The Ongoing Journey to Equitable Practices

Guest authors Allie Tompkins, Marie Collins, Bryan Mascio, and Beth Fournaf share efforts to balance the need to address concerns about equity and social justice in their schools and the need to engage in difficult conversations with colleagues, students, families, and the broader community.

While education has been the site of many contentious battles throughout history, the last year has been rife with conflict around public school curriculum, including how issues of race, gender, and sexuality are discussed, or in some cases, silenced. These and other topics often referred to broadly as "divisive concepts" have been particularly polarizing among politicians and parents, and within school walls (The New York Times, November, 2021). As a result, educational leaders are in a challenging position: balancing the urgent need to address concerns about equity and social justice in their schools and the need to be prepared to engage in difficult conversations with colleagues, students, families, and the broader community.

In this article, the authors share our efforts to balance these concerns in our work with early career educators teaching in K-12 public schools. We share our experiences with these individuals in a rural teacher preparation program in the northeastern United States. The program focuses on building teacher capacity in high-need rural schools by preparing new teachers over the course of a 15-month graduate program, which included a full-year teaching residency alongside an experienced mentor.

At the core of this program, we were preparing early career teachers for a difficult but necessary journey, one in which they would identify and question socially constructed educational norms, and engage in challenging conversations around social justice. What follows are our reflections and the approaches we took as we responded to variability in the way early career elementary educators were progressing on the journey to a broader perspective on equity and social justice in their teaching practice.

Preparing For The Journey
In order to prepare teachers for the journey ahead, we 1) applied and modeled the use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a pedagogical framework that rejects the concept of an “average” student, and 2) asked teachers to engage with a Social Justice Entertainment assignment, which was designed to interrogate how popular media contributes to our societal construction of “normal”. For more on these activities, see Fornauf & Mascio (2021)

UDL was developed more than 20 years ago by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), has been endorsed in federal educational policy (e.g., the Every Student Succeeds Act), and is well-established as an inclusive approach to teaching and learning. It is premised on the understanding that there is no such thing as an “average” student; variability among learners is the norm, not the exception (for more, see The Myth of Average, TEDx Talk, by Todd Rose). The UDL guidelines provide tools and techniques for teachers to minimize barriers to learning and make education accessible and inclusive for all students, such as creating choice to maximize engagement, offering multiple modalities, and flexibility in demonstrating competency (Meyer et al., 2014). We chose UDL as a cornerstone of our work because it is both a broad reimagining of teaching and learning, as well as a set of concrete classroom techniques (see this Shanker article from the fall of 2021 about combining UDL with more equitable disciplinary practices)

Our “Social Justice Entertainment” assignment encouraged the teachers to consider how their understandings of “normal” have been constructed. We asked teachers to engage with selections of popular media (television shows, comics, podcasts, books, etc.) that centered traditionally marginalized identities. This provided them the opportunity to interrogate their own assumptions about normalcy, and broaden their understanding of “othering” as it related to minoritized groups, particularly those of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities but also including marginalization based on disability, class, and faith.  Knowing that these discussions of racism and oppression can be fraught, we grounded this assignment in narrative stories so that it could serve as a gentle introduction to what was to come.

We use the metaphor of the climb to describe teachers’ journey of recognizing, problematizing, and disrupting norms that are deeply embedded within educational systems. The following is an example of how we built on UDL and the Social Justice Entertainment Assignment to challenge norms around disability.

The Climb
With an emerging understanding of UDL, and a growing appreciation of communities different from themselves, we wanted to help teachers specifically address issues of disability in conversation with larger concerns of equity. We did this through a multi-week activity that included reading chapters from Rethinking Disability (Valle & Connor, 2019) while also reading, watching, or listening to disability narratives, works from members of the disability community that shared and reflected on their experiences.

As facilitators we asked questions, offered suggestions for resources, and guided them to connect with each other’s comments, with the intention of engaging each educator in a learning journey akin to climbing up and over a hill.

At the base: educators identified a thing that happened to a person with a disability which was unfair, unpleasant, and/or undesirable in some way - solutions proposed were generally very specific to that person and context.

Beginning the climb: educators began to see undesirable incidents as commonplace for people labeled with similar disabilities rather than isolated and anomalous happenings.

Above the Treeline: educators conceptualized ableism by identifying patterns of inequitable treatment across a variety of disability labels, proposing broader solutions. Most still lacked a systemic perspective.

The Final Ascent: educators began to make connections between ableism and the inequitable treatment of other marginalized groups - identifying the similarities between ableism, racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other types of systemic oppression.

The Summit: educators began to conceptualize the wide societal structures and norms - that they had never thought about because they were so normalized -- which may have benefitted them and contributed to inequitable systems.

The Journey Down: While the climb up the hill gave teachers a broader view of the problem, the journey down was meant to narrow their attention to creating solutions - to that broad underlying systemic problem, but within their locus of control. This focused on starting to answer two questions: 1) how to create a classroom or school environment (in their actual context) that gives a reprieve from the inequitable systems and norms of the broader society, and 2) how to teach in a way that will help their students see and counter those broader societal systems of inequity. How and whether each teacher was able to answer these questions varied greatly based on how they had engaged with UDL and social justice thinking, and how they interpreted the journey itself.

Learning to Be Better Guides
One of the cardinal rules of hiking is to stay together. Often, this requires all members of a group to pause at each intersection in order to rest, reflect, refuel, and ensure that everyone knows which path to continue on. As we attempted to guide educators up and over the hill, we realized we had not done our due diligence in this manner. We hoped to help educators identify the connections and overlap between different forms of systemic oppression, but even before the climb began several educators indicated they were having difficulty aligning their personal values with aspects of the program's explicit stance on social justice, leading them to express feelings of exclusion. “I feel that I am still uncomfortable with some of this theory....I was feeling like I don’t belong and this far into the middle of the program; I am feeling even more like I am not welcome due to my difference of beliefs.” Our party had not stayed together; we were not fulfilling our role as guides.

While we were confident in allowing flexible means for the teachers to work towards the goals (in alignment with UDL), we had serious fears that some of our early career educators would not achieve the goal of seeing systemic social justice issues as a part of their work. Rifts began to develop between group members in our activities. Those who expressed feelings of exclusion began to disengage, at times turning their cameras and microphones off during larger group Zoom calls. Keeping a UDL in mind, we asked ourselves what we could adjust about the learning environment to help our community feel brave in the discomfort and vulnerability required to meaningfully engage in equity work. We felt that some of the groundwork for connection between our educators was the missing link, and while individual conversations and mentoring around equity in the classroom continued, we also needed to do more work as a group.

In lieu of searching for an “easy fix” or falling into the trap of “doing equity,” and approaching it as another item on a check list (Dugan, 2021), we aimed to build skills that would encourage educators to continue these conversations with their future colleagues and students in their own teaching contexts. Moving towards building communication skills did not imply moving away from explicit conversations about equity. We wanted to give these educators opportunities to be exposed to new and varied perspectives, while ensuring that they had the tools to process and apply this knowledge as a community. Just as we were facing these concerns in our learning context, they were likely to come up against similar challenges to creating spaces in which all members were given the opportunities and tools to participate in tough conversations in their own classrooms.

Reorienting with Values-centered Work
With these goals in mind, we turned to the work of Brene Brown. When we reflected on the skills we were trying to build, we kept returning to the idea of vulnerability. On her website. Brown defines vulnerability as “the ability to sit in uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Educators had to engage in vulnerability and willingness to examine their own identities and privilege to successfully continue the journey. We chose Brown’s work because of her history of making her stances on social justice issues clear. Dare to Lead, as well as her other books and podcasts, offer thorough explanations of how equity-oriented stances fit into her own personal values and life experience. Our goal was to get our early career teachers to show up for these tough conversations regarding privilege and marginalization in the K-12 schools and the broader community in a meaningful way, to be willing to participate with vulnerability, and be open to having their perspective changed.

We started this process by using an activity from Dare to Lead and reading the accompanying chapter. In the book Brown asks readers to identify core values that drive their work while describing how her values show up in her own work and the work of her closest colleagues. The list of values can be accessed on Brown’s website, and teachers are welcome to add their own values if the list does not encompass what is important to them. Additionally, the prompt asks for some behaviors teachers might engage in that do and do not align with their core values. This exercise served two purposes towards our broader goal of more engagement around challenging topics. First, we wanted to make space for personal reflection on which core values drive our early careers educators. Second, we wanted to have more information to connect our work around social justice issues to the values most important to them. As facilitators, we also completed the activity and shared our work with the larger group.

Seeing what these early career educators identified as their core values gave us some useful insights into their journeys, and our own. A handful of educators identified faith as a core value, discussing how their religion impacts the way they see the world and show up to their work and tough conversations. For example, one educator wrote about the core value of compassion and how it related to their faith,

“As a Christian, I believe that it is my duty to treat others with kindness, and to show them love as much as I can. Furthermore, I believe that there are no qualifications for compassion; I should be compassionate to everybody I meet to the best of my ability.”

Others identified values such as curiosity, humor, friendship and collaboration. Another educator wrote about the value of growth,

“In my life I have come to recognize growth not as constant progress but rather as a way of learning from your experiences. To me, growth is also closely related to self-awareness. Knowing yourself and being able to identify the things you struggle with is a central part of growth.”

Giving these educators space to reflect created new opportunities to connect with them and help them connect with each other on their journey toward promoting everyday equity in their practices. It also gave us structured opportunities to discuss what group behaviors allowed open and honest discussion, while getting to know them better as individuals and understanding their experiences and background in a more in-depth manner.

Reflection, Next Steps & Summiting the Hill Again and Again
As teacher educators working in higher education, who have benefitted from many of the forms of privilege we are trying to interrogate, we need to be mindful of our own positionality in these conversations, and check our own biases consistently. This work is an ongoing and continuous journey for us and the people we are supporting. It is critical to make space for the voices of the diverse learners who are going to populate the classrooms of these new teachers, while balancing the need to see early career educators as learners themselves. The goal of all of this work is to foster a sense of belonging across the different educational spaces we all inhabit. What we describe here is not meant to be a comprehensive map to summit the hill, but rather a description of our ongoing journey, the obstacles we faced and tools we used along the way. From this process we learned that intentional framing and discussion of social justice issues in K-12 settings can be enhanced by clearly defined work around individual and shared values along with opportunities to practice participating in and facilitating challenging conversations.

Building and maintaining the skills and resolve to continuously engage in challenging conversations within and beyond school walls was imperative to our journey. Even as the program presented facts and narratives about the experiences of marginalized and minoritized groups, when we were not actively building the skills to apply this information to individual teaching practices, connections were lost. Conversely, if we had been solely working on interpersonal skills and establishing group and individual values, we would not have been doing enough to amplify narratives that have been historically absent in schools.

We also felt a tension between supporting teachers on their personal journey while acknowledging the urgency with which systems need to change. What harm would be done if these educators never made it far enough on their journey to connect equity to what happens in their classrooms on a day-to-day basis? What was the best way to interact with educators who struggled to connect broader themes? Reflection journals were an extremely useful tool for us to monitor the individual variability across the course of our program, and we found them to be more effective when we included specific prompts asking them to respond to how issues of equity and social justice connected to their work in context.

We understand the reflection and re-imagining of our practices working with early career educators are not a linear process. Although navigating the terrain may feel less daunting with each climb, there is no final summit. Instead we continue the journey, reflecting after each climb, striving to center the narratives of marginalized and minoritized folks while building community among educators, students and families. As one educator expressed in a reflective journal entry:

“Education is a field that won’t change if only a few people change their habits. It takes a lot of change over a long period of time. It can be hard and exhausting, but I’ve seen the benefit and I know that it’s worth it. I feel that it’s my job to help other educators see it too.”

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