In this four-part blog series, Tonya Perry, Steven Zemelman, and Katy Smith, the authors of Teaching for Racial Equity, introduce us to their Action Guides, short one-page companions to their book that help educators move from the words they read on the page to taking action. You can view the first blog and Action Guide in this series here.
In Teaching for Racial Equity Action Guide #1 we invited you to write a piece of your autobiography and consider how race may have played a part, to reveal both the strengths and limitations you may bring to making school equitable for students. The next step, as we indicated, is to share your story with one or more colleagues and reflect on your histories through a racial lens.
There are a number of reasons for doing this work. For one, it can highlight the particular elements of your background that affect how you work with students, aspects of your life that provide strengths for you as a teacher, or that simply differ from those of your students. One strength that Steve believes he brings to teaching, for example, is that he’s always been interested in what makes people tick, why they do what they do – which helps him in seeking to understand students’ behavior, particularly when it may involve some form of resistance to the work at hand. On the other hand, he grew up watching an entrepreneur father establish a toy factory, and got to watch the process of bringing it into being and enabling it to grow – which is quite different from the experience of most students. As a result, at times he doesn’t automatically see how some students may not recognize the possibilities in the world before them. We can call this a “bias,” though that doesn’t imply something evil. It’s just a different way of looking at some aspect of life. And we often need a different perspective to give us insight into our biases.
Another reason for sharing autobiographies is that it can build understanding and positive relationships among faculty members. Having one’s story heard is very affirming. And knowing about another person’s experiences builds understanding of their present actions and ideas. Of course, in the process people can choose what they are comfortable sharing. This is not meant to be a confession, but rather an account of some aspect of how one’s identity was formed. Sharing stories about ourselves helps us better understand ourselves and the people around us.
A third reason is that the process enables people to identify shared values and interests that can help them work together. Often in the crush of all the day-to-day work on teachers’ plates, there seems to be little time to learn about one another. People are often surprised to discover interests and goals that they have in common but did not realize. And even if backgrounds are very different, each person can feel respected for who they are. If particular policies or practices need to be addressed for more equity in students’ learning, it will be much easier to discuss them and agree on solutions if there is a basis of trust and understanding among the faculty.
A word about viewing one’s history through an equity lens: This may take some creative thinking. It may or may not necessarily be about specific conditions of racial discrimination. And it may require the view of an outside listener to help identify the racialized aspect of one’s experience. For example, as you’ll read in Teaching for Racial Equity, as Steve and Tonya compared their experiences in their own schooling, they noted that while Tonya went to school with a diverse student body, Steve’s classmates were all White. Children of Color were excluded, which was unfortunate in itself. But in addition, both Steve and those excluded children were deprived of the opportunity of getting to know and appreciate other young people of different backgrounds. As Tonya put it, Steve “grew up in a bubble.” (Teaching for Racial Equity, pp. 47-50)
So now we invite you to check out our Action Guide #2 to get some suggestions for sharing autobiographies with colleagues.
—Tonya Perry, Steve Zemelman, and Katy Smith