense of belonging. Kochel took particular interest in inequities in education, she said.

After engaging with VCIC for several years, Kochel was able to continue their partnership through the establishment of a research project with students in her class. It was the perfect course for senior Katelyn Szarko, who said she’d always been interested in child development since she took AP Psychology back in high school. She went on to do research with Kochel her first year at UR.

The first part of the project was to organize focus groups of about four or five teachers from schools across the Richmond area, Szarko said. 

"We were able to directly ask them questions here about their own experience as a teacher and in the Richmond area specifically," she said. "I think that was my favorite part — just having that direct communication with the people who this project was aimed to help out with."

Over the summer, Kochel worked with VCIC to compile the qualitative research developed through the focus groups during the spring semester.

Szarko, who lives outside of Philadelphia, was surprised to find that teachers in Virginia had a lot less flexibility regarding their curriculum. This finding was valuable to her group’s focus: representation.

Following the discussions with teachers, Szarko’s group was able to provide guidelines for representation in the classroom, whether it be by building spaces that are representative of different cultures or bringing diversity into classroom curriculum and activities.

Senior Maddie Orr’s group, with a focus on perceived mattering, discovered how their concentration was important for student growth, student relationships, and a positive school environment.

"It was great to hear what they [the teachers] thought were issues that needed to be addressed, but either their school didn't have enough resources to look into it, or there weren’t teachers to get behind the cause," Orr said. "It felt like there were definitely things that needed to be addressed and to be done."

Through her own work shadowing local teachers and the stories from her own two younger siblings, the education system as a whole, she said, was lacking. There were ways to improve, but things like COVID-19 and a lack of effort had put a block on that. The current mental health crisis in schools was another factor, she said.

"I think that was another thing we wanted to do: provide resources and more knowledge to teachers to help them because they want to help and they want to learn more, but it's hard with their jobs being so busy," she said.

The guide itself was sent out to schools across the state in mid-August, and the feedback, Zur said, has been overwhelmingly positive. The guide is practical, user-friendly and evidence-based, according to educators.

"What we've heard from educators is 1) these are really great practices, not just for back to school, but throughout the year," Zur said. "And 2) we've gotten several requests from schools around Virginia to develop some workshops so teachers can actually go deeper in terms of some of the concepts and think about how they can apply. That's something we're in the process of developing right now to support their ability to implement what the guide promotes."

After recently deciding she wanted to be a teacher, Szarko said the guide would prove to be helpful in her own career.

"I think the guide will definitely be beneficial for me just to reflect on in the future as well for making sure that I am implementing these strategies, making sure that everyone feels important and included," Szarko said. "I think that that's very important."

Image: Jonathan Zur and Karen Kochel at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement's 2022 Engage for Change Awards Celebration where Kochel was honored with a Community-Engaged Scholarship Award. Photo by Kim Schmidt.