I’m an education swimmer. (Photo: Spelic)
Somewhere inside me there’s a real desire to shout: STOP!
It appears at the sight of a new webinar/workshop/professional development opportunity in my Twitter feed. It’s there when I notice my inbox filling up with requests to register for, attend, listen to, or watch a broadcast, conference or retreat. So many ways to bolster my practice, increase my awareness, sharpen my skills, deepen my understanding, restore my confidence. All these offers to help me improve my teaching, respond to student needs, collaborate with colleagues, find joy in my work! Surely it must be a sign of overwhelm. It’s a me problem. Certainly it is.
In my ears, I hear Dionne Farris singing “Don’t go near the water if you don’t like to swim.” But this is not that. I like the water of education. I stay immersed in it — reading, writing, speaking, thinking. I’m an education swimmer; each stroke is a new question: What is it good for? How does it work and for whom? Learning and teaching — how are these related/connected/separate/ two sides of the same coin? Where does power enter in and who can name it? What could we do to make education worse? (counterintuitive but very useful question, by the way.) What is keeping education afloat in society and how is that happening? Given all this, how on earth do I arrive at STOP?!
I think it has to do with capitalism and us. It has to do with our deeply cultivated tendency to seek solutions and resolutions by buying something; adding products to our cart, tools to our toolkit, strategies to our playbook. The main thing is that we consume. We go (out) and get a thing (a book, a course, a conversation, a speaker) and we are better for it. Right? We’re inspired, motivated, enlightened, challenged, determined, ready. We’ve got new resources, allies, co-conspirators, guidance, consulting, a timeline, action items. We draw up plans, units, schedules that will help us chart progress. We will work with an expert, adopt a framework, form a committee to ensure accountability. We’re going to change. Just watch.
I really want to yell STOP! because in our eagerness to be seen ‘doing the work’ it seems to me that we almost never take time to notice who we are (layers of identity), where we sit/stand in the given context (position) AND to ask ourselves based on the first two responses, what is my contribution going to be? By now it’s common for our go-to experts to encourage us to look inward before we embark on a significant change in practice or content. How often do we actually do it though?
We know that telling is not teaching; hearing does not equate with learning. I bet that most of us do not necessarily consult a physician before we begin a new fitness regime as we are advised to. We assume we know if we’re good to go or not. When it comes to shifting our educational practice to more intentionally inclusive and culturally responsive practices, I think it’s easy to overestimate our preparedness and that concerns me.
In her book, How We Show Up, writer and activist, Mia Birdsong, writes
“…the harm experienced by the oppressors is not equivalent to the harm experienced by the oppressed. Capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy are not good for anyone, but the the work that needs to be done by those who exert oppression and those who are the targets is markedly different.” (p. 28)
It sounds radical but we may not all have the same assignment when it comes to building more equitable structures and communities. Not every staff member is at the same starting position when it comes to anti-bias/anti-racism work. What’s also true is that every single person in the community has biases and areas where their knowledge and experience are limited. In my own institution, I am a 25 year veteran and local hire. If we’re having a conversation about new international hires and their experiences being welcomed into the community, then my focus must be on listening with the intent to understand. When I consider my contribution to the conversation, I need to ask myself, where am I in a position to push for better outcomes or to improve someone’s experience? My approach is directly informed by my relative positionality.
Author Clint Smith provides a really helpful explanation of what positionality is and how it serves researchers investigating human endeavors. At the end of How The Word Is Passed, in a three-page summary, “About This Project,” he tells readers
As a graduate student I was trained largely by sociologists, and part of what that discipline demands is an engagement and interrogation of one’s own positionality relative to the subject matter one is studying. So I am mindful that my experiences at each of these places, and my conversations with all the people who appear in these pages, are tied to various parts of my identity: being Black, being born and raised in the South, being a straight cisgendered man, and at the time this book was being written and reported, being a doctoral student at an Ivy League university. Each of these realities creates dynamics that shape and alter the way strangers, scholars, tour guides, and museum officials interact with me, and it is likely that someone with a different racial, geographic and educational background would have experiences at each of these places that are different from my own. From How The Word Is Passed (2021), p. 291.
It’s a clear definition of positionality that is at once accessible and succinct.
When we undertake our grand efforts to shift the culture in fundamental ways, our attempts will founder and flop if we fail to provide time and space for community members to recognize how positionality shapes our visioning and decision-making.
In an interview with School Library Journal, literacy scholar, Dr. Kim Parker highlights the need for teachers to first look at themselves and their motivations before implementing curricular changes:
[SLJ]: Thanks in part to the work of #DisruptTexts, educators are increasingly thinking about how to look beyond the classics in their curriculum and broaden the texts they teach. Where should teachers start?
[KP]: People are really thinking about, what does it mean to diversify one’s curriculum? I think that first, before we do that, we have to think about, what’s the internal work that we have to do? Because if we don’t do that work, even the most diverse texts can be damaging for kids. We have to start with ourselves. “What’s the work that I have to do? Why do I really want to put different books in kids’ hands? Am I ready? What’s the preparation I need?”
“What’s the preparation [we] need?” is the question too rarely posed before school communities make a visible push for equity. For sustained and sustainable equity and justice work I don’t see any way around taking the time to acknowledge our unique positionalities in the planning and implementation processes we adopt. In my own practice, I’ve had to think about how I ensure that my classroom is as gender-inclusive as possible. I recognized that as a straight cisgender woman I had to do a bit of research and foreground queer voices in the materials I sought out. As a result I use gender neutral language when addressing students, I say, friends, folks or ask them to make all-gender groups.
Particularly in education environments talking about change (which feels like every institution everywhere), we often hear the language of unity: Everyone on the same page, all hands on deck, we’re all in this together. Meanwhile, the specific forms or hierarchy, organizational culture, in-groups and out-groups, still shape the experiences of individuals within the institution. We need to become more astute observers of our tendencies flatten differences and apply primarily cosmetic diversity. Developing a habit of folks acknowledging their own relative positionalities enhances our awareness of who is in the room and who may be missing when we are discussing topics of community concern.
How we can authentically engage each other and the goals before us if we are not honest about who we are, where we sit and in what ways we may be particularly well equipped to contribute to the desired changes? Positionality requires us to do more than name our layers of identity. It compels us to acknowledge that we possess varied and varying levels of influence within specific contexts.
Which might well explain why more folks in more institutions don’t do it. Or have not yet made it a habit. It involves being transparent about power differentials. That makes plenty of folks uncomfortable. Especially the ones who hold the most power.
If we and our institutions dive into plans to rethink and adjust our practices in the classroom, in the business office, or at the board level, I have a deep, deep wish for all of us to pause and based on our positionalities consider how we are each best poised to contribute. Particularly when it comes to identity-focused shifts in whichever policy or procedure the institution deems a priority, real thought must be given to which voices and perspectives are being centered and whether that centering reflects movement towards or away from increased equity.
I dream of education spaces where recognizing our positionality with respect to specific topics or concerns exists as a professional habit and standard courtesy. I’m sad that this sounds radical in some ears. Institutional equity is not something we can buy online. It takes our individual, collective and differentiated contributions to build and sustain. When you show up at your next PD event, look around. Notice if and when space is made to acknowledge positionality of participants and/or presenters. How does it show up in case studies and examples? These are baby steps towards true equity. We can’t afford not to take them.
Mia Birdsong, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community, Hachette Books, 2020.
Clint Smith, How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America. Little, Brown and Co., 2021.
Sherri Spelic is a Leadership Coach, Educator, Workshop presenter & facilitator, avid reader and writer at home on the edge of the alps. Publisher of "Identity, Education and Power"
This article was originally published on Medium: https://edifiedlistener.medium.com/