Start the School Year With Equity in Mind

Sep 4, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Monica Washington

I’ve always liked the beginning of the school year much more than I like the ending. There is a mad rush at the end of the year that precedes that final bell. Compare that to the beginning of the school year, on the other hand, which comes with a big, shiny reset button. Things that didn’t go so well during the previous year can be wiped away as easily as my whiteboard and RESET! There’s a fresh, blank board beckoning me to be a better teacher this go-round. There is a reset that occurs at the school level as well. Handbooks and mission statements are sometimes revisited—“Empower all students regardless of,” “good citizens,” “21st-century skills.” These are all great phrases, but in order for them to be real and more than posters in classrooms, [pullquote]it is vital that as we reset for the new year, we also conduct a reset for equity.[/pullquote] To push that equity reset button the right way, there are a few things that educators can do.

Update the professional learning plan

Culturally responsive training must be an ongoing and embedded part of the learning plan so that we value diversity and present curriculum that truly reflects our students and their needs. If it is “one-and-done PD (professional development),” that training will die in a binder, and teachers will go back to what they have always done. However, when schools are intentional about cultural responsiveness, those practices will become evident in daily lessons and interactions with students. Schools with culturally homogeneous demographics are not exempt from any of this work. On the contrary, a school with all White students or a school with all Black students both need training and updated curriculum since students are being prepared to enter a very diverse world.

Discuss equity often

If equity is incorporated into faculty meetings and professional learning communities, then it will become more than some tangential part of teachers’ to-do lists. Deliberate and planned conversations will sustain the work and keep it at the forefront of what is important in a school. Conversations about how we serve all students will lead teachers to plan lessons that honor the interests and cultures of their students. When students ask, “Why do we still have to read this book?” It is OK to ponder whether we really do still need to teach it. Maybe we could use a resource such as NNSTOY's Social Justice Book List to switch one book, or maybe [pullquote]there are other diverse and interesting pieces that could be used to teach alongside what we are currently teaching.[/pullquote]

Audit the programs

Programs, clubs and enrichment activities are open for all students in the school, but sometimes this is not what we project to students. When there is a guest speaker on campus, do we invite these classes but not those classes? Students notice. I have heard students say things like “That’s not for people in my classes.” Do the demographics of honors and Advanced Placement classes mirror the demographics of the school’s population? When some fabulous enrichment opportunity like internships or camps become available, are we opening those opportunities to all students or just the ones we deem somehow worthy? If our goal is to empower and enrich all students, it’s important to frequently examine programs and selection criteria. If there isn’t transparency in the processes, we are creating a good kid-bad kid, haves-and-have not culture in a school environment that is supposed to be rooted in equity and growth.

Gather voices

Sometimes schools are working to have diverse curriculum, programs and professional learning for teachers, but they may be somehow still missing the mark. One way to gauge true impact of efforts in equity is to regularly solicit feedback from students and teachers. Quick and easy study surveys through Google Forms and other apps, student roundtables and an anonymous idea box for students’ ideas about how they can be better served are easy ways to incorporate student voice. Following up with students to show them changes that they inspired is also crucial. These same strategies can work for teachers. However, after being told a teacher survey is anonymous, many of us think, “Yeah, right. Well, why do I have to log in from my school account?” Teachers will discuss their real experiences and true needs if there is a format that doesn’t require email addresses and logins. Too often, teachers fear retaliation for honesty. If administrators truly want an idea of what equity is looking like at the classroom level, [pullquote position="left"]it is necessary to provide protected avenues of teacher input.[/pullquote] The way to ensure that we are living up to the mission of serving all students and honoring their backgrounds and cultures is to frequently reset those things that are not working well. Resetting has to be guided by ongoing professional learning and driven by student and teacher feedback. As we head back this fall to buff the floors, organize classrooms and put up new posters, it’s important to inspect our policies for equity and polish those up as well.

Monica Washington

Monica Washington is an instructional coach for BetterLesson. Previously, she taught English III and AP English III teacher at Texas High School in Texarkana where she served as department chair. She has been in education for 20 years and has taught grades 7-12. She has served as adjunct professor at LeMoyne-Owen College and Texarkana College. Monica became Texas State Teacher of the Year in 2014, and she continues to travel the country speaking to teachers and advocating for the profession. She serves in the Texas State Teachers Association and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. In addition, Monica is a 2015 Lowell Milken Center Fellow, and she will work with her students and the center to discover and honor unsung heroes. She is also a 2015 NEA Foundation Global Fellow. Monica is currently pursuing a doctorate of education in teacher leadership.

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