Saturday, March 16, 2019

Race, Equity and the Classroom Teacher

Looking back on my years as a classroom teacher in the 80s and 90’s, I recall vividly the “equitable practices” that were an inherent part of my teaching repertoire, but I had no language to attach to them such as “equity.” During that era, there was no “buzz” in the education community around “equity” in the classroom and instituting equitable classroom teaching practices. That is not to say that equitable practices didn’t exist however. It is to say that there was no category called “equity” to place these practices under. The closest thing to “equity” was differentiated instruction and personalized learning which I will call the “cousins” of equity but I certainly do not consider them to be synonymous with equity. I therefore engaged in equitable practices because in my thinking, this was just the right thing to do. It was “who I was” as a classroom teacher. In other words, I identified that children were in different “places” in my classroom with vastly different experiential backgrounds, realities, challenges, obstacles, needs, interests, goals, aspirations, ambitions, learning styles, ability levels, etc. This meant that I couldn’t afford to be the same person to all 25 of my students all the time. I had to be someone different to all of them if I was serious about meeting the unique set of needs of all of the learners in my classroom. Some years later, this word “equity” came on the scene with a vengeance which confirmed for me that I must have been doing something right all along.

The word “equality” on the other hand was not on my radar. I knew instinctively that if I treated my students equally…if I was the same person for all of them, I was doing the majority of them a grave disservice and injustice. Treating them equally would be the easy way out relative to planning and preparation each week. Heck, I could write generic, “one size fits all” lesson plans that theoretically covered every learner in the classroom but in reality, that would boil down to a lesson plan that took no individual student into consideration as the plan was being developed. Equality therefore had no place in my classroom. Equality was reserved for a “museum reality” in all actuality. It was all about equity for me. Moreover, differences in children can be quite vast and thereby pose a rather a daunting challenge for any teacher to address them all. How we performed as teachers in the 20th Century where “equality” may have been a goal simply will not measure up to needs of the 21st Century learner. Teaching the 21st Century learner requires an elevated focus on equity in all we do.

As a presenter, I have learned over the years that the topic of equity at the classroom level can be a rather difficult and uncomfortable dialogue to have with an audience when it addresses race, ethnicity or class. If the conversation is generic and addresses areas such as: student experiential backgrounds, their realities, challenges, obstacles, needs, interests, goals, aspirations, ambitions, learning styles, ability levels, language differences and children with disabilities, it can be a very rich and rewarding dialogue. The problem I find as a presenter is when the dialogue on equity is centered around race and I happen to be one of the few persons of color in the entire room. In too many cases, it converts into a tension-filled dialogue that makes a lot of people in the room feel unnecessarily uncomfortable, uneasy and / or offended…when this should not and CANNOT be the case.  As educators, we cannot afford to shy away from the equity dialogue that addresses race when it makes us uncomfortable however. Instead, we must embrace this dialogue because our learners of color of historically oppressed populations in particular are dependent upon its outcomes. In other words, if the data points out that our children of color are on the wrong side of the achievement gap, the equity conversation on race is unavoidable. The will, the drive, the determination, the passion to engage in this dialogue as a staff must be more than evident.

In schools  where the student body is racially diverse, or predominantly learners of color of historically oppressed populations, or even just a small fraction of the students are learners of color, it is absolutely imperative that school leaders, teachers and support staff are not only comfortable with the dialogue on racial equity in the classroom but they openly embrace it without personalizing the discussion. The intent is to meet the needs of the learners while simultaneously meeting them where they are so the dialogue is consequently necessary and unavoidable. School personnel must therefore be committed to creating a building-wide culture amongst staff of mutual respect and understanding of one another’s positions, toward all staff ultimately evolving to a “place” where we can put our personal differences, political differences and biases aside while simultaneously maintaining an openness about understanding the life experiences of our students of color of historically oppressed populations to the point that we can actually see them through THEIR lenses toward meeting their academic, social and emotional needs. Toward doing so though, staff must evolve to a point where everyone in the room feels comfortable in the dialogue and can embrace the dialogue around racial equity in the classroom without anyone in the room feeling offended. This is absolutely healthy and productive for the school, and it’s a win-win for your students of color.

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  1. This article has struck a profound sense of urgency to move forward in the work that I do as an educator around climate and culture. As leaders in education, climate and culture in the education institution is paramount to the success and growth of everyone within it. This article speaks to this perspective and directly points to the many “offended” and “unfortable” educators who profess to do the “job” equally. My comment is aligned with the perspective of those who have been traditionally marginalized for generations. Those “forgotten children” and their families have been so marginalized by the education they receive and those who are transferring that education (regardless of their roles, whether it be the system itself or a worker within it) to them that it is considered blasphemous to speak against the practices of marginalization as part of the foundation of the outcry. I believe any educator, leader, or advocate for education who has the courage to speak against the wrongs in a system that has proven to be dysfunctional to many of its “members” is a person who is on the right path to disrupting the status quo. I have found myself on this path, and this information has provided me with more ammunition to work through my humanity as an educator in my own right. Promoting the “communal language” necessary to ensure that all members of the learning environment are communicating effectively is a task in and of itself, but a task that needs to be checked off the “to do list.” Overall, I can speak a great length about how this article has produced a much needed extension of my own burning desires, it is greatly appreciated that there are many others still our there doing the necessary work to continue working for the many who are not able to “work for themselves.” I am one of the many.

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