Unboxing Equity

by | 06.21.17

When I think about equity, I remember a moment all the way back when I was in kindergarten. I was coloring a self-portrait with a brown crayon when another student saw me and said, “No, you’re not brown. You’re black.”

I’m now a kindergarten teacher myself, and I think about that crayon conversation a lot. When we paint in my class, we mix colors around to whatever my students see as their perfect shade of skin. I want these kids to have confidence in themselves so they can carry that confidence into the “academic stuff.”

The way teachers prioritize these issues and set expectations for students can make a huge difference. It’s why I joined Teachers for Equity, which helps teachers bring more racial equity into their practice.

When we talk about equitable classrooms, educational equity to me means students having a positive and supportive environment where students are able to get the resources that they need.

If you’re pursuing equitable practice, it’s OK to acknowledge the biases and assumptions we bring with us when we get to school in the morning. And we all do have these biases! Sometimes even teachers of color aren’t aware of the assumptions that we bring to the table. Everyone walks through the world in a different way, no matter how similar we may look on the outside, so the key step for all of us is to do the personal work of reflection. That self-work can help us uncover our biases and work against them, and eventually create an environment that welcomes everyone to learn and take risks.

When I was younger, that environment wasn’t always available to me. I didn’t have a teacher of color until I was in my master’s program. That’s nearly two decades of not having a teacher who looked like me.

Now, you may not look like all your students, but you can still work to create an equitable environment for all of them.

There are things I found on my own – Maya Angelou’s poetry, for example – that you could connect your students to. A few examples come to mind:

  • Powerful voices. Whether Maya Angelou or Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can share with your students the perspectives of people who have insight into their experiences.
  • Local leaders. You can bring successful people to your students, like small business owners and community leaders. If your students can see themselves in someone successful, they’ll start to see that success is within their reach.
  • Encouragement. If there’s one thing you can always provide, it’s belief – belief in your students’ ability to be great. It means more than you know.

Whatever my students’ interests, I want all of my kids to find people who inspire them and things that open their eyes to their potential.

My own self-reflection has helped me realize that what I have to offer is enough, and I don’t have to chase an expectation someone else has set for who I “should” be. I have people in my professional life now who tell me that my voice is important, that people should hear me use it. And I’m excited to have conversations about equity, about self-reflection, about all of it!

It’s what I’m trying to do, and I’ve found a supportive community that lifts me up when I need it. I can’t wait to continue building safe, welcoming environments where every student can learn and take risks. That’s the educational equity I’m striving for, and I urge you to reach for it, too.

About the Author

Ulana Ainsworth
Ulana Ainsworth

Ulana Ainsworth is a fourth-year kindergarten teacher in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @Ms_Ulana.

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