The importance of affirming student identity | Jeewan Chanicka

Public education, designed during the
industrial age, was developed with a factory
model in mind. Despite significant advances, very little
has changed. I’ve spent the last twenty years
as an educator, a teacher, principal, superintendent,
and a parent, and I continue to witness how in these
models, the same groups of students continue to be
over-represented in education gaps. These students are indigenous, black, in
particular black boys, racialized students (that’s those who can be categorized
by their race other than white), those with special identified learning
needs and with disabilities, those coming out of poverty,
and 2SLGBT identifying students. The role and impact of identity
on educational outcomes is something that we need to become more
explicit about addressing in education systems. By identities I mean all the various ways
that we can be identified, for me, and for all of us. Some of those things include our race,
age, sex, sexual orientation, gender, immigration status,
religion, and ability. Our identities shape how we
experience the world, and some of our identities
give us privilege. Personally, I never have to think when I
go somewhere whether or not there’s an elevator, or if I have to run up a few
flights of stairs. My able-bodied privilege means that
I never have to think about these things. But as a brown person, a Muslim, I’m more
cautious about how I engage the police, especially at airports and
border crossings, because I can always be sure that I’m
going to be “randomly selected.” These are things that I have to think
about every single day, but not everyone has to. In my own home, my sons who
are racialized black at times have different experiences
with the police than even I do. One day, in addressing this with one of
my sons who was stopped a couple of times on his
way home from school and telling him how to respond,
he said to me, “Dad it’s not fair.” I said to him, “Son this isn’t about what’s fair,
this is about keeping you alive.” Our identities shape how we experience the
world, and how people see and respond to us. As a principal, one day I put out a great
aspiration statement in one of our newsletters. I said, “In this school we want everyone
to want to run to school everyday.” Until someone asked me,
what if someone can’t run? Today, as the Superintendent of Equity,
Anti-racism, and Anti-oppression, I work in one of the largest boards on the
part of Turtle Island we call Canada. We serve approximately 250,000 students. When we as senior leaders got
together and looked at our data, it underscored these realities. For example, our student population, 12%
of them are black. But by the time they graduate, 42% of black students would have
been suspended at least once. Education is a colonial project. The systems and structures,
the laws and the cultures, were created based on the beliefs
and attitudes of those who were in power at that time. Some of those beliefs included pieces like
indigenous people are uncivilized and they need to be dispossessed
of the land, that black people existed for the
economic benefit of those in power, that women were less than men and so they shouldn’t be allowed to
vote or hold public office, that 2SLGBT identifying people needed
to be medically fixed or locked away, and that people with disabilities
should be locked away. All of these were quoted into the
systems and structures around education. The systems and structure reflected
those beliefs and attitudes, and so they’re not neutral. We have to accept that they work for
some and not for other children. Since identity is the common factor
in who’s successful and unsuccessful, systems need to engage in learning and
unlearning about identity in order to be able to change
those outcomes. Einstein tells us that the definition of
insanity is to keep doing the same things,
hoping for different results. As adults, none of us check
our identities at the door, whether we’re male, female,
trans, black, or white, Muslim, Jewish or Christian, these things are important parts
of who we are. We need to move away from saying things
like, “School is only about learning,” or things like, “I don’t see color,” because students experience their
identities in school every single day. Identities are complex and they intersect. So a child who is gay will face
barriers in our schools. But if that child happens to be a black,
Muslim, lesbian child with a disability coming out of poverty, she will face compounding barriers. As a teacher and a principal, what that meant was I needed
to get to know my students well beyond their likes and dislikes. In my classroom I made sure there
were snacks available, it was a positive space for
LGBT identifying students, and it was a space to pray. As a beginning teacher, I chose to work in
challenging neighborhoods to be able to make a difference
in the lives of children. In order to prepare them for
life in the real world, I used to give lots of homework, until I read the research that says it has
very little value for learning outcomes, and in fact, it reinforces the
disparity between students, especially those coming from poverty. I chose to work in those schools to
be able to try and make a difference, but upon self-reflection, I realized that
I was the one creating the barrier. This learning over time meant for me that
I had to try and do things differently. Looking at a human rights approach, inclusive design is an approach that often
thinks about people with disabilities. Working with a group of educators, we
looked at how inclusive design and approach could be constructed,
that would be used throughout education that affirmed all identities
in classroom spaces. And it begins by thinking
about those identities and thinking about who is most
marginalized amongst them. As a teacher or principal, it meant
getting to know their families, their family structures, their histories,
their languages, and to make sure it was reflected
in the ethos of school and class. As a superintendent, I challenged my
principals to think about what groups of students are going into
which high school pathways, and why. Which groups of students are
becoming suspended or not, and how might we be complicit
in those outcomes? Transformation can only begin when
we turn our gaze towards us. Once we know who is most
marginalized and under-served, I work with principals to begin school
improvement planning with those students first in mind. What types of structures will serve to
engage and inspire them? Which structures need to be dismantled? How are we aligning our budget
and our resources to make sure that this is a priority? Finally, and most importantly, we have to
think about the adult learning necessary, about the identities that we hold in relation to the identities of the
students that we serve. How does that shape how we think
about instruction, curriculum, achievement, well-being, and success? These are difficult conversations to have, but they are the most important. The reason that they’re so hard is
they hit us at the core of who we are. Remember, I saw myself as a nice person, but my niceness and my good
intentions wasn’t enough. It was my impact that mattered. In spite of having experienced poverty
and moments of homelessness myself, when I taught in the classroom, I reverted
back to the way I was taught both in school and when I was
at the Faculty of Education. Sometimes we feel defensive
or embarrassed, and we don’t want to have these
conversations. But it’s important that we do not hold
marginalized students hostage to our emotions and fragility as adults. As a teacher, principal, or
superintendent, I tried to keep this in mind whenever
I’m making decisions, otherwise I’m going to use my
own experiences and identities to be able to understand and
try to solve problems and that will make me miss critical pieces
that affects whole groups of students. I try to remember that as a cis-gendered
person who’s making decisions on behalf of trans children, or as a male making decisions
on behalf of girls. This learning is not about creating
feelings of blame, shame, or guilt, but about helping us to do better
for the students that we serve. Exactly why we came to education
to begin with. Today in my board, we have
a long way to go, but we’re on the journey. Through our achievement and well-being
goals, we’re working to explicitly identify which groups of students
are over-represented in the gaps. We’re working to make sure that they see
their lives and experiences and abilities reflected in the curriculum, in the
classrooms, in the instruction, the experiences, and the staff. Through our equity goals, we’re focused on the learning that
we as adults need to do in order to be able to think about our
identities in relation to theirs. So that we move away from “This is the way
it’s always been done,” to “Why can’t we do it differently?” I came to public education in order to
make a difference in the lives of the children that I serve. Knowing their identities, abilities, and
lived experiences is the key to unlocking that potential. Understanding how our own identities
interact with theirs in these structures, gives us the opportunity, the chance for
innovation, and the ability to change a trajectory
of public education in a way that will work for every
single student that we serve.

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