Want to Build Anti-Racist Schools? Start With the Adults.

Mar 23, 2021 12:00:00 AM


The past year has put an intense spotlight on the racism and inequities that plague American schools. It has also inspired leaders and educators to embrace new opportunities to reimagine education and foster systemic change. To build and sustain equitable, anti-racist schools, we need to start by training our educators to foster their own social-emotional competencies and mindsets.

While [pullquote position="right"]focusing on adult social-emotional learning (SEL) alone will not remove systemic inequities[/pullquote], it gives educators a critical foundation in the knowledge, orientations, and skills that are needed to recognize and address the impacts of systemic oppression.

Adult SEL training can help educators shift their focus from blaming and/or fixing students to addressing systems, structures and perceptions that hinder equitable outcomes. It can orient them away from narrowly-defined competencies and deficit-based interpretations of student data to definitions and interpretations that are culturally sustaining and asset-based. And it can transform the culture of our schools, shifting from a focus on student compliance to a focus on fostering student agency to address bias, injustice, and racism in classrooms, schools, and communities. And yet, very few states require comprehensive programming related to teacher SEL in their certification requirements.

The broader PreK-12 ecosystem must play a role in creating the urgency around adult SEL, offering training for preservice and in-service teachers, and cultivating culturally-responsive and evidence-based strategies that teachers can implement in their classroom to foster student social-emotional development. Some exciting work on this front is already underway.

Irvin Scott, a faculty member at the Harvard University School of Education, recently developed a framework to propel us toward a new kind of education ecosystem—one that leverages system-wide capacity to address the disparities, injustices, and unequal access to opportunities that have been visibly exposed during the pandemic. Organizations like Teach For America and Urban Assembly, which sit at the intersection of the PreK-12 system and technical assistance providers, are especially poised to demonstrate what is possible when rigorous training on adult SEL, grounded in anti-racism, is provided to educators and incorporated into classroom practice.

In fact, at Teach For America, we are re-envisioning our educator training to ensure that our teachers are creating equitable learning environments that support student agency. [pullquote]We want our teachers to draw clear connections between the inequities in our education system and the roles they can play to affect change.[/pullquote] We want them to develop an understanding of the connection across SEL, the science of learning and development, trauma-informed practices and culturally responsive pedagogy.

To do this work, we start by cultivating educator competencies and mindsets, including self-awareness, social awareness, self-efficacy, and relationship-building, to increase alignment between educator intentions, actions, and impact as an anti-racist teacher leader.

There is no easy fix to dismantling racism and white supremacy. This work requires humility, continual reflection and action. This means learning from mistakes and missteps, acknowledging the harm that has been caused to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and rectifying systems and structures to propel us towards educational equity.

This work can be challenging, but [pullquote]when adult training on SEL is implemented thoughtfully and authentically, it allows teachers to sustain their own resilience and leadership in pursuit of anti-racism, systemic change, and educational equity.[/pullquote] And when we focus on teacher wellness and resilience, our educators are better positioned to support students as they develop their own SEL competencies. With a shared understanding of what it means to show up in the classroom and the world with cultivated social-emotional competencies and mindsets, we can build an education system that allows every child to learn, lead, thrive, and co-create a future filled with possibility.

Saffiyah Madraswala

Saffiyah Madraswala is the Senior Managing Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness at Teach For America.

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