Monday, August 26, 2019

Two toxic moments in staff meetings and what we can learn about being truly inclusive

This is a post that I want to write because these incidents happened.  There are a lot of other incidents that don't necessarily rise to the top in the pile of indignities, assumptions,  and examples of ignorance that are part of the life of being a bi-racial Latinx woman who is white passing and who is not afraid to speak up.  Name spelling and pronunciation, anyone?  (And yes, I acknowledge the great privilege I carry with my light colored skin and hair color.)

These things happen, and I think we can learn from them. So, stick with me.  This is not about comprehensible input.  It is about being better teachers.  And hopefully better humans.  

Anyway, let me give some background.

If you have read my blog for a while, you maybe know that one great passion of mine is inclusion, with the related passions of diversity, social justice, anti-bias, and dismantling the system of oppression and racism and bias that we live with every day.   

One key idea for me in being inclusive is that each member of my classroom (and hopefully community) feels safe and seen for who they are and what they need. They feel safe to say no if they are uncomfortable, or to ask a question if they don't get it.  They feel safe talking, or not talking.  

One of the greatest compliments that I have ever been given was in feedback about a presentation I did this summer.  I am putting it out here because it makes me feel great (because I read this blog too!) and because this idea of safety goes hand in hand with consent.  I am grateful that what I try to do was seen.  
[Elicia] was so open and engaging that she made each of us in the over-crowded room feel welcome. She modeled many important social-emotional practices: tiny physical "brain breaks" to reset our tired minds, differentiating by offering different options and encouraging us to make the activities we liked our own, responding to all suggestions and comments with "yes and", and above all, modeling asking consent for every little thing - "do you mind if I use your picture?" "may I use you as an example?" 

So this work is not just part of my teaching practice, it is who I am and what I bring to the classroom.  I believe in it and it's important to me.     

Fast forward to some incidents in staff meetings.  I want to be clear that I don't have issue with the activities I am describing.  I have concerns with the responses made by my peers, and I want to bring to light some of the embedded assumptions that are made when choosing these activities.   And I want to highlight what a good response to these kinds of incidents looks like. 

After these incidents, I sat down with my administrator and shared my concerns and we made a good plan to address them.  I am really thankful that I have a administrator who makes time and takes time to hear me, and takes these concerns very seriously.  

#1: In a getting-to-know you activity, there is a soccer ball being with questions written on it being tossed around. When you catch it, you answer the question that your right thumb lands on.  This game was being modeled as one that could be played in class or in our advisory groups, with kids.  Some questions were about favorite things, like breakfast cereals, and others were things like "what makes you sad?". 

Let's digest that for a minute.  First, what are the assumptions there?  

  • Everyone in the community knows about breakfast cereals.  
  • Everyone gets to eat breakfast.
  • Everyone is feeling comfortable with getting a ball tossed at them.
  • Everyone has the physical ability to catch the soccer ball. 
  • Everyone feels comfortable talking about what makes them sad.  (Because you know what makes me sad?  Surviving this.  Is that really what people want to hear?  Trust me, the answer is usually no.) 
Being me, I asked the person running the game what happens if a student doesn't want to answer that question. (Because if I don't speak up, who will?)  Before an answer could be given, someone snickered and made a very belittling comment about what a stupid question that was, that they (the students) could answer the questions.  

Wait- WHAT?  Do we not want all students to feel safe?  Do we not acknowledge that students come from different backgrounds?  

The game leader (our very thoughtful admin) quickly responded "oh sure, great question- have them answer one near their thumb" and moved on.   

So, on one hand, I feel like the admin heard the question, acknowledged its value, and answered it.  I felt seen and heard.  But on the other hand, not only was my question belittled, there was no awareness from at least one colleague that it might be relevant. 

#2:  In a later activity, several pictures of a prominent sports figure were projected, displaying different emotions.  The activity was an emotional check-in.  The pictures were of this sports figure with different facial expressions, and we were supposed to put our initials next to the image that best expressed our emotional state.  

Again, let's dig in to some assumptions about the activity: 
  • Everyone can read facial expressions and assign meaning to them.
  • All participants know who the sports figure is.
  • Everyone is comfortable sharing their emotional state.
I was not super happy for a number of reasons when this activity occurred.  But more frustrating to me was that I had no idea who the sports figure was and I didn't really know what the expressions were.  I asked who the person was (because asking about the expressions felt like it would open me up to ridicule, so I chose instead what I thought was a safer route).  The admin quickly responded, telling me the name and sport. No biggie.  

But my colleagues gaped.  "You don't know who X is?" "Do you know who Y is either?"  "How can you not know who X is?" "Are you serious?"  

I was shocked.  Like, really, really shocked.  Hurt, disappointed, sad, angry, and a dozen other negative emotions.

I want to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post.  I did speak to my administrator. He heard me. We made a plan. I felt heard and seen and respected.  It's ok and I'm ok.  But it is a solid example of embedded assumptions and of not treating each other with respect and kindness.  And of side conversations getting out of control.   

Imagine if I was a kid in a class where that happened.  Maybe I'm 12 and growing in all kinds of new places.  Maybe I am new to the school.  Maybe my family doesn't allow screen use at all.  Maybe I just lost my parent. Maybe I ...there are a million maybes.  But I am sure that in that moment, I have completely lost the trust of that kid.  Note that the person running the activities, the "teacher" (admin, in this case), handled each moment with consideration and kindness.  It was the side talk, the outside conversations that were harmful.  

And please, I am not saying that every kid needs to be coddled and treated like a precious snowflake.  I believe deeply in the gift of failure, the power of hearing no, and the growth that those bring.   

But friends, they see a lot more of the real world than we think.  And they are still kids.  

I can not control what happens to them outside of my classroom.  I can commit to making my classroom as safe as possible.  Especially in 2019.  

What can I take away from these situations as a teacher? (Hopefully they will apply to you too.) 

For me,  it is to critically examine the actual things I do in the classroom and constantly ask myself what assumptions I am making.  Yes, it is exhausting.  I am going to do it anyway.

It is also to take a moment before reacting- to questions, to comments, to actions.  But especially to questions.  If I want to give an eye roll or a smirk, I need to check that right at the door. Because it is legitimate to someone.  

I need to keep focusing on creating a community where those kind of side comments can't happen (through procedures) and don't happen (through community building) and when (not if; I am only human) they do, I own it and address it.

I need to remember to take a cue from my administrator.  He never got defensive.  He owned what happened, apologized sincerely, and together we found a way to repair it.  

Most important, I need to keep asking questions and question other peoples' assumptions.   

I need to remember that it takes courage to ask questions and call attention to unpopular ideas and call people out on their assumptions.  And sometimes I am going to feel bad or unwelcome.  (These weren't even about race. Think about that.)   I need to remember that is who I am- courageous- and find ways to connect with communities that support me and that build me up and help me when I'm down.   

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