Unlearning What We’ve Learned: Embedding Equity in Your Classroom

Regardless of where you are located or what you teach, the world invades your space and your personal and professional bias regarding the events happening in the world affect your ability to provide education equitably.  With that in mind, we have to unlearn the biases we were taught by family, community and begin to see the world as it is. We need to learn to acknowledge that world.  It’s time to take off the blinders and embed the reality of our current situation into our teaching. This doesn’t mean one will have information forced down your throats and then regurgitate back at the students. It means, regardless of your situation, it’s time to unlearn what we’ve learned about ourselves as human beings and educators. After all, it’s their world, not ours.

Our biases are getting in the way of teaching our students.  Let me repeat that, our biases are getting in the way of teaching our students. I will be the first to admit, some days, I am convinced my students are a hopeless bunch of bipeds who will, unfortunately, be the ones running the country when I’m dead and gone and my 30 something children will be middle-aged. I wonder where in the past 40 years, did the notion of self-respect, respect for others, compassion and the desire to learn fade away. It’s something I struggle with and have tried to figure out.  Why are these children so… different?

Equity is providing resources and access to opportunities so all have an equal chance for success.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Breakfast Club when the janitor explains to the principal that the kids haven’t changed, he has. Yeah, I have. You have. And most importantly, the world has. The students are just products of the world they live in, just as we were at their ages. If we want to build compassion, a love of learning, respect and honor within them, we have to recognize it within ourselves. We also have to provide the learning in a way they can actually use it. Frustrated students who feel unseen, disrespected, and treated as if they should “know” things they don’t aren’t going to learn.

My favorite example of bias and showing equity happened in one of my classes years ago.  While teaching about watersheds and river systems, one of my students asked about an image in our textbook.

“What’s a kayak, Mrs. Stone?”

I had reviewed the reading before giving it to the students, but it never occurred to me that, although I knew what a kayak was, they might not. Equal access to learning, but not equitable.

I stopped the lesson, searched kayaking on Youtube and showed them what a kayak was. Her response was simple and important.

“Why didn’t they just call the thing a raft or boat?”

Good question. After all, it was just a water vehicle floating down a river. The word raft would have worked just fine. Most people know what a raft is, right?  (ok, bias alert there perhaps) The word “kayak” showed bias to a particular level of life experience. They DID now know there are different types of watercraft, and how they’re used in different situations, but since the assumption was ALL students would know what a kayak is, equity was missing. It changed the way I taught material. I now always double-check for words, images, etc. that my students just might not know. I check for misconceptions about the learning.\

What is equity? Equity is providing resources and access to opportunities so all have an equal chance for success.1 So this, in the classroom, means what?  It means we can no longer apply those biases, those assumptions, those stereotypes, and prejudices to students we teach. In order to do that, we have to fix ourselves first.2 We have to pay attention to what the students see. Do they see themselves, do the words used show bias against their experiences? Ask yourself these questions and begin to remove the biases and embed experiences that matter to them.

Equality v. Equity

What do you know about the children in your classroom who are, on the surface, different from you? What were you taught about “those people” growing up? Based on your biases, how much effort do you put into knowing and nurturing your students? After a conversation with a colleague recently, where she related how one of her relatives asked her about “those kids in her classes and whether they were “able to learn, cus she’d heard ‘those kids aren’t really able to learn”, I thought long and hard about what that person had been taught, how my colleague vehemently disagreed with her, and how happy I was that she did disagree. She will be the first to admit she has biases about the students she teaches, same as me (and I look like the majority of my students), but we’re working to unlearn those biases.  It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.  It’s the only way to bring equity to our classrooms.

How do we start to unlearn our biases? Having conversations with each other about how we were taught and what we have learned is a start. Reading about how bias affects equity is another. Find a list of articles and books below that can get you started on your journey to “unlearn”.

Teacher bias in the classroom is a “thing”.  So, yes, unlearning is not easy. We can do it though. We have to do it. For the sake of the emotional health of our students and the overall growth and unity of our communities. We’re all human, afterall, right?

Articles and books on equity in the classroom and how to identify our implicit biases:

Sources

  1. Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference? Accessed 16 Jan. 2022.
  2. Self-Regulation in Young Children – Home.” Accessed 16 Jan. 2022.