Racial equity continues to lag in America's schools, even as the population of students of color in public schools increases beyond that of their white peers, after initially doing so four years ago. In a session moderated by Business Innovation Factory Experience Designer Isabelle Yisak, at last week's SXSWedu conference, three educators shared their experiences expanding equity in their schools.
Royal Palm Beach Community High School teacher Derrick Gilbert, Amqui Elementary School teacher Amy Ryan, and Park Vista High School ESOL teacher Lhisa Almashy were part of a cohort of 20 educators selected from four states for a one-year fellowship organized through a partnership between Business Innovation Factory and Pacific Educational Group. The program was designed to take teachers from learning about race to thinking about their role in the classroom and school, as well as gathering allies and implementing what they've learned.
Defining the goal
The panel began with an acknowledgment of the fact that achieving racial equity is tough and courageous work. But it begins with people defining what racial equity means to them.
Gilbert, for instance, said that when someone says “equity,” he thinks of value. Therefore, when people talk about racial equity, he thinks about it in terms of adding value to who someone is. "Take away all of the social constructs attached to you. Forget that," he said. "You are valuable."
For Ryan, racial equity means there are no barriers to what a child can achieve, regardless of the color of their skin. Almashy added that she views her work as wanting to interrupt the system enough to not have predictors for success or failure based on skin color and other socioeconomic factors.
But where do you even start?
As with any initiative, determining a starting point is critical.
Gilbert, who said he was assigned 80 black male students in one room and told to watch them during his school's lunch block, sees two different ways to approach the work: You can create a community of practice with your educator peers, or you can start with your students.
He started with his students. In explaining how he helped them gain the capacity to converse about certain subjects, he used the Rosa Parks story and what really happened behind it as an example. There was more to it than her just being “tired,” as the most common narrative goes, and the notion that she was just “tired” feeds into the narrative that black students came from a lazy people, he said. But in telling his students the true narrative of these stories, he also stresses to them that they must explain these things to people with grace, love and respect while still flipping the narrative on its head and telling the truth.
Ryan said her first approach in working at a new school was learning who she was working with, adding that it was most eye-opening to talk to the kids and find that they’re much more aware than she would have expected. She said it's also important to quickly seek out allies so you’re not going at it alone as the "racial equity person" in your building — especially as a white woman.
Almashy says doing the “MEsearch” is important, making an effort to understand your own narrative and journey and the things that impact you. It’s more difficult, but meaningful to understand how one's own experience relates to his or her identity. She also looked at her English learners to understand and focus on a problem of practice.
She asked them about their experience, doing empathy interviews and talking about their invisibility in the larger context of the school and their experience in this country. She also suggested getting groups of teachers together for happy hour. “Race impacts everybody, so tell me about that from your perspective,” she said.
Ryan added, on top of what Almashy said, that what’s at the heart of all teachers is caring about all students. She works with primarily white women teaching primarily black and brown children, so she had to sometimes tip-toe around the fact that race is what they were talking about. But starting from that place of what’s best for students is key.
Gilbert notes that the 80 students he was assigned felt misunderstood in their experience in the educational system. They felt various teachers didn’t like them, and that white teachers didn't understand black boys, so he had conversations to walk through the root cause of these feelings.
Educators, he said, must in turn ask why students are hyper or why their heads are down. Who woke them up this morning? When’s the last time they had some hot food? What’s going on before they get to school? The key is teaching students to talk to people from a place of respect, but also to make sure the adults are approaching them equitably when they do that, measuring the two narratives together and helping healing take place. Both parties must have the capacity to converse in a healthy way.
Almashy noted that it’s like human relations. There’s a lot of support that needs to happen, because there’s a level some educators have reached that others have not. She has also found it necessary to make herself confront whether she shows implicit bias. You must have an “and, also” perspective rather than a “but” perspective, she said.
Further best practices — and what to watch out for
Yisak highlighted that each educator on the panel had taken a student-centered approach in their own experiences, but asked them about red flags to watch for when working to advance racial equity.
Gilbert noted that it isn't productive to call somebody a racist outright. He mentioned, for example, that his students might call a teacher racist if she penalizes them for being late to class. But a lot comes along with calling someone racist, and you don’t know enough narrative just yet to make that leap.
Almashy said one of the biggest pushbacks she gets is, “Why are we having this conversation again?” Building relationships is key, and she agrees that we shouldn’t still have to have this conversation. But you have to provide perspective on how maybe previous conversations have not been effective. The conversation must be changed to create growth so that it is then unnecessary. She added that instead of debating or trying to prove a point, it's better to keep it personal and ask, “What do you think?” or “Tell me more about what you think about that.”
Ryan adds that the “tell me more” conversations bring people around much quicker than putting them in their place by dropping some knowledge and walking away. “You will know who your greatest allies are in your building,” she said, but you can’t write off the people who you initially think aren’t with you.