Currently, there are so many acts of injustice happening within our education system and beyond. We still have banned books lists populating the internet airwaves the attempt to mute the voices of historically excluded communities. In thinking about all this, we must remember that being a true co-conspirator within any liberatory movement requires us to be comfortable with navigating uncomfortability. Risk is inevitably high when engaging in this work. However, that can no longer be an excuse for inaction or silence. That said, below are a few thoughts to strongly consider when advocating as true co-conspirators for historically marginalized students within our respective school communities:
1) Interrogation of Personal Biases: Since we are all prejudiced and biased by human nature, it is important for us to conduct a personal audit of our feelings and behaviors around the issues of race, class, language, gender, sexual orientation, and other identity markers. This work involves questioning our biases, examining stereotypical beliefs, and challenging our own ideologies around racial and cultural identity. As teachers, we must understand how these notions impact our actions and the way we educate our students. Columbia University professor Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz emphasizes this self-evaluation process in her extensive research and work in racial literacy development. She refers to this self-evaluation process as the “Archeology of the Self,” where the teacher plays the role of the archeologist and performs a deep excavation of their beliefs, biases, and ideas that shape how they engage in antiracist work. Although this process can potentially bring about feelings of anger, discomfort, frustration, and denial, it is necessary for us, as teachers, to allow those feelings to manifest and then push through them so we can serve as active interrupters of racism and inequality at the personal and professional levels and create positive school communities that are culturally inclusive, welcoming, and affirm the intersectional identities of all students, especially our BIPOC students.
2) Agency Building: The only way that we continue to grow as antibias and antiracist (ABAR) educators is to maintain our commitment to proactive and continuous capacity building. Within the teaching profession, one of the many ways in which we build our intellectual capacity as educators is through professional development. We must invest time in educating ourselves on the diverse issues, perspectives, identities, and lived experiences of historically marginalized communities so that we can develop our own informed perspectives about them. That can be done by reading books and publications, attending professional development workshops and conferences, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, learning from verified subject matter experts, etc. As a point of caution, when determining what publications to read, which conferences to attend, which social media influencers to follow, and what podcasts to listen to, we should always use our best discretion because there are a number of learning resources that are disguised as having an ABAR lens but turn out to be antithetical to that purpose. As a result, we have many teachers who are misinformed about what it truly means to adopt an ABAR approach to their practice.
3) Community Building: Surround yourself with a community of like-minded individuals who are just as determined to disrupt, learn, unlearn, relearn, and grow as you are. You also want people in your circle who will lovingly hold you accountable and call you in when necessary. While you will come across certain people on social media whose ideologies don’t align with that mission, keep in mind that the goal isn’t to prove those folks wrong but rather, to collectivize with individuals who know that you’re right and align with your mission towards achieving educational equity.
4) Critical Humility & Empathy: We must decenter ourselves and create space for historically marginalized students in the classroom. That means recognizing our power and positionality to know that you can’t fully speak about oppressive acts against historically marginalized communities without having the lived experience. Furthermore, the privileges, positionality, and power that we possess are relative to where we are geographically. If we can maintain an awareness of how our positionality changes in relation to the different spaces we’re in, we will always sustain a sense of grace, humility, and personal accountability when engaging in liberatory education work.
In the case of critical humility, there are many teachers on social media who preach about restorative justice and social emotional learning but conveniently shy away from the difficult conversations about identity because that work makes them feel guilty and uncomfortable. As teachers, when we say we’re engaging in restorative practices and social emotional learning, that means we’re making a commitment to healing, centering, and affirming our students, as well as embracing all of who they are. Similar to critical humility, we must decenter ourselves and take a step back to understand and educate ourselves on the emotional impact that acts of oppression and discrimination have on historically marginalized communities. Through empathy comes a clear perspective.
5) Mistakes Are Inevitable So Give Yourself Grace: We must understand that mistakes will happen along the way. That’s expected when you’re truly engaging in deep (un)learning and relearning. Perfectionism has no place in this space. We must also understand that call-ins are not condemnations but rather opportunities for growth. For some of you, the act of calling someone in may be uncomfortable, intimidating, and even scary to do, but this is the work that needs to be done to eliminate discriminatory actions happening within our schools. When engaging in the process of repairing harm, there are four main questions that we must consider:
- What was the harm caused?
- Who was directly affected by the harm?
- How has the behavior of the offender (the one causing the harm) affected others?
- What plan can be created and carried out to repair the harm?
Punishment or exclusion isn’t the goal for this process. The ultimate focus should be on community-building through means of education. Given that we live in a society where white-dominant culture is the default, it is inevitable that our mental conditioning within that culture will place us in situations where we subconsciously harm others. This harm can manifest itself in the most subtle ways. Sometimes, it’s from the language we use. Other times, it stems from our inaction towards injustices within our school communities. It shows up in the curriculum we teach, the books we choose to include or not include in our classroom libraries, the policies we implement, or the manner in which we allow our implicit bias to inform the way we grade, discipline, or interact with different students.
It’s impossible for us to establish a culture of inclusion and belonging in our classrooms if we’re quick to suspend or isolate our students every time they make a mistake. Conversely, our positionality as teachers sometimes deters students from holding us accountable when we harm them. Therefore, it is important that we empower students to call us in when they feel harmed or unsafe. They must see that we are imperfect and just as human as they are. Just like them, we will make mistakes. When we mutually share the responsibility of repairing harm with our students, we not only shift the power dynamic to make our classrooms equitable, but we are also reinforcing the idea that students must be active participants and co-curators of their educational experience.
How we decide to navigate our school communities, at this present time, will serve as a litmus test of our professional integrity. The reality for many of us is that teaching is our livelihood and serves as our primary source of income, so I deeply empathize with those of you who fall into this group. However, our good conscience simply cannot ignore the acts of injustice and discrimination that affect our historically marginalized students. This must be the time we face our moment of truth. This must be the year where we must commit, as a teacher community, to get uncomfortable and go from inaction to ‘in action’!