The system in which you teach wasn’t created for your learners — but you can change that.
And more thoughts on how to promote equity in education
We recently had the opportunity to learn from three thought leaders in educational equity — Bill de la Cruz, equity leader, Dr. Christian Sawyer, Denver Public Schools Director of Schools, and Dr. Michelle Martin, the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the University of Washington’s Information School. You can watch the recording of their conversation here.
While the majority of our discussion focused on the intersection between equity and literacy (which you can read about here), part of our discussion took a much broader lens, exploring the historical, systemic foundations of inequity and the modern-day implications of that context. These are the discussions that can be challenging to start in your learning communities, and sometimes feel uncomfortable, even for the most passionate champions of equity. We found a great deal of value in the insights offered by Dr. Martin, Dr. Sawyer, and Bill de la Cruz, and we hope that they spark something exciting in your learning community, too.
Here are some thoughts, musings, and aspirations on educational equity from our thought leaders:
On moving from equality to equity:
Dr. Martin: There’s a commonly cited infographic of children watching a baseball game over a fence, and to represent reality, one kid is so high you can only see his feet, one is watching over the fence with a box, and the other is low to the ground. Equality, then, is where everyone has the same size box — but only the taller kids can see over the fence to the game. With equity, each kid is given a box, if needed, that allows them to see over the fence. Everyone has what they need. Finally, liberation is when the fence is removed — there’s no barrier at all.
Dr Sawyer: In equitable approaches — and this is something that’s important for us to explore in our own experiences and biases — we need to ask, who has not been at the table? Whose story has not been a part of the educational narrative that we invoke with our students? As educators, we must stop ourselves at every step of the way to explore the texts that we’re putting forth, the decisions we’re making as a school community, and the context in which our school community’s families live. As teachers, we have to look back on historical systems of oppression and dismantle them with every step we take.
Bill de la Cruz: A lot of the context I bring in for educators is around how the educational system started — who started it, and for whom. The system was never designed to be equitable. Back in the 1700s, it was designed by white men for white men and taught by white men. It was a very homogeneous group, so the system was designed to be equal. The big challenge is that people think that fixing this from a programmatic perspective will solve everything. But we, as humans in the educational system, are gatekeeping and unconsciously perpetuating the system, both in how we’ve been trained to deliver curriculum and in how we’ve been trained to look at students. That’s why it’s so important for us to realize that disrupting this structure isn’t about being a bad person. It’s about understanding that the way the system is built, in its design to be equal, has us putting a square peg into a round hole.
For everyone who is watching this, I would encourage you to reflect on what you do each day that perpetuates this systemic structure of equality, and what you do each day that is disrupting it to be more equitable. When I was an administrator, I sometimes recognized each of these in myself on the same day, or even in the same meeting. I had to be conscious that it didn’t make me a bad person but instead helped me be aware and reflect on the changes we could make.
Restructuring professional development is important. A lot of what we’re talking about comes back to relationships — but the system isn’t designed for relationships. In my time in Denver, teachers would say, “I really love this work, but I’m not being assessed on the relationships I have with my students. I’m being observed and assessed on how I deliver curriculum and how I conduct discipline.” Even some states who are establishing social and emotional guidelines don’t yet have a system in place for assessment.
On supporting teachers of color and encouraging relational leadership:
Dr. Martin: I’ve just been an external reader for a dissertation — Ashley Wilkerson, at University of South Carolina — that featured a handful of interviews with Black teachers who left the profession within their first five years. Many of their reasons for leaving were things like the tests being more important than relationships with children, competitive rather than cooperative behavior, low pay, and adversarial parents. Attrition is going to be a huge problem coming out of the pandemic.
I mentor a lot of Black women academics. When I sometimes get the questions, “Why is this so hard? Why do I feel like they’re trying to destroy me?” I remind them that the system was not built for us. We need to be intentional to carve out space, support each other, and practice self-care.
Dr. Sawyer: We’ve gone through a decade or more, in my opinion, that we’ve over “technified” the work in education. We’ve overemphasized the technical craft when education is a human endeavor. Here we are, emerging from a pandemic — and a pandemic of increased racism — and I think that as educators, we need to focus on the human element of education and focus on how we can have a deeper impact rather than minimizing the human story within our teachers and learners through a focus on technical pieces.
Bill de la Cruz: At the end of many of my conversations with educators over the past few years, we often end up with the same conclusion, that we have to redefine what professionalism looks like in our field. It’s not designed to be relational, so this whole idea of relational leadership is an afterthought or reaction — when something happens, we need to make a connection. If we make those connections early, then when those things happen our relationships will enable us to work through them together. What Dr. Martin mentioned about the study — competition, weight on testing — all play into what it means to be a professional in education.
On actionable practices for educators to create change today:
Dr. Sawyer: Explore your identity and how your identity intersects with your teaching. How does this shape your interpretive outlook on the literature you are teaching? Biases in that outlook?
Learn the life journeys of your students and critically examine the texts and tasks you are proposing they undertake. How do your texts and tasks richly and constructively interweave with their diverse life journeys?
Finally, intentionally work each day to create an inclusive workspace for all voices on the staff. For example, in meetings, pause and check to see if all voices have been equitably included. An inclusive educational experience for students is created in an inclusive workspace for adults.
Bill de la Cruz: Check your own biases, stereotypes, and judgments as you become aware of them.
Model the behaviors and language you want from your colleagues and students.
Staff in the building set the culture that our scholars walk into. Become aware of the culture you are modeling with your language and behaviors and make adjustments as desired.