Creating Equitable, Inclusive Schools

Education, I believe, is the context within which we’ll sustain a democracy. And that is the rock bottom, in my opinion, for mindfulness practices, for showing up fully alive and well in an educational institution. I have to just tell you, Rona. My belief is that teachers, leaders, all of those in schools have a huge responsibility and a lot of power over our youth today and their life chances. And that that is the backdrop that really does inform everything I do around equity, cultural responsiveness, and mindfulness. 

That schools decide who will teach every child. Whether that person will be very capable or not. How much. How long. With what resources, and in what settings. And therefore, if there’s not attention to equity and to the diverse cultures that are coming into those classrooms and those schools, students will be affected, not only in their skills to pay the bills, but in their chances for any kind of capital in this world. Economic capital, political capital, intellectual capital, social capital are all in the hands of those adults who work with students. 

So, it gets down to do the adults understand what they even believe about the children in front of them? And about themselves? Are the teachers and leaders in touch with their own biases and how those affect what the classroom will look like, and whose voices will be heard in the classroom? Who’ll be honored in the classroom? And who will see, in the curriculum, evidence of themselves? I believe that comes from a contemplative place of understanding one’s own histories, understanding how we’ve been socialized to believe certain things about subgroups, about intelligence. And that requires some reflection and the practice of knowing, “How am I showing up? And what’s coming forth.” That, to me, is the rationale. 

It means that everyday, every child, from every subgroup gets everything they need so that they can embrace every opportunity for life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I know that sounds like a big charge, and therefore, for me, I have to say what it’s not. It is not giving everybody the same thing. Equal treatment of unequals has already been found inherently unequal by Brown versus Board of Education. And David Sacher and Myra Sacher said, “We couldn’t do it even if we wanted to.” It’s too complex, and we’re not aware of our own biases and notions and favoritisms. And so it does not mean … Equal does not mean sameness. It does mean leveling the playing field. It does mean being aware of privileges and disadvantages, disparities and differences. Equity does mean that policies are examined so that those who are disenfranchised will show up in the data. 

How Educators Can Address Disparity

I think educators can realize that it is a shared journey. That they can learn as much from every single subject group and every child who comes in there as they can teach. And indeed, and maybe make their environment learner-centered, where everybody’s learning. That they can walk, teachers can walk into a classroom and affect a child’s day, week, life with a word, with an expression, with an off-handed comment, or with a comment like a teacher made to me. “You have an incredible voice. Use it.” And I thought she meant sing, but she meant speak. I think teachers can acknowledge students’ home language and that their learning comes in that room from many, many, many sources and tap into that. And create a “we” in the environment not just a “me.” Notice, our language. My classroom or our classroom. I often, as a parent, went into classrooms, and the first thing I noticed was the environment. Is it … What is it saying to the students who are coming in? That’s an equity issue. 

Realizing that you may just be from a culture that is dominant and what that brings in terms of authority. What that brings in terms of power and how students see you and voice. And that it may require that you, as a teacher, lower some of that and acknowledge that to students. Selection of materials. Just paying attention. For example, I have looked at books. I learned Spanish, and I look at a lot of Spanish books that do not honor the rich cultures of the various Latin backgrounds. But, clearly show heroes and holidays as a way to view a culture. So, I think teachers can be learners, too. And learn about other cultures and learn about their own histories so that when they show up in the classroom, they’re not only coming from a mindful place but from an awareness of bias place. 

Race, in this country, is, has been the smog that has choked out equity and inclusivity and created such unawareness and disparity and is probably the most unaddressed ism and holds the other isms together. 

It needs to be address because we’re all breathing it in the United States, at least. And whether we’re doing something about it or not, we’re part of it, and we cough it up from time to time. Which means, that racism gets coughed up in classrooms, perspectives, curriculum, materials, and Alice Walker says it’s like kudzu vine that it’s at the root of classism and sexism and homophobia and the other isms. And if we don’t pull it up, we’ll keep it growing 

In schools, also, because no matter what data we look at in disparities, poverty when you disaggregate it, racial differences emerge at the top. When we look at grades and gender biases, race is the one variable that emerges across all of those. And that’s why we have to be courageous. It’s not a society that is “colorblind.” In fact, in my opinion that phrase may be an indication of the privilege of not having to look at having to look at color, racial, skin color, colorism. 

So, in schools, I think, we have to be what some say is color brave and address the disparity. So that students who see that we’re willing to address racial bias and racism, actually feel seen.

Having conversations that are emotionally charged without having tools to be mindful and to show up with the intention of noticing what’s going on inside and outside, can be disastrous. Those conversations can go downhill very quickly, and teachers need to have the practices in order to have the conversations with students and teach the practices to students so they can engage in those conversations as well.

I think it begins with the person not the structure. The persons who are willing to convene a conversation, I would say, have a great responsibility for modeling and embodying practices of self-awareness, practices of opening one’s heart and noticing when the heart is starting to close. Practices of noticing one’s triggers and emotionally charged language and one’s biases. So I believe, it starts with the conveners.

So, what I’m speaking of are structures for adult engagement as simple as listen to everyone speak before you speak another time. Using timers in a setting, in a meeting setting, in a classroom setting to ensure that everybody gets some time to talk. Instead of those who speak the loudest, the fastest, or who may have the highest power differential or more status getting more air time. Which can really create inequity whether it’s addressed or not. And exclusion and marginalization, especially among our young. 

We see through both, so as hospitable spaces and coming in and going, “Oh, someone thought about me. There’s water. Oh, there is a specific place to sit. I really don’t have to wonder will anyone sit next to me. Someone has thought about our seating and about us getting to talk to different people.” So, there’s attention to getting know other people. Those sound very small, but those are very rich and meaningful structures for dealing with difficult topics like racism and classism.