Broadening Our Concept of the Whole Educator

Attending to the social and emotional needs of individual educators is an important component of a healthy classroom, school, and public education system. At the same time, ensuring a healthy system and a safe space for all children requires that all adults in the system go through the difficult work of uncovering and confronting assumptions, biases, and mental models. This work is confounded by the shared human trait of egocentrism. It is impossible for any human – regardless of age, culture, or experience – to truly “get” where another human is coming from. We are all limited in that regard. Yet, it is this very shared trait that allows us to create dynamic, diverse communities in which each person is seen and treated as a whole and rich being with their own perspective, passions, interests, and experiences. The creation of those communities, though, requires that we acknowledge our shared failings and work to openly address them. In the absence of these conversations, we may end up unintentionally causing harm to students. For example:
Last YearA high school teacher created an assessment to assess a complex Common Core standard and selected a series of texts for students to use to support or refute a claim. When all was said and done, 13% of the teacher’s students wrote papers making the claim, supported by evidence the teacher provided, that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

It’s not uncommon for school communities to say, in the wake of similar instances, “the teacher was unaware of any [Jewish] students in his/her class.” In other communities, parents of color have shared that their children only see texts by authors of color during Black History Month or the role of women is mostly addressed during the month of March. Questions for discussion that events like this might provoke include: What are the implications when a teacher or a school’s approach to what they put in front of children is informed by the absence of a demographic group within the school walls or by particular events on the calendar? What do teachers need to know, be able to do, and value in order to to select the kinds of texts that will lead to a more accurate, fair-minded understanding of historical events and trends?

Six Months AgoA transgendered student was told that the student would have use the restroom the school principal and teachers thought was appropriate for the student, not the restroom the student would have preferred to use.

In assuming a seemingly neutral stance, the school ended up denying an aspect of the student’s personal identity or may have creating shame or guilt in a young person struggling to protect her own emotional well-being. A similar defense around school policies (“It’s part of the dress code”) was used when a Navajo student was told to cut his hair (kept long for religious reasons) before returning to school. Questions for discussion that events like this might provoke include: What are the implications when our inherent inability to see through another’s eyes informs the policies and practices of school? Is empathy enough?
This MonthA teacher was suspended when, after the topic of Michael Brown’s death came up in class, a lesson involved having students act out Michael’s death. The re-enactment included researching the number of times the young man was shot and having students play the role of the officer who shot him.

In a powerful piece called “Facing Race Issues in the Classroom: How to Connect with Students”, an educator reminds the reader, “We may not be able to prevent everything, but we can control how we react to things.” Questions for discussion that events like this might provoke include: What are the implications when, having the best of intentions in reacting to student questions about a real and important issue, educators design tasks that in hindsight are clearly poorly informed? What steps can and should be taken before putting such activities in front of students?
In each instance, the educators involved were doing what they thought was best. Each of these teachers is also likely a family member, with friends and hobbies and pets. Based on the demographics of the American public education teaching force, the probability is high that these educators were white and female. It is also probable, that if asked, each woman involved would deny her actions were racist or biased[1].

Attending to the whole educator requires that we revisit who we think we are and how that fits into the larger social narrative and structures we exist, teach, and learn within. Learning more about how to confront our own biases and “blind spots” is the responsibility of all adults but given the impact that educators have, it’s crucial work for members of the profession. It’s also equally as important that as we do the work of broadening our conception of who we are as whole educators, we don’t infringe upon others’ emotional safety. It seems like a natural step to reach out to faculty members of color to discuss race or to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* or Queer (LGBTQ) colleagues around issues they may experience, but that small move is identified as “othering” by social justice advocates. Othering is where we use our frame of reference to define someone else’s identity. Instead of Ms. Jones being defined as a grade 5 Science teacher or however she self-identifies, she’s approached as Ms. Jones, a woman of color, based on how she’s seen by her white colleagues. Although intentions – seeking to understand – may be noble, constantly being “othered” can take its toll. [2] 
The students involved in the Student Six Tips in the “Facing Race” article shared that as a result of their teachers’ intentional work, they felt safer and found greater success. “The teachers treat us like peers and we respect that.” In a recent Twitter chat around LGBT issues, a teacher reported that a subtle shift in her language – from “husband and wife” to the more neutral “spouse” allowed one of her LGBT students to feel safe enough to confide in her the emotional and social challenges he was facing as a gay youth.
The work and heavy lifting of expanding the boundaries of the whole educator to include social justice and equity considerations has to be done by each individual. This work is not optional and should not happen in response to events like those listed. It needs to happen now, without hesitation, and without fear of saying the wrong thing, a common, shared fear. The hardest part may very well be admitting that for the majority of educators, discussions about race, gender, or sexuality are often event-based rather than a part of professional, reflective conversations. In order for us to answer the essential question, “How do we become a more just society?”  we have to start exploring the boundaries of our identities while seeking to understand others’ – even if, and especially if, the classrooms, faculty rooms, and media we see on a daily basis reflect mostly faces and experiences that look like our own. This work is important. The work must start now.
In addition to the resources linked in this column or referenced in footnotes, educators may find the following resources useful to inform their reflective practice.
Quick Reads Medium Length Reads Long Read
Race in education and the classroom 5 Ways to teach about Ferguson 
“We cannot be color-blind” Race, Antiracism, and the Subversion of Dominant Thinking by George J. Sefa Dei  This is not a Test by Jose Vilson 
LGBT issues in education and the classroom #LBGTeach  GLSEN school resource guide

Raising My Rainbow by Lori Duron

Learning more about fairness in assessment design “Identify and Eliminate  Assessment Bias” (video) by James Popham Regents Exams Item Criteria Checklist

Gender bias and fairness by Ruth Axman Childs

[1] This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Good, Racist People  or the TedX Talk by Jay Smooth are two great resources on the important distinction between racist actions and “being a racist”.)
[2] The blog space maintained  by Jose Vilson speaks to his experiences as an educator, parent, and man of color, and frequently makes connections to larger social issues.

Originally published in the NY ASCD newsletter (September 2014) 

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