Educators Can Dismantle Oppression in Their Classrooms. Here’s How.

Young people learn best in classrooms where they feel valued, and where the social and emotional aspects of their development are prioritized by teachers and other adults tasked with their care, according to a new report by the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. This finding is hardly surprising, as few adults thrive in settings where they feel devalued. Indeed, few adults look back on their own childhood without some disdain for the teachers who made them feel invisible — or worse, targeted. And few adults look back on their school years without genuine fondness for the teachers who made them feel special — or, even better, loved. While the creation of loving classrooms benefits all children, the Aspen Institute found that creating a classroom culture centered on the whole child “disproportionally benefits children from low-income communities.”

Creating a classroom culture that values marginalized children has been fairly impossible in school systems that are rooted in institutionalized classism, racism, sexism and other biases. The history of public education in this country is one of exclusion and disenfranchisement. Policy decisions regarding education access consistently reasserted the privilege of wealthy white Protestants. Changing the power structure that enabled unequal schooling is a revolutionary, multifaceted project of which professional development is one component.

Given this well-documented legacy of inequality in U.S. schools, dismantling the internalized biases that erode the ability of teachers to affirm their students in genuinely loving ways should be a primary goal in all schools. In addition to making suggestions like ending punitive disciplinary policies and giving young people the power of voiced expression, the Aspen report recommends that schools “provide instructional materials and professional development that incorporate strategies for affirming students’ varied backgrounds. And they can help teachers and youth development workers recognize and address their own biases and stereotypes to create equitable learning environments.”

This type of worker development should not be voluntary, nor should it be contingent on the priorities determined by local school administrators. For the sake of all American children, confronting racism and oppression should be a concrete priority in all schools, and the interventions and training that the Aspen Institute recommends should be mandated.

Elise Mussen, a Brooklyn teacher who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, has vivid childhood memories of the teachers who valued her — and equally clear memories of the one teacher whose racism prevented her from seeing Mussen as a child of worth. “I grew up attending a Black elementary and junior high school. In that time, I had one white teacher. That year with her was a tough one.” Reaching teachers like the one who marginalized Mussen is key to the potential success of equity and inclusion training.

Meanwhile, Mussen emphasizes that she benefited from the intentional, focused dedication to uplift Black children that her own African American teachers brought to the classroom. “I don’t think I recognized it at the time,” Mussen said, “but those teachers were extremely beneficial to me as a student, and I think back on many of them when I’m dealing with my students to this day. They had a way of reaching me, and they seemed to really value all of us and want good things for us. Every year, former students from my elementary school get together with the teachers and staff who are still with us, and we honor and celebrate them.”

This legacy, and the reciprocal nature of loving classrooms that Mussen describes, has reverberations across space and time. The presence of Black teachers who prioritized her future success in affirming ways not only benefited Mussen in the Black Baltimore of the 1970s, it also benefits marginalized children in multiethnic Brooklyn today.

“A few years ago, I worked with court-involved students who mostly didn’t experience any kinds of success, let alone academic successes,” Mussen said. “I was co-teaching, and my partner and I painstakingly made everything about the class a safe space community where students were valued for who they were and whatever they could bring to the table. Then we helped them to develop the strengths that they had and encouraged them to step out on faith to new territory. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a teacher.”

These days, she works with many immigrants who had never met a Black person in person before moving to the U.S. “I have to meet them where they are, as well as guide them into the practices of an American classroom,” she said, adding that she strives to connect to immigrant students and learn about where they came from, unlike the teachers who “only want to teach them what it means to be in America.”

Training in best practices to offer diverse young people an education they can use as a tool for their own liberation is a career-long pursuit. Just as teachers continue to develop their competency in subject areas like reading and math, they must also engage in ongoing work to create classrooms that are equitable and inclusive, so that all their students are equally valued. Mussen is currently enrolled in an English as a New Language or English as a Second Language (ENL/ESL) certification program. Her co-teacher is a white, Jewish woman who shares Mussen’s dedication to all their students, across racial, ethnic and language lines. “Equity and inclusion are absolutely vital to education, because we want to create a community of learners,” Mussen said.

Mussen attended a Black Lives Matter (BLM) Curriculum Share in January, but she wishes more educators would have attended who were not already engaged in racial justice organizing. “Most of the participants were already engaged in this kind of work,” she says.

The question becomes: How to meaningfully engage educators who are not already drawn to racial equity work, in ways that will help transform school cultures and individual classrooms?

Mussen does not operate under the delusion that a few workshops alone will alter the systemic, institutionalized racism that reinforces the marginalization of Black and Brown children. Neither does Maryland-based educator Rebecca Jones.

Jones is a Black teacher with approximately two decades of experience in education. She has worked as a classroom teacher, college professor, department chair, curriculum coordinator, national trainer, instructional specialist, director, university supervisor, administrator, and consultant serving diverse teacher and student populations in urban Title I school systems, as well as in colleges in New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Her view is that training offerings for teachers in the area of equity and inclusion are currently insufficient because, she says, they “do not change white privilege, and the perceptions associated with it. However, seminars that can creatively immerse white teachers in poverty and expose them to the trials, tribulations and challenges that their students live with and have to overcome would be more effective in changing perceptions and opening them to be more compassionate and understanding in their teaching practices.”

Jones points to redistributive policies of the 20th century like Title IX, affirmative action and desegregation, and doubts that 21st century approaches will yield better results for children unless the nation itself is radically realigned.

“Clearly, these policies were intended to level the playing field of some of these disenfranchised groups through equality and equity by using redistribution as a means to accomplish these goals,” Jones told Truthout. “However, the unfortunate reality is that it has been approximately a half a century since those policies were enacted, and even though there have been strides toward equality and equity, these democratic values still have not been realized to the full extent that the policies intended. So, [equity and inclusion-related professional development] in American schools is a positive notion in theory, but it would be more effective to address eradicating the cultural and political norms and practices of inequalities and inequities in this country.”

Jones has attended equity and inclusion workshops as a component of her own professional development, and she feels they merely “scratch the surface” of the bedrock issues that plague U.S. students. She suggests emotional and social learning for children in classrooms, especially adolescents, would be an effective strategy to create loving spaces for children to learn.

“For the most part, I agree that ‘students learn from the people they love,’” Jones said. “However, building relationships with them is just one variable in the equation for them to be well-rounded, successful contributors to society.”

Jones says that people who work outside the education system should remember that teachers are not social workers, therapists or psychiatrists. Certainly, all schools — but especially schools where inequities in society are expressed in children’s attitudes and behaviors — should be staffed with support teams dedicated to the emotional health of students and, for that matter, staff.

Meanwhile, Jones says, the larger work of ending racial injustice on a societal level is key to changing the way education happens.

“Systemic racism in schools is a reflection of the systemic racism in American society,” Jones said, “and the same way that inequities, inequality and barriers are in place politically and culturally in this society, the same exists in schools.”