Let’s put aside the myth that K–12 teachers and leaders who identify as Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) are experts in equity, making them naturally inclined to discuss race, class, or gender at the drop of a hat. Let’s also put aside the assumption that only racialized and Indigenous people should be engaged in equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization work. Let’s recognize that all educators and leaders should be committing to and engaging in anti-racism, anti-oppression and decolonization practices.
We know that doing anti-racism and anti-oppression work in education is often emotionally and mentally exhausting. Walking into intimidating and stressful spaces where unconscious and conscious biases coupled with microaggressions and macroaggressions are present is not for the faint of heart – especially given that there is a relative overrepresentation of white, male identities in leadership positions and a corresponding underrepresentation of Indigenous, female, queer, and racialized identities.
We also know that identities are complex, fluid, and overlapping, impacted by experiences and contexts. While it is true that lived experiences of equity-deserving populations can lead to deeper understandings of bias and assumptions, it does not prepare us to address and to counter, in a very public manner, systemic inequities. Gaining insight into lived experiences by acknowledging distinct histories, stories and identities is one way to be inclusive and responsive to the increasing diversity of school populations. For those learning and relearning about past, present, and omitted histories and working in contexts where distinct stories emerge, Applewhite (2022) suggests that we take an action-oriented approach: “Stop doing the work and start being the work.”
Culturally sustaining pedagogy
One way of being the work is engaging in Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP). Building on the work of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995) and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (Gay, 2000), Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) affirms students’ backgrounds by connecting cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and frames of reference to their local school and societal contexts. An important consideration is the development of critical consciousness to recognize and critique societal inequalities. Within the CSP framework (Paris & Alim, 2017), the diversity of cultural ways of being and doing in communities is recognized, acknowledged, and sustained via:
- valuing community languages, practices, and ways of being
- school accountability to policies, protocols, curricula, and practices relating to employment equity and students’ achievement and wellbeing
- curriculum that connects to cultural and linguistic histories
- sustaining cultural and linguistic practices within the larger mainstream context.
Sharing stories and coming to a fuller understanding of histories, customs, and traditions of diverse populations in the school communities would provide opportunities for teachers, students, staff, and leaders in K–12 to learn and to unlearn about deep-rooted assumptions about teaching and learning. Many educators recognize that being authentic and responsive with their actions, and supporting decisions reflective of culture and values, is foundational to this work. The real changes occur when reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (Schön, 1985; 1987) push us to ask ourselves whether the implemented practices were good enough.
We know that representation matters when it comes to who is included and who is excluded in teaching, leadership, school district, and school trustee contexts. Despite anti-racist policies and mandates across the board in the multiplicity of educational contexts, access, equity, and equitable representation remain ongoing challenges. Indigenous and racialized students need to see themselves better reflected in the curriculum, and in the teaching and leadership staff of their schools.
Kendi (2019) urges all K–12 educators, regardless of identity, to engage in anti-racist education by considering long-held assumptions about race, culture, identity, and gender. By cultivating the tools for recognizing, observing, and understanding internal and external reactions to diverse realities, we can all come to a deeper understanding and insightful reflections about our positionality in societal systems and our impact on student outcomes and successes.
Addressing the needs of diverse educational populations, some public school systems are engaging in explicit equity initiatives that transform policies and administrative actions, that engage in decolonization and anti-racism practices, that support professional and human resource development, and that actively seek out community and parent engagement. Important considerations include advocacy and accountability measures that monitor improvement to support high achievement for all diverse students.
Addressing systemic racism
The Peel District School Board (PDSB) is an example of how a school system addressed systemic racism. On the heels of a very public outcry to dismantle practices and behaviours that led to racialized educational disparities, an independent external review concluded that the PDSB did not have the capacity to address the issues of systemic racism. Key recommendations of the external review focused on collecting data on issues like bullying and suspensions, advancing a culturally responsive curriculum, anti-racist training for educators, promoting racially responsive leadership and establishing an Education Equity Office. Positioned in the school district, the Equity Office would provide an organizational structure to address issues of systemic racism on a proactive and on-going basis by implementing:
- Management by a senior leadership position
- Community outreach staff to liaise with parents and community partners
- Developing anti-racism policy in consultation with the community
- Annual equity action plan and equity accountability report card to address systemic inequities experienced by students and staff
- Development and implementation of equity-based curriculum
- Development and implementation of a comprehensive professional learning plan for staff on equity, decolonization, and anti-racism instructional practice, and anti-oppression, reconciliation and restorative practices
- Regular self-identification census of students and staff in order to develop an equity-based profile of school district/community
- Monitoring of the employment equity policy and program
- Collection of disaggregated equity-based student data (gender, grade, Indigeneity, race, disability, sexual orientation) to clearly define student-centred outcomes to eliminate disparities in achievement of students:
- suspensions (in-school and out-of-school)
- graduation rates
- credit accumulation in applied and academic courses
- representation in special education
- Comprehensive equity audits of schools, including the naming of schools, mascots, and learning materials used in libraries and classrooms.
So, as we consider how to be the work and how to take action, let’s learn from one another, let’s think about and reflect on how we are being equitable in our teaching and leadership practices. By listening attentively to our students, our colleagues, and our communities, by intentionally sharing ideas and by coming together, we gather strength in numbers. Maybe an Equity Education Office in each of our school districts/divisions can support strategic priorities by reviewing policies and procedures, questioning and interrogating professional learning, and influencing pathways for success for students. By creating agency, by establishing policy and process, by making space, by reaching out, by speaking out, and by bringing voices not often heard to the foreground, we can target transformative and action-based practices. While the fear of getting it wrong or saying the wrong thing may constrict our actions, we can no longer stand by and move away from unsettling provocations, conversations, and experiences. Together, we can create equitable and inclusive environments by approaching the work with humility and an authentic interest in improvement, change, and transformation.
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Applewhite, B. (2022). Stop doing the work, start being the work. Principl(ed), 44–50.
Equity Matters Manitoba. (n.d.). Education Equity Office Campaign. https://equitymattersmb.ca
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press
Henry, F., Dua, E., et al. (2017) (Eds.). The equity myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian universities. University of British Columbia Press.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. New World.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3).
Paris, D., & Alim, S. H. (Eds.) (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. BasicBooks.
Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. John Wiley & Sons.