Unboxing Equity

George Christopher

by | 06.16.17

George Christopher is an assistant principal at a middle school in Nashville, Tennessee.

In Lak’Ech

Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.

In Lak’Ech is a timeless Mayan precept that Luis Valdez, who is regarded as the father of Chicano theater, incorporated into a larger poem called “Pensamiento Serpentino.” I’ve always been moved by the first line, which translates: “You are my other me.” I first learned of this poem from Dr. Curtis Acosta, one of the founding teachers of the K-12 Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson.

My students and I, like the students in the MAS program, recite Luis Valdez’s poem every day. The meaning within its lines speaks to our shared humanity and has transformative power. I’m pretty sure it changed my students, even my school. I know it changed me and the way I approach my own classroom.

I teach juniors and seniors in a diverse school, with about 65% African American, 25% Latino and large Middle Eastern and Kurdish populations.

One of my toughest moments as a teacher was walking back into the building the day after the election and trying to talk with the kids through their uneasiness, unsure how to address their questions.

I didn’t have answers. But I did have my time and my classroom space and a desire to make sure my students knew they were safe here. So we started focusing a lot on love. On equity. On making sure this class was a community where they could each process and talk about what they wanted to.

I joined Teachers for Equity, an initiative focused on helping teachers pursue a more racially equitable practice. Now I’m learning from other teachers, from their insecurities, challenges and successes. And thanks to my mentor, Dr. Acosta, who graciously passed the concept of the poem In Lak’Ech to me, I’ve tried to help my students focus every day on its message of loving and respecting others as we love and respect ourselves. When we do this, we create a safe environment in which students can go beyond the walls they put up as defenses and open up all the powerful ways they love.

We can do this through the culture we create and the materials we teach. By teaching curriculum that acknowledges the history and contributions of indigenous peoples – and goes beyond white, Anglo history – we deepen the connections students of color have to their learning and classrooms.

One of the ways I work toward racial equity is by ensuring there is no shortage of mirrors in our curriculum: opportunities for all my students to see themselves and their limitless horizons.

As I’ve pursued these changes to my practice, particularly over the course of the year, I’ve noticed my students changing in a way I hadn’t seen before, both academically and personally. They were more engaged in reading and writing, but I’d also hear them in the halls. It created a system of shared values for our classroom and study. It deepened students’ compassion and opened up their abilities to achieve to their potential. If a student made fun of someone else, others would speak up and say, “That’s not In Lak’Ech. That’s not how we treat people.” My students are inspiring and amazing – and not because of me. I found success by creating a space where we could celebrate what makes us unique.

Equity is how you operationalize love. When we learn to love our differences, and love each other enough to find our similarities, that’s an equitable space where each student feels safe to thrive.

It’s hard to know where to begin to make your classroom more equitable, and it can be heavy on the soul when you see your students grappling with things that make them question their own value. But if I could offer tips from my experience this year, they’d be threefold:

  1. Teach love.You can look at any curriculum through the lens of love. If you’re teaching nothing else, teach students to love themselves. Teach them to love their ancestors and cultures. Teach them to love other students – especially those who are different than them.Every day teachers ask students to come in, sit down and learn things that might not even seem relevant to them, but we’re often not learning about our students as people. That’s what teaching love can do. It humanizes learning and teaches students not only the relevancy of the lessons in front of them, but that they – as students, as humans – are relevant.
  2. Have your students journal every day.I used to open my bell ringers with an academic review of the day before. But when I really thought about the purpose of that activity – to help students transition from whatever was going on at home or in the hallway and settle in to learn – it wasn’t cutting it. Academic review didn’t draw them into class.So now we do more human things. We share stories. We write about our cultures. I can’t have an individual conversation every day with every student, but I can ask them to write about how they view the world, then take their journals home and write notes back to them in the margins. It’s one way I can make sure they feel heard and maximize my time to build relationships with them.
  3. Survey your students regularly.Sending my students surveys has totally transformed my classroom. I’ve learned that soliciting their feedback shows them I care about what we study – and it shows me when they feel disconnected from it.When we were studying the Great Depression, my students were stressed about testing and uneasy about their place in the world. So we looked at brain research on how stress impacts you, and we talked about the stress of poverty. It helped me bring this history lesson into the present for them and give them language to make sense of what they’re dealing with today.

These three tips that worked for me won’t work for everyone, but teachers love learning – that’s why we’re teachers. Teaching, ultimately, is an act of love. So I’d encourage you to learn more about your students. Find your own way to make class equitable for them. Learn how you – and your students alike – can look at others and say, “You are my other me.”

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