To Close the Educational Equity Gap, Teachers Have to Understand Their Position of Power

To Close the Educational Equity Gap, Teachers Have to Understand Their Position of Power

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They can’t read Shakespeare—a teacher told me when they found out I was starting a unit on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with my ninth-grade students—do you even know them?

This conversation has rattled around in my head for months now, causing this gnawing feeling in my stomach. This is not the first time a more seasoned teacher has confronted me about what I choose to teach my students. It’s easy to become numb to the noise, but something about this comment really stuck with me.

After some reflection, it clicked: when teachers say students can’t, they often mean that students don’t deserve to.

The moment a teacher decides their students can’t do something, then the battle has already been lost to the monster of educational inequity in our country. To close the massive gap of education inequity, teachers need to start by adjusting their mindsets, checking their implicit biases, and reflecting on what they choose—and don’t choose—to teach their students.

A Position of Power

No matter where you are, teachers are in a position of power. We dictate what children learn, when they learn it, and how they do it. For teachers who work in communities with large populations of historically marginalized groups, they have a disproportionate amount of power in the classroom. Schools like this—like mine—tend to have less academic oversight and teacher accountability, which can lend itself to students receiving an education that is not at the caliber of rigor that they have a right to.

Over the past few years, I have been subject to hearing other teachers say over and over what our students can’t do. Can’t read. Can’t write. Can’t understand. That is the justification for lessening the standards instead of finding ways to differentiate for varied learners and lift them up to meet the expectations and beyond. A teacher that does not have a firm belief in every student’s ability to achieve success cultivates a classroom culture that actively prevents learning—whether that is their conscious intention or not.

Students know when teachers do not believe in them, and after a while, they too adopt that mentality. This hurts me, not only as an educator but as a Native Hawaiian who believes so intensely in the strength and intelligence of my community.

Implementation of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

Culturally relevant curriculum is informed by students’ cultures, backgrounds, interests, and strengths. It isn’t an excuse to deny students of color the opportunity to learn what students with more privileged situations learn. It means taking the standards-aligned curriculum and shaping it to be culturally relevant for each of your students. This provides students the means to find academic success while building on their expertise and knowledge. This is what it means to empower students in the classroom.

Though I believe in diversifying the content that has mostly remained unchanged for the past however many decades, I wonder what the true motivation is behind some teachers’ choices to not expose their students to work in the literary canon. I’ve witnessed teachers denying students the opportunity to explore thought-provoking and challenging texts under the guise of “culturally relevancy.” This abuse of power is damaging to students as it disempowers them, making them feel as if they are incapable of reaching the same academic success as others. This results in widening the ever-growing educational equity gap in our country.

Giving Teachers the Resources They Need

Remaking a curriculum to be truly culturally responsive is a large and daunting task, especially when teachers are already overworked and underpaid. Undertaking this task can only be done well with proper compensation, time to work, and support from administrators. School and district-level leaders should take it upon themselves to provide these opportunities and support so that teachers can ensure students have access to the quality and equitable education they deserve.

In a time of great change in our country, in our world, this is the time to reshape the way we think about public education. Now more than ever is the perfect opportunity to dig into the work of making educational inequity a thing of the past. It will take work from all stakeholders.

It is easy to become overwhelmed with how much needs to change. I often find myself thought-spiraling, trying to find a way out of the tangled mess. But that isolation we often feel as educators make the problem so much worse. We shy away from working together when we should be building coalitions to dismantle the broken system once and for all and build anew. However, we cannot even begin to start the work until we believe in our students again. Sometimes in a child’s world, their teacher is the only one who can truly see their potential, their spark, the special way in which they can make a difference in this world. We must not diminish that by taking away their right to a rigorous and curiosity-driven learning experience.

To the people who think my students can’t, I offer you a precious piece of my classroom.

The room is full of pleasant chattering. Kids are up out of their seats and hunched over posters. There are markers everywhere. They talk of Romeo’s obsession with fate and Mercutio’s wild and mysterious monologues. They speak of Juliet and her nurse. Benvolio and Balthsaar. The Capulets and the Montagues. They discuss love and hate and destiny and growing up. They confront tragedy head-on.

It’s imperfect and messy and exciting all at the same time as I watch my students prove time and time that they can, in fact, do it.

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