Improving Equity and Empathy at School

Last spring a group of students representing our Gender Sexuality Alliance asked to have a meeting with our district’s curriculum director and myself. We sat down in my office and the students began to make a calm, thoughtful, and well reasoned case for more LGBTQ+ representation in our curriculum. The students made a persuasive case that essentially asked the question, “Why not?” 

Giving students meaningful voice in our learning community has made our school more equitable and created a more empathetic place to learn and grow for all of our students. The recent case made by the students for more LGBTQ+ representation in our school ran parallel to a similar conversation that I had two years ago with a few of our students of color. They had helped us understand just how complacent we were in the dominant narrative’s deeply embedded systemic implicit biases, prejudices, and perpetuation of marginalization for those historically marginalized. On February 1st, 2018, their advocacy led to our high school being the first known public school in America to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. The flag raising sparked national and international attention, and more importantly has been a visible symbol of our local school community’s commitment to making our learning environment more equitable and empathetic. 

So how exactly does a predominantly white, middle class, rural high school like ours go about being more inclusive and equitable? Here are five strategies that we are using to improve. 

  1. Know thyself. As administrators and teachers we owe it to all of our students to examine our own biases, privilege, reflect on our practices, and pursue professional learning opportunities to deepen our knowledge and commitment to equity. Helping students understand their place in time and history means we as educators need to have a stronger understanding of our own. 
  2. Do the homework. The students from our Gender Sexuality Alliance raised such a simple and poignet question, “Why not review existing units and look for ways to be more inclusive?” As we improve our school’s clarity around targeted skill-based competencies, it ought to render more unit content choices more neutral. In other words, if reading comprehension is the goal, the selection of which materials and authors to read should be flexible to include more diverse authors, themes, and topics. One of our science teachers recently uncovered that a longstanding biology unit about DNA had vast and meaningful implications to inequitable incarceration rates, systemic judicial bias, and the use of cutting edge science to improve those problems. Holding up an equity lens to almost any of our units can yield similar connections and opportunities for inclusivity.
  3. Use data. The achievement gap is as troubling in our school as it is anywhere in the country. We have consistently lagged in literacy and math skills among students from low socioeconomic status. Use of data through an equity lens pushes us to ask who(?) more often. Who is accessing our afterschool program? Who is utilizing our social worker? Who is being referred for special education? Who can regularly access technology? Who is accessing our flexible pathways? Who is represented in faculty and leadership? Some of the answers to these questions illustrate the stark disparity in our system for the historically marginalized and those numbers can spark more targeted intervention and proactive problem solving. Recently adopted local school policy will also provide more strength and urgency to answering these questions with equity at the forefront of our work.   
  4. Interrupt microaggressions. Our students have reported hearing microaggressions, usually masked as jokes, on a regular basis. There are two ways that we have worked to improve this issue. One is to improve knowledge of history, context, and status of historically marginalized members of our society–in an effort to help raise awareness of the pain and implications “jokes” can have. The second is to simply improve our ability to interrupt. Relying on resources from Teaching Tolerance, our faculty actually practiced interrupting microaggressions and biased comments. It proved challenging, and having more practice and chances to collaborate on strategies has been useful faculty time together. 
  5. Look around. We have simply been looking around to reveal what implicit messages are in our system. What and who are on the walls? What gender normative language can we remove from our forms, class groupings, bathrooms, student management system, graduation, etc. Is special education a place in our school? Who is in leadership positions? How can our posters, art, book displays, school motto and hiring communicate inclusivity and celebration of all? When we examine our environment closely through the lens of equity for our historically marginalized it is incredible just how strongly and frequently the implicit biases reveal themselves.  

We have been fortunate to have students with voice helping to lead the way in our school. Our job is to hold up our end of the work too. That means not only listening to their voices, but also raising the expectations for ourselves. Waking up to the systemic biases in our school is difficult–even painful work at times. And recognizing our own privilege–no matter our life circumstances, is internal work not everyone is eager to do. Despite the challenges, making strides to create a more equitable learning environment is not only the right thing to do for our historically marginalized students, it is crucial for our advantaged students and all members of our community to lead deeper, more just, and more empathetic lives as well. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s