Lessons from Humanizing Schooling: Moving at the Speed of Trust

NoVo Foundation
Nov 21 · 5 min read

By Nate Mullen and Erin Allen, People in Education

Photo credit: J. Lindsey Photography

This piece is part of the NoVo Foundation’s Radical Hope Blog Series, a platform for social justice movement leaders from around the world to share learning and insights, hear what’s working and what’s not, build solidarity, and spark opportunities for collaboration. Amid daily headlines of division, this blog series is intended to serve as an active and dynamic beacon of hope, possibility, connection, and healing.


Humanizing Schooling

It’s no secret that locally and nationally our school systems are in a state of crisis. As test scores, graduation rates and enrollment drop, schools are defunded and dismantled — in Detroit, more than 150 schools have closed since 2006. This overwhelmingly affects low-income students of color, who are 92% of public school students in Detroit. Policy-making and public discourse address only the financial and political dimensions of this crisis, creating “solutions” that are incomplete at best.

Meanwhile, People in Education asks: what should be the purpose of education? We contextualize this question within the multiplying crises facing not only Detroit, but the planet as a whole. What are humanizing learning environments, and what would a school system that is relevant to the lives and relationships of all people in education require? People in Education — a partner in the Create, Connect and Transform (CCT) collaborative supported by the Radical Hope Fund — seeks to humanize schooling by facilitating space for connection, curiosity and reflection.

Moving at the Speed of Trust

One of the primary pillars of People in Education’s work is to build authentic connection between people. Every year, during the Rida Institute — our 12-month training that prepares educators to facilitate humanizing classrooms — connection, curiosity and reflection are supreme. Our initial summer retreat is where trust is built between participants seeking systems of support and shared approaches to teaching.

This summer, we gathered for three days with 13 educators from Southeast Michigan, New York and Nebraska. Now in our sixth year, our intention to model the design of humanizing learning spaces remains paramount, and we’ve seen how this modeling has transformed the Rida space itself. Interwoven into this year’s summer retreat were two of our most valuable lessons so far:

1. Building trust by prioritizing the access needs of every human present.

2. Recognizing that Rida has become more than professional development — it’s a community of trust and radical hope.

Access Needs

As defined by the Pacific Alliance on Disability Self-Advocacy project:

New this year was the daily practice of checking in on what folks need in order to be present in the space. Examples were, “I often don’t hear well, so I may ask people to speak up,’’ or “I have a sick kid and might need to step out to take a call.” And those who felt like their needs are met could say so.

This concept came to us from the work of disability justice organizers during the Allied Media Conference (AMC) Facilitation Network Gathering, and it was refined by the Generative Somatics Leadership training. PIE can trace its roots to early media literacy and education justice conversations at AMC, another partner in the CCT initiative.

The practice of asking if people had what they needed invited a complex layer of humanity that was felt each day. What could be more humanizing than acknowledging that we have needs, bodies and lives that exist regardless of the present moment, while simultaneously interacting with the present moment?

This invitation brought malleability to our daily activities, so we could better align them with the group’s needs. On day three of this practice, as the lead facilitator, I also requested support in holding space.

A combination of all the energy of facilitating and my daughter not sleeping the prior night had left me a bit tender and I was moving slowly. In all my years of teaching and facilitating, I have never been able to be so upfront and clear about where I am and what support I need to facilitate. Instead, here I was able to dispel the myth that a good teacher is a superhuman teacher who is always at 100%. I could model that my vulnerability is actually one of the most powerful places to lead from and can make room for the leadership of the whole group.

And I wasn’t the only one who appreciated this addition to the space. As we’d hoped, introducing access needs into the intensive also shifted what some participants thought about how they show up as teachers. One participant, Avery Shelton, talked about centering the needs of both her students and herself:

“In early childhood education, we are constantly thinking about how to meet the needs our our students…It is so easy to forget that adults have needs too. When the access needs of educators are given attention, we can feel recognized and seen as humans.”

We are deeply excited to bring such a resonant practice to Rida, where educators can return over and over again for new approaches to humanizing their learning spaces.

A Place to Gather

This realization from the 2019 intensive is perhaps one of the most profound: The Rida Institute has grown into a homecoming, a recurring gathering place for like-minded people in education. We’ve known for years that this is more than professional development, but what we didn’t know is that its becoming more than a training. It’s like a pilgrimage for our collective work of humanizing schooling.

One of our agreements for the Rida Institute:

We’ve returned to the Rida every summer for the last five years and that pattern has created an energy, an atmosphere and a community. This year we tapped into that energy by hosting a reunion dinner during the intensive to gather Rida participants past and present. We also invited alumni to a panel on day three to share their lessons from integrating Rida principals into their teaching practice and wider world.

The dinner and panel showed us that this work is integrated into the lives of educators and the students who have touched it. And when they need a refresher, educators know they can always return to their purpose in the Rida space. During the panel, Rida alumna Bushra Rahman spoke about her difficulty counteracting the dehumanizing culture at school and how that informed her experience joining the Rida for a second year.

“My first year of teaching [was] everything between nice and ugly…After this Rida experience I will be able to hold myself accountable to ensure that I myself will actively attempt not to dehumanize myself, my students and our environments.”

And her fellow panel member, Kiarra Ambrose, shared how lessons from Rida in years past inform her teaching practices today:

“I adjust my teaching to see who the students are and how they are when they enter the classroom.”

What a perfect parallel to what the Rida 2019 intensive became: an accessible space for Ridas old and new to show up as they are, creative, reflective and transformed.

For more from the 2019 Rida Intensive, check out our photo album with moments captured by Julianne Lindsey and Marisol Sanchez.

Interested in learning more about the work of PIE and humanizing schooling? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Reach out to pie@alliedmedia.org for questions, comments or potential partnership!

NoVo Foundation

Stories of transformation

NoVo Foundation

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Created in 2006 by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, NoVo is helping to build a more just and balanced world.

NoVo Foundation

Stories of transformation

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