Disrupting Inequities: Educating for Change

Black male teacher working with students in the computer lab.The American education system was not created to support the liberation of the powerless. Instead, it was designed to instill skills, habits, beliefs, and discipline that would allow for better control of the masses. The colonizers who became the architects of this country built a system that perpetuates the status of white-skinned privilege and wealth, while leaving those in the lower and middle classes burdened with the laborious task of building and supporting our nation’s economy and infrastructure.

Throughout the history of the United States, minoritized racial groups and those who live in poverty have suffered disparities in education through laws and policies that prohibited them from socioeconomic advancement, physical safety, and basic civil rights. The anti-literacy laws enacted before, during, and after the Civil War are just one example of how white-skinned privilege and power was used to perpetuate the oppression of enslaved Blacks and concretize a system that generated more wealth for those in power.

Our current education system continues to enable inequity through policies and practices that claim to be fair, colorblind, and neutral, but tend to privilege a small, elite portion of the U.S. population. We can no longer live by the adage “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” when those who deserve a better education continue to be plagued by disparities. Addressing the persistent opportunity gap between our nation’s socioeconomic classes requires sustained engagement from leaders across every field of education.

The LaFetra College of Education (LFCE)  at the University of La Verne has answered the call to demonstrate how a social justice agenda in teacher preparation can be used to disrupt the current system of education and spearhead long-term systemic change. We view conscious teaching and school governance as a means to liberate the masses and support the expansion of equity in education. There are three critical focus areas that shape our current agenda for disrupting inequalities in public education: diversifying the education workforce, promoting trauma-informed education, and cultivating mindfulness for advancing conscious social change, empathy, and well-being in schools.

LFCE proudly trains and prepares professionals at all levels of the institution who reflect the culture and socio-economic backgrounds of the children in our region and who share deep cultural connections with them. While building a diverse workforce can be a challenge, we understand this charge to be of critical importance as we act to disrupt deficit narratives that often plague children of color or those from lower socio-ecnonomic  backgrounds. As we prepare these future educators, we challenge them to view themselves not just as teachers or counselors, but as change agents. Through both coursework and internships, we empower candidates in teacher education, school administration, school counseling, and school psychology to interact with students, families, community leaders, practitioners, scholars, and policymakers with respect, cultural sensitivity, and a heart for fearless advocacy. We empower them to see themselves as being capable of building an education system that removes barriers to academic success, allowing students to step fully into their genius and create meaningful lives on their own terms.

As we began making progress with preparing a more diversified education workforce, specifically those who will serve as change agents and social justice warriors, we began to notice concerns with issues of professional burnout and a lack of personal well-being. This was especially true of educators who were assigned to schools serving children who were most impacted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), trauma, systemic racialized oppression, or community violence.

There has been much recent debate and discussion around “trauma-informed schools.” We know that students experiencing trauma have a hard time concentrating, moving learned information from short to long term memory and retrieval, and expressing empathy. Many school districts have been administering the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences test or similar instruments to determine the impact of trauma on children. This in turn is meant to inform pedagogy, behavior strategies, and school practices.

In our work, we have found that education professionals, especially those of color who have been deeply impacted by oppressive systems, are not immune to trauma, lifeshocks, or adverse childhood experiences of their own. Through our ongoing research at the LaFetra College of Education’s Center for Neurodiversity, Learning and Wellness, we are finding that many who are drawn to service professions like teaching, do so out of their desire to stop the cycle of abuse, violence or neglect that they themselves experienced. Many of our education professionals are walking into classrooms with their own internalized trauma compounded by any unconscious bias or savior complex that might be part of their worldview. To address this, we developed an educational neurobiology course that helps educators understand the impact of trauma, toxic stress and systemic racism and oppression on the human brain and nervous system, and how it impacts learning. We support teachers in a guided process of addressing the condition of their own nervous systems before, during, and after working with students. As a result of this work, we have come to understand the critical importance of prioritizing self-care for educators and service providers within our preservice programs.

We now believe that colleges of teacher education nationwide should do more to ensure that education professionals step into the classroom whole and able to fully take responsibility for the direction and care of youth. This is a critical step for preventing burnout and attrition among educators who are committed to disrupting inequality and serving as advocates for our most vulnerable population of students.

Instructing future educators in the science and practice of mindfulness has emerged for us as one effective strategy for helping teachers address symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue. We have found that helping them become more self-aware through these practices also helps to increase empathy and compassion, leading to reductions in unconscious bias. Once educators understand how the mind works, how trauma and systemic oppression impact the brain, and how it can shut down under stress, we find that they are willing to engage with students in new ways, and to reconsider much of the deficit thinking they may have applied to certain groups of students in the past. We don’t talk about mindfulness enough in the education profession, despite its numerous benefits, including an increase in self-regulation, empathy, and resiliency. Educators in leadership roles, as well as in the classroom setting, would benefit from exploring mindfulness and considering how students’ learning is impacted by their teachers’ state of mind.

As a result of our early success in implementing mindfulness training in our special education master’s degree program, we have begun incorporating these teachings in our school counseling, early childhood development, and education leadership Ed.D. programs. We are proud of our focus on disrupting inequalities from the inside-out, and are encouraged to continuing building a workforce that is equipped and inspired to lead the charge for systemic change and healing-centered engagement over the course of their careers.

It is a privilege to serve as chair of the Committee on Meetings and Professional Development for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), which develops the theme for its Annual Meeting each year. I’m excited that we are directly addressing the topic of “Disrupting Inequities: Educating for Change” as our theme for the AACTE 2020 Annual Meeting, February 28 – March 1, in Atlanta, GA. As educators, scholars, and practitioners, we are keenly aware of the systemic failure occurring in PK-16 environments that serve our most vulnerable populations. By coming together to desiminate findings and successes from grassroots initiatives similar to ours at the LaFetra College of Eduction, we are expanding our collective capcity to create the change we hope to see in education today. Many of the sessions offered during the conference are uniquely positioned to dismantle injustice and challenge the dominant ideology and majoritarian narratives. In solidarity, we must continue to promote new and innovative strategies for enhancing the learning and development of all students. From our perspective at LFCE, this charge begins with building a diverse, equipped, and fortified education workforce.

Kimberly A. White-Smith, is dean and professor of education, at LaFetra College of Education, University of La Verne.

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