“We felt heard, we felt understood, we felt visible.”
—Sara K. Ahmed, Being The Change
As educators, it’s easy to get tied up in what we’re teaching: which standards, content, units, skills. How we teach (our craft) and why we teach (our purpose) also attract plenty of our attention. With the reality of covid-19 distance learning, even where and when we teach is weighing heavily on our minds.
But it’s who we teach that must always remain at the center.
That’s not to say we don’t care about our students—we all do, immensely—but are we caring for them in all the ways they truly need? How well do we truly know and understand them? How well are we supporting them as they work to know and understand themselves?
In other words, how much do we intentionally focus on identity with our students, in our teaching, and in our schools? How much does our understanding and expertise around Identity factor into how our schools operate?
Identity is the ongoing exploration, formation, and expression of 1) who we are, and 2) our place in this world. Despite fantastic work from identity leaders and academics, it’s a concept that gets surprisingly little airtime in our classrooms, curricula, professional conversations, or recruitment interviews. In fact, the word “identity” only appears in the Common Core standards four times... in the math standards.
Consequently, the most common way for people to learn about their identity is when it is used against them, i.e. through trauma. Being bullied, teased, excluded, ignored, rejected, dismissed, abused, systematically disempowered, or micro-aggressed due to one’s race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, culture, religion, or class—that’s how we tend to learn our identities, especially the second (and often more painful) part: our place in this world.
Like other BIPOC individuals, I have needed to grapple with my racial and cultural identities for my whole life, starting from the day kindergarten classmates laughed at my onigiri lunch. I have needed to explain my mix of races and cultures to thousands of people in four different languages, listening as they ask “What are you?” and “Where are you really from?” but always hearing “Explain how you’re not one of us.”
Like other BIPOC individuals, I feel like I’ve earned a Ph.D. in Race and Culture, decades in the making, and I use that extensive knowledge and experience to support my students as they explore and construct their complex racial and cultural identities.
But what about my gender identity? As a cisgender man, society has not taught me (through trauma or guidance) to confront and thoroughly understand that part of my identity, while transgender individuals have that hard-fought Ph.D. In other words, our membership in a dominant identity group systematically exempts us from having to learn deeply about that aspect of who we are and truly understand our place in the world (at the top).
Unless I take the time to profoundly reflect—that is, to reflect on my own gender identity and how it was formed, my own cisgender biases and blind spots, the myriad privileges that society has bestowed on me for being cisgender, the pervasiveness of cisnormative language, practices, and structures across the world along with my complicity in reinforcing them, and the centuries of gender-conformative human history—then I will struggle to empower students (transgender and cisgender) to uncover the complexities of gender identity and seek equity and justice. And I do struggle. And I will reflect, learn, and do better.
Are you a member of a dominant identity group? (Hint: we all are, in some way) I encourage you to substitute race, sex, disability, culture, sexual orientation, class, religion, etc. for “gender identity” in the previous paragraph and see how it sounds.
This constant exercise of Identity Self-Reflection and Growth can help us all become finer teachers—“Identity Experts," if you will—for our students as they go through their own identity journeys. Recognizing, understanding, and confronting our privilege, biases, blind spots, and complicity—wherever they exist—allows us and our students to truly see systemic inequity and injustice, wherever they exist.
Modeling identity exploration for our students by sharing our own ongoing identity journeys and challenges will illustrate to them that their identities matter and can evolve throughout life. Creating a safe, brave, patient, and accepting environment that prioritizes identity and empowers students to actively and autonomously investigate, construct, and share their own will help them deeply learn who they are... before trauma arrives to teach that lesson.
Daniel Wickner (he/him/his) is an Upper Primary Classroom Teacher at Hong Kong International School and a writer on identity and education. He is on Twitter @DanielWickner.