On Being a Teacher and an Ally

By Molly Breen

On Being a Teacher and an Ally

Parents and educators have long grappled with whether and how to address difficult subjects with young children. Common concerns include age-appropriateness and a worry of overwhelming children with adult concerns. But truthfully, kids will pick up on our adult concerns whether we like it or not. As we face a return to school during a time like no other, we are grappling with not only our new and profound responsibilities around health and safety but also our responsibility to intentionally explore anti-bias and antiracist teaching and learning.

Before you close the window on this article because it all seems like too much, let me assure you that our ability to change and grow will be felt on a micro level—small and incremental changes that allow us to know better and do better one day at a time.

Are the days of gender-assuming classroom language (“Boys and girls, please find a spot in the circle”) and prejudiced narratives that filter into the daily interactions between teachers, students, and families still alive and well in your setting? In the ever-expanding domain of inclusive practice in teaching, educators are now more than ever charged with modeling compassionate understanding of all people—which must include checking our own prejudice and complicity in racist systems. How do we model compassion and allyship when we, as adults, may not feel altogether clear on our own biases?

What does it mean for educators to be allies in 2020? And what, specifically, do White educators need to consider as they grow their allyship?

An ally, in the social justice sense, is someone who advocates for the equal treatment and opportunity of anyone in a marginalized group. For teachers, this is a twofold responsibility:

  1. We are charged with reflecting on our own experiences and implicit prejudice and bias and developing strategies for change and education/understanding so that we can be better models for our students.
  2. We must create learning contexts that are both developmentally appropriate for students and help develop their capacities to be more intuitively equipped for acting and living as allies.

Becoming an ally is a nuanced process for many reasons and requires that we first understand our own stories. Teaching Tolerance has an excellent tool to help guide this discovery called Identity Mapping. The procedure outlined on the website includes students in the process, but if you’re like me and work in early education, it may not be developmentally appropriate for your student group. In terms of drawing students into inclusive practice and understanding, think of ways in which you can allow your environment to reflect the identities of the students you currently serve. And it doesn’t stop at just your environment. You can also adapt your curriculum to better reflect the interests of the students you have right now.

Those of us in early education know how critical the environment is to teaching and learning. In the responsive classroom method, educators begin the year with an organized, but mostly bare classroom. Over time, the children help define and design the space to reflect who they are, bringing in elements from their homes, including family photos, mementos, culturally significant pieces, and other artifacts of learning, so that the classroom becomes a living representation of the student community. When we decentralize the dominant culture (for example, in early education, the dominant culture includes the use of ABCs, 123s, western farm animals, and primary colors), we make space for everyone to see themselves represented rather than marginalized.

In our own reflective practice and personal development as teachers and curious people, we must also commit to an ongoing investigation into antiracist and anti-bias teaching. Consider doing a yearlong book study as a staff (or if you are a staff of one, consider inviting some friends who are in the field to be in a virtual book club). The books Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs and Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves would be excellent choices. Commit to the same in your classroom! Incorporate books with themes about human rights, historic racism, and hope for the future. The Together in Our World series from Free Spirit would be a good place to start, and you can incorporate books from this Embrace Race article as well.

Like so much in teaching and learning, your work in antiracism and allyship begins with a new awareness. It’s like a fissure in the surface of the earth, revealing new textures, uncharted territory, and more to discover. If we view the practice of reflecting on our own identities and implicit biases through a lens of discovery and growth, we do not need to fear what we will find once we begin to mine deeper. And truly, our students deserve nothing less from us.

Resources for Teachers and Families
The Children’s Community School, “They’re Not Too Young to Talk About Race
Embrace Race, “20 Picture Books for 2020: Readings to Embrace Race, Provide Solace & Do Good
Embrace Race, “8 Tips for Talking to Your Child About Racial Injustice
Aha! Parenting, “Talking with Children About Racism, Police Brutality, and Protests
The Child Mind Institute, “Helping Children Cope with Frightening News
The Child Mind Institute, resources for families (this one can be a go-to for innumerable parenting queries and developmental challenges)

Resources for Adults
Teaching Tolerance (this site is primarily for educators, but there are excellent resources for parents and other adults as well)
Rachel Cargle, “Coming to Terms with Racism’s Inertia: Ancestral Accountability
The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, “Undoing Racism

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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