Enacting Rightful Presence to Promote Students' Belonging

Ruthmae Sears
University of South Florida
Ken Griffith
Texas Tech University
Alec Cattell
Texas Tech University
Alec Cattell, Texas Tech University, Ken Griffith, Texas Tech University, and Ruthmae Sears, University of South Florida

published Feb 24, 2022

As we educators pursue equitable and just practices in STEM education, we acknowledge our students' diverse experiences and challenges, and we recognize the importance of their sense of belonging in our learning communities. Too often, we focus on quantifiable differences without considering how our actions and policies can impact the ways our students' voices and presence are valued and the extent to which their beliefs and dispositions are respected within our community. By enacting rightful presence (Calabrese & Tan, 2020), we can foster the sense of belonging that is essential for all students, particularly underrepresented groups, to succeed in our classrooms (Rainey et al., 2018).

The process to promote ensuring students develop a sense of belonging involves examining our socially- constructed ethical foundations and re-orienting our practices to support student success. We ask ourselves:

  • What are the beliefs, policies, and practices that govern our behavior?
  • In our pedagogical practice, are we focusing on our intentions or the impact of our actions?
  • Do we dwell on the theoretical or ideal student, or are we attending to the outcomes we wish to achieve with the real learners in our classrooms?
  • Are we attending to the (often unspoken) questions our students have that pertain to their belonging in our classrooms? "Do you see me?" "Do you value me?" "Can someone like me succeed in this field?"

These questions help us think broadly about how we are making space for diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities. They transcend reductive measures of inclusion and help us enact a shift from compliance to engagement, from a focus on rigor to a concentration on vigor in STEMM education (Riley, 2017). These questions may also produce discomfort. However, as discomfort often signals the beginning of the most important learning that we do (Brookfield & Hess, 2021), our ability to sit with and learn from discomfort will empower us to create brave spaces in our classrooms. By interrogating how our pedagogical decision-making is influenced by our beliefs, ideals, and experiences, we will be better equipped to create opportunities for students to learn while experiencing a sense of belonging.

Here, the cake metaphor may help to conceptualize how various factors can contribute to the extent individuals develop a sense of belonging. Ideally, we want to bake a wonderful cake that includes the right ingredients to foster a sense of belonging for all students:

  • Flour = position statements that show that we are committed to justice. (How) is your institution expressing its commitment?
  • Water = faculty and staff who are committed to nurturing and supporting students. Who is doing this work?
  • Sugar = social activities, experiences for different groups, affinity organizations, and opportunities to learn about and engage deeply with differences. What co-curricular support and learning opportunities are being offered at your institution?
  • Eggs = institutional support for faculty committed to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. (How) is this work being supported, celebrated, and rewarded at your institution?
  • Raising agent = pedagogical approaches, tools, and techniques that transform the classroom into a space where the learning community calls into question modes of power/authority and builds more just relationships. How is knowledge being produced, and who is invited into the process of its production?
  • Vanilla extract = the quality of our programs, which ultimately determines the flavor of the cake. What are we going to be known for?
  • Heat = without the proper temperature, mixing ingredients simply makes a batter. With ideal conditions, a cake will rise to a perfect golden brown. Is the temperature at your institution conducive to a sense of belonging? Are there hot or cold spots in the oven? How can we identify the less-than-optimal areas and how can we improve the conditions (evenly) across all units?
  • Time = baking a cake requires patience. As we acknowledge the positionality of individuals at our institutions, we must acknowledge that everyone is at a different place in their journey. While we want our cake to bake quickly, it is important to realize that disseminating inclusive and equitable pedagogical practices takes time.
  • Pan = the size and type of institution and the historical norms of the institution have the potential to overshadow the climate and culture. Thus, it is good to be mindful of the size and shape of our pan as we go about baking our cake.

Even with the right ingredients and the right conditions, we need to think about how we are mixing them. Is our mixture well balanced? Are the flavors accurate? Does it taste good? Who is eating this cake, anyway? Some people have allergies. Others have belief-based restrictions. Hence, what are alternative pathways individuals can excel and still be supported? The cake metaphor reminds us to think about what options we are offering and how we are creating diverse pathways to support our learners and their sense of belonging.

So, how is your cake baked? How are you enacting rightful presence to ensure that all students can succeed in your classroom regardless of their race, creed, sexuality, gender, and/or dis/ability?

Our students belong here. Let's make sure they know it.


Brookfield, S. D., & Hess, M. E. (2021).Becoming a White Antiracist: A Practical Guide for Educators, Leaders, and Activists. Stylus Publishing.

Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2020). Beyond equity as inclusion: A framework of "rightful presence" for guiding justice-oriented studies in teaching and learning. Educational Researcher49(6), 433-440. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20927363

Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., & Moller, S. (2018). Race and gender differences in how sense of belonging influences decisions to major in STEM. International Journal of STEM Education5(1), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-018-0115-6

Riley, D. (2017). Rigor/Us: Building boundaries and disciplining diversity with standards of merit. Engineering Studies9(3), 249-265. https://doi.org/10.1080/19378629.2017.1408631