By Antoine Germany
Editor’s Note: Antoine Germany is a valued colleague who has been working with our teachers on equity and access issues. I’m adding this post to New & Revised: Resources To Help Us Predominantly White Teachers To Reflect On How Race Influences Our Work.
Antoine Germany is a veteran teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento and is Chair of the English Department.
When one thinks about equity in education they are essentially describing all students having equal access to opportunity, fairness in how they are treated and disciplined, and high academic achievement for all. The underlying assumption behind public education is that a student’s level and quality of education often correlates to that child’s future quality of life and society’s as a whole.
A myriad of research has found that public education has wide disparities in academic achievement among racial groups such as black and brown students. Students of color are often disciplined (or more accurately punished) more regularly than other ethnic groups and more harshly. Students of color also are underrepresented in advanced courses, overrepresented in special ed, spend more time away from class (what scholars call “time on task”) than their counterparts and test significantly lower on most standardized tests.
That these disparities are persistent, malignant, and unconscionable are rarely disputed. But what can be done? Administrators and policymakers can do a multitude of things to disrupt the inequities in the educational system, but what can a classroom teacher do? What about the practitioner on the front line? Instead of merely being prescriptive, here are a few areas to consider as a classroom teacher to make your classroom more equitable for all students.
The Hidden Curriculum- When one thinks about curriculum they think mainly about the ‘what’, meaning what are you trying to teach your students. When one considers their class curriculum there is the explicit curriculum which is what is actively taught such a literature, grammar, or mathematics. There is also the implied or implicit curriculum which is what students infer based on how we run our classroom.
For example, deducting points if a student is late teaches the students the instructor values promptness, or if a teacher gives points for effort that teaches the students that the teacher values effort or consistent attempts at the exercises given to the students. There is another area of curriculum that some scholars have described as the hidden curriculum, which is the things the teacher decides not to teach through avoidance. So by not talking about differences in student’s experiences, culture or societal standing the teacher infers that these things don’t matter.
Colorblindness is a common hidden curricular item that implies that we treat all students the same regardless of their race (it can be inferred their gender and sexual orientation/identity as well). Some things to consider as a classroom teacher are what hidden curricular items do I project in my class? Am I implying in my teaching that all students will access information the same way? Do the pictures adorning my classroom reflect the people or ideas that I think students should emulate? Is my classroom adorned at all and, if not, what message does that send to my students? Based on how I run my class do I value right answers over effort? Do I teach students that compliance is valued over community? The hidden curriculum has a profound effect on students of all ages and has a lasting impact on equity in education.
Microaggression vs. Microaffirmations– “A microaggression is a subtle behavior – verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious – directed at a member of a marginalized group that has a derogatory, harmful effect. Unlike other forms of discrimination, the perpetrator of a microaggression may or may not be aware of the harmful effects of their behavior.” This phenomenon has been closely tied to implicit bias and is often displayed unconsciously. Overt insults even under the guise of teasing can be harmful to students, particularly students of underrepresented groups. Highlighting a student’s differences or invalidating a student’s input are all forms of microaggressions. A classroom environment that communicates a negative or indifference to a marginalized group is often picked up by students and affects their academic performance.
How can one tell if they’re an unwitting participant in microaggressions in the classroom if they aren’t conscious of it? The answer is to consciously find ways of opening doors to opportunity, give gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. These behaviors are what is called micoraffirmations. As a classroom teacher do you develop a classroom where differences are celebrated? Do you greet every student at the door everyday in class? Do you use inclusive language like “our class” instead of “my class” or “this class”? Do you have a way of making sure you don’t call on the same students every day in class? Do you publicly praise students for achievement and effort or do you fall into the trap of highlighting students or the overall classes’ failures? If done consistently and consciously, microaffirmations are a powerful way to make your classroom a safe environment for students to learn, take risks and thrive.
Inclusive classroom environment vs. Exclusionary classroom management- When one thinks of classroom management they think of clear expectations in terms of behavior, using proximity to deter off-task behavior, a walk-in procedure, and a host of other teacher moves that keep students on task and engaged. No one disputes that a well run class often leads to a strong learning environment for students, but what happens if a student doesn’t comply to the requests of the teacher? What do we do if a student is misbehaving or being perceived as disrespectful to their peers or to the instructor him/herself?
Often times the teacher will send the student out of class or, in worse cases, the student will leave the class unprompted. Typically, a student is assigned a consequence for his misbehavior (a detention or in more serious cases suspension) and eventually the student will return to the class. However, excluding kids from the classroom is harmful to the student (they aren’t learning anything while out of class and research shows that students who are suspended from class are more likely to end up in the penal system) and it’s not helpful to the teacher or the overall classroom environment since the student is likely to continue the behavior that got them sent out in the first place.
But what is a classroom teacher to do? They can’t allow a student to misbehave or disrupt the learning of the other students, so what is their recourse? Restorative practices is based on the theory that school discipline is different than school punishment. Restorative practices is an equity oriented theory that states that a classroom is a community and that misbehavior affects that larger community in an adverse way. Instead of seeing misbehavior as centered on the individual student, restorative practices views behavior through the lens of the overall community and how that community has been harmed.
Restorative justice seeks to include students rather than exclude them, it seeks to return the student back into the community after the harm has been repaired. This form of discipline is not perfect and will not stop all adolescent misbehavior, but what it does do is realize that school is not designed for punishing students but rather to educate them. What incentive does a student have to behave if he/she doesn’t feel like he or she is part of a community? What has punitive or exclusionary practices resulted in for students and teachers to date? Creating a culture of inclusion where teachers are focused on how to keep students in class and accountable to their peers instead of ways to exclude them is far more in line with what we want students to learn for the real world. Harm circles, community circles, ‘walk and talks’, intervention circles, and relationship building are all ways teachers can build a sense of community in their classrooms.
As a classroom teache,r have you ever considered the dynamic of your class through the lens of community or simply by compliance and academic performance? Is community and accountability to that community a value to you as an educator? Have you taken the time as a teacher to talk to misbehaving students about their place in the classroom community instead of their behavior? Much more can be said about the paradigm shift from punitive practices to restorative ones but the shift begins with what do I want all my students to learn about their behavior? How we treat the most “difficult” students says more about us as educators than how we treat the compliant ones.
Differentiation- Every experienced teacher has heard the term ‘differentiated instruction’ and knows it means the different ways a teacher can teach, assess and assign work for students. A quality teacher knows his or her students and uses that information to give students tasks or experiences that will allow them to learn the content or build skills that will make him or her successful. But I’d like to broaden the term differentiation to include things that highlight issues through the lens of equity. Instead of using formative assessments to evaluate student’s content knowledge perhaps we should assess their experiences as an individual and their preferred method of learning. For example, asking students to share their experiences with math in prior years of education can offer a lens into how to better help them achieve in your class.
Another area to consider is how students show their knowledge to the teacher. Does everyone have to bubble the right answer on the scantron or can students do a presentation? Does the essay have to be three pages typed or can a student add a chart or a visual representation to support their claim?
When doing group work are we as teachers mindful of the groups we are creating? Are we putting language learners with students with strong oral skills? Are we having an eye toward mixed ability groupings or more toward what students will behave the best together?
Do we give students choice in terms of how they learn or how they show their learning? Are students ever given a choice about which books to read or which order they learn world events in social science? Giving students autonomy often increases engagement but also gives students the decision making skills we want all of our students to possess.
Lastly, what type of problem solving skills are we developing in our students? Everyone agrees that critical thinking and problem solving ability are paramount in a more competitive and sophisticated world, but what type of problems are we asking students to solve? Are the problems we give students bland, distant and unrelated to the lives they live? Do we challenge students to view their immediate community and environmental ills as problems that they themselves can solve? Do we promote looking at injustice and inequality in their current environment as something we expect them to remedy? Do we ignore some of these issues or talk about past injustices expecting students to learn about and discern current problems on their own accord?
Equity work is hard and will take sustained and conscious effort to disrupt a system that has for too long left many of our students behind. Only by recognizing the problem and working toward reaching our ideals of a quality education for all students will we be able to say the school house is for all of our children and not just the few.