When we think about the school year, the basics seem uniform. We think about routine school supply lists, uniform desks in the classroom, and empty seats waiting to be filled on the school bus. But we know every student experience is not uniform. No student — especially no student of color or student who identifies as LGBTQ+ — should ever have to fight to prove they belong in our schools. If you need help finding your footing in the work of inclusion and bias intervention, we are here for you.
Whether it’s in the classroom, on the playground, or off school grounds, consider these three questions:
1. Who is excluded from belonging in our school or community?
Back in July, Nikole Hannah-Jones made headlines for declining tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to instead accept an appointment at Howard University. Despite her many achievements, she continually had to fight for her place at the table. People actively lobbied to prevent her from receiving appointments she had earned.
It was the continuation of a pattern: “Since the second grade when I began being bused into White schools, I have been fighting against people who did not think a Black girl like me belonged, people who tried to control what I did, how I spoke, how I looked, the work I produced,” said Hannah-Jones.
Take a moment to think about who is excluded from belonging in your school or community. How can you support that person this week by making sure that they are seen, valued, and even celebrated?
One teacher in our community did this by taking photos of her students in the first few days, then texting their caregiver the picture and mentioning an asset that student was bringing to the classroom. This took some planning and prioritizing for 27 kids, but not only do the students feel seen, their families know that young person is valued in the classroom by day three.
2. Is there a preferred way to act or look in our community?
In many communities, privilege lies in identifying as White, cisgender, straight, and able-bodied. If this sounds like your community, consider the struggle that lies in residing in a community where most people learned to confine their appearance and assimilate their behaviors to a set of prescribed rules that were internalized before they were conscious of them.
Everyone deserves to express themselves fully and authentically. We all need to learn to love ourselves: for who we are, for how we actually look, and especially when we are being awkward, making mistakes, and in need of grace. If we do that hard work, then we will have love and acceptance to share with the next generation.
Ask yourself, is there a preferred way to act or look in our community? How can I draw on self-acceptance and love for myself to embrace and support someone who does not operate within privileged constructs?
Not sure where to find these unwritten rules? One data source can be your schools’ senior or graduating class photos. Look at the fashion choices, hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, body language, eyebrow shapes, and you will see if the rules are strict, or if there are diverse ways young people can show up in your community.
For further reading and questions, read this piece on three ways to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Help us teach educators about justice-centered SEL!
3. What do I do as an adult to perpetuate our current divide of othering and belonging?
For those of us who are among the 80% of teachers who are White, or who live in communities that are predominantly White, we have an opportunity to create schools and communities where every child feels seen and valued. This is especially important for the majority of students in the U.S. today who are students of color.
This is not a shame exercise, it’s an awareness one. Think about the words you use and the things you do that might contribute to the divide of people who feel inside or outside the circle of belonging. Some questions to ask yourself:
- Who do you find easiest to connect with?
- Who is the most challenging for you?
- Whose voices do you hear the most often? (Keep track of this in real time for a day or two to get objective information.)
- Which parents do you reach out to the most? Why? (Check the emails you sent last year.)
- Who do you send out of the room, redirect, or discipline most frequently? (Count it up to keep yourself honest.)
- What biases might you hold against yourself that might show up in how you treat others?
- Who benefits from you holding this bias?
We all have biases — that’s a given. From these questions, what patterns do you notice that might reveal your biases? How could you interrupt any patterns of bias that you see? What action could you take to send the signal to a young person that they belong here?
Ready to dig deeper into this work? Keep an eye out for our fall online workshops and professional development trainings coming in the spring.