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Masking Tools of Oppression as Equity

I wrote this piece in the summer of 2021, but I've updated with some additional thoughts.

Being a teacher can be difficult (yet has been the most rewarding job that I've ever had.)

Hand drawing chalk pictures on blackboard

It isn't the act of teaching, necessarily, that is the hardest. It's everything that goes with it - the transference of student trauma, the caring, the thinking of them at 3am, the worries about their futures, the state standards, collaboration, and then, of course, trying to ensure students are at "grade level".

There are a lot of moving parts involved with teaching regardless of the level. And of course, education as a whole is quite the field - everything seems to be an expert, it isn't supported in the United States, funding is abysmal - it's a mess.

But one of the things I've observed in my personal experience is this odd understanding of getting students to graduate and finish at all costs. I've witnessed educators manipulate the ideas of equity, perhaps intentionally or not, into problematic practices that are rooted in oppression. In other words, education for equity instead ends up being a continued tool of oppression. And all very much rooted in a neoliberal understanding of the world

Opened white paper book with words on it on gray floor

For instance, let's say a student is struggling with literacy skills. They face some issues with

comprehension, they are reading several grade levels behind where they're "supposed to be," or maybe they just hate reading because the lived experience was never represented. Literacy interventions would be necessary, the teacher could do individual and small group sessions, scaffolding would be necessary, school interventions should be implemented, and helping students identify with the materials and texts could highlight the necessity of reading. I've even discussed reading as a political act as a means to encourage students to see the importance, and for some, it worked.

Instead, coursework that underestimates a student's abilities and interests is implemented, merely passing students through, and then a lack of preparation occurs, further marginalizing students, and then minoritizing students within specific spheres and reducing representation, based on assumptions rooted in white supremacy, ableism, sexism, and other levels of oppression. And I find that this happens within perceived practices of equity. Not that it is happening instead of equity, but rather in the name of equity.

I am, by no means, saying that we should do whatever we can to fail students, nor should we simply push issues to the side and merely fail them - this is antithetical to my philosophy. Instead, what needs to happen is genuine support, interventions, supports, and efforts to validate students, encourage them, and develop the necessary skills without sacrificing rigor, ethical teaching, and overall education as a whole. Of course, teachers are trying their hardest, putting their needs and time on pause for students, by systemic issues prevail. And what I've seen happen on an institutional level are acts of dehumanization occurring, where those who are participating in those practices only see them as incapable students they want to save, rather than completely capable humans to work with, collaborate, and engage dialogically, where those in positions of power end up swooping in, in hopes to be the hero. It was clear that this was the case in one of my positions as a teacher, and has not been the only instance I've witnessed in conversation, either.

Perhaps, as I've noted before, there is a concept of praxis from the Freirean sense that is missing: critical reflection and action. That is, they have adopted immediate action as necessary, but the critical reflection is significantly missing, understanding the concept of equity, but not participating in practices that encourage liberation, knowing equity as a word, but not understanding what it looks like in practice. It seems the emphasis is on a singular concept of the outcome, rather than outcome, sustainability, longevity, and liberation. Or, maybe their concept of liberation is rooted in saviorism rather than liberatory structures - which is part of the problem as well.

Orange and beige school, two stories, with blue skies behind

So often we're hyper focused solely on the individual, which, don't get me wrong, is important. We do need to understand that each individual has different circumstances and we should be meeting students where they're at, but what is missing is an understanding of these individual circumstances as part of a larger structural and institutional issue. These institutions discuss equity, organize professional development with the latest speaker, yet uphold systemic issues in their actualy institutional practice. And when institutions are perpetuating the very oppressive practices they criticize in these PD sessions, it becomes a vicious cycle of oppression, essentially, masking these tools of oppression as equity, in other words, these tools are beautifully wrapped instead as equity, topped with a bow. Institutional practices and protocols that are in place with flexibility and are necessary, and meeting individuals where they are is vital, but neither of these can be done independently from the other, which has been what I've witnessed. In fact, I've seen administrators** tweak transcripts becuase of their own error, fabricate worksheets and packets to claim standards are met, and merely pass students through rather than supporting them, identifying needs, and believe in their ability to critically reflect and engage.

And on that note, I want to ask you to reflect on your practices, your institution's practices, and your own experiences, and think about ways that perhaps these practices are created for the sake of equity, but instead reinforce inequitable practices that will never challenge systemic oppression, only upholding them, and in turn will continue forcing students to believe they are incapable and that the "professionals" around them believe the same, all under the guise of equity.

** This is not a commentary on administrators, let me make that clear. I have a great deal of respect for administrators and educators as a whole and on an collective level. This is just merely a reflection of my personal experience.


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