The political dimension of the classroom

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Wayne County Community CollegeI spotted her at the back of the coffee place, and immediately felt that kind of empathy and sympathy that creates the ground for honest communication, and more importantly for a honest sharing of ideas and personal stories. This way our conversation started and soon it moved towards deeper subjects, namely racism, mechanisms of exclusion, school and teaching.

A conversation with potentiality to changing the world!! As all conversations guided by passion, honesty and true values, and which are followed by action. Action naturally arises when we follow our passion, when we engage in what is a true expression of our inner self.

It is difficult to report here the details of what we said and debated, yet I feel compelled to write at least about some of the important analysis we did, and stories we shared. And as far as it is concerned to education, racism and change it is almost an obligation to do so. Because while there will be denial of racism and discrimination, whilst a real conversation in the public and private sphere of our lives will not start to take place, it will not be possible to change internalised racism, and therefore to ‘learn to live together’ in loving communities where diversity is appreciated and welcomed.

Actually one of the aspects we discussed about was the denial of racism, an issue that permeates society and politics in northern European countries. Up here in the north everybody feels to be open-minded, inclusive in mind and behaviour, acceptant of diversity. Yet internalised racism and a colonial mind-set is still easy to find in all spheres of society. The issue of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands is a good example of this.

Looking at the role school and the educational system plays in perpetuating racism and discrimination it is worth to consider some facts relative to the Dutch context. For instance the predominance of students from ethnic minority groups on specific types of schools (vocational schools still have a majority of ethnic minority students, while universities see a majority of native Dutch students). Not to mention the existence of the so-called ‘black’ and ‘white’ schools* and the fact that ethnic minorities from non-western countries have a significantly lower degree performance and higher risk of dropping-out**.

We could easily assume (unless we are racists) that this pattern comes from more or less subtle discrimination mechanisms at all levels of society that help to create and maintain exclusion and discrimination based on ‘race’***. And yet I am aware of the complexity of the situation I would like to hereby explore some aspects related to the role of school and teachers.

Undeniably the classroom is a micro-cosmos of the larger society and for that reason the same power dynamics are often replicated there. The political dimension of the classroom refers exactly to the analysis of these power dynamics and related imbalances (in terms of race, class, gender), and is a subject consistently underestimated in teacher training and practice.

Some examples of this political dimension are the degree of attention teachers give to pupils from different ethnic backgrounds and genders, the language used, the amount of encouragement given, the capacity to see and appreciate diverse capacities, not to mention the bibliography used and the authors quoted, the way history is told, among many other aspects.

Questions teachers may ask if interested to reflect on the political dimension in their classroom/school

About themselves:

  • Who do I See in my classroom?
  • To whom do I give Voice?
  • Which students do I Like/Dislike more? Why do I like/dislike them?
  • How do I use Appraisal?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I a teacher? What are my Motivations? What are my Intentions?
  • What Prejudices/Stereotypes do I hold and on which groups/people?

About the subject matter they teach:

  • What Authors are we studying?
  • Are they men, women, white, non-white,…
  • Are they the Only who had a voice on that subject?
  • Am I Quoting authors representing all the classroom ethnic background?

About the school policies:

  • Is there an Anti-discrimination Policy? Who/what does it mention/says?
  • Is it truly promoting inclusion and protecting minorities, or only reinforcing old discriminatory patterns in subtle ways?

Whereas teachers will not be aware of their own identities, stereotypes, prejudices, and background values, situations of discrimination and exclusion will continue to happen in classrooms. Lack of awareness about the self, or misleading ideas about the own open-mindedness, are detrimental and can only sustain dynamics that portray and lead to inequality and discrimination.

It is therefore of utmost importance to bring self-development modules into initial and in-service teacher training, sustaining new and old teachers to become more aware about themselves and their own identities, values and prejudices. And contemporaneously to boost understanding on the way those dimensions are linked to exclusion and discrimination mechanisms that ultimately lead to a lack of opportunities experienced by many folks in our modern societies.

At the same time it is essential to boost a critical consciousness about teaching sources and materials, not to mention to boost competences to deal with exclusion, violence and discrimination between students. It seems a lot, I agree, yet teaching is a complex profession, an important one. For this reason it is a duty of governments and high education institutions to prepare teachers in a quality manner and most importantly in accordance with nowadays society dynamics and needs.

I am convinced of the potential of school and teachers to influence change in society. The amount of time teachers spend with students is huge, still this time is not being used in a quality way. Formal education institutions are obsessed with ‘teaching’ and completely disregard the ‘educational’ dimension of school.

Teachers have the possibility to help to shape identities based on a sense of shared humanity, boosting in children and young people a sense of worth based on “one’s relationship to the land, to the people, to the place” (bell hooks, belonging: a culture of place, p.183) and not in a sense of feeling superior to other people. This is the way towards creating loving and welcoming communities, for All.

Endnotes:

* Check this link for the original article: http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/6-education-in-the-netherlands-segregation-in-a-tolerant-society

** Check this link for the original article: http://www.izajom.com/content/2/1/3

*** I would like to underline that terms like ‘race’, ‘black’ or ‘white’ are socially constructed concepts that I use with the sole purpose of conveying a message, also making use of categories people may understand and that anyway have the power to change lives. For this reason I believe it is important to use them, as to make sure we are not utterly denying the need to talk about ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’.

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One response »

  1. Rutu Foundation work on intercultural multilingual education for children all over the world is a great example of the way language influences learning and development. In my view language is a powerful tool to break power imbalances and discrimination in the classroom. See some examples here: http://www.rutufoundation.org/en/examples/

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