The work of self awareness in equity: supportively challenging ourselves
Many teacher, school and district leaders are questioning how they can create professional learning cultures where colleagues routinely engage in honest conversations that lead to learning and improvement, particularly as it relates to issues of equity. What is often overlooked is creating the conditions to have conversations with ourselves that build our inner awareness of race, privilege, power in the day to day moments with students and colleagues. The inner work of creating the conditions for adult learning is often beyond the reach of current systems improvement work.
For several years now, working in partnership with our teacher leaders, we have been developing the practice of supportive challenge, which focuses on the quality of interaction between colleagues. Conversations with supportive challenge are rooted in empathy but also allow for multiple perspectives, awareness of blindspots and implicit bias, and prompt the learner to feel empowered to move forward towards next steps.
This year, our Teacher Leader Network began to work on the less visible, but more central, inner work that supports the development of anti-racist cultures of learning. In late October, teacher leaders from across the Bay Area gathered virtually to do more than supportively challenge each other; they supportively challenged themselves.
Program Associate, Malia Tayabas-Kim, a former teacher leader, is leading our Teacher Leader Network of 60+ teacher leaders in the Bay Area. We sat down with Malia to find out more about what it means to supportively challenge yourself and why she decided to focus the Teacher Leader Network on looking inward this school year.
To you, what does it mean to supportively challenge yourself?
In the context of our Teacher Leader Network efforts, supportively challenging yourself is about giving attention to self awareness and self reflection plus action. By supportively challenging ourselves we become more aware of who we are, how that impacts our work, and that makes us a better educator.
It is about noticing the moments that are uncomfortable; the moments when we begin to hear the voice in our heads. Everyone can relate to that voice saying ,”you should do this” or “you should say this.” In the moment, what are we doing to pause and what are the questions we are asking ourselves during that pause? And finally, what are we going to do with that? That’s hard work.
Whether that’s going with or going against the voice in your head, that’s the scary part. For me, the voice in my head is wanting me to stay in my comfort zone and go against the supportive challenge. The comfort is safe. To do the opposite is really scary in the moment.
You mentioned that in those moments where the voice in our heads begins to grow, part of supportively challenging ourselves is pausing and asking ourselves some questions. So what are those questions?
That is a good question, because I don’t know if I have been able to narrow it down to three key questions, that is something I am trying to figure out and something I’m interested in learning from the Teacher Leader Network. Is supportively challenging ourselves a practice where we can identify three questions or even one question that we continually ask ourselves?
It would be lovely if we could package it all and say “These are the questions you should ask,” but based on everyone’s lived experience and own trauma, the kinds of questions we ask ourselves and how willing we are to step into that uncomfortable space is different, but the uncomfortable space is where we need to go to grow.
Can you give us a glimpse of the questions you asked the Teacher Leader Network to begin this inquiry?
During our Teacher Leader Network in October we had our leaders ask themselves the following questions after thinking of a recent story, experience, conversation or a professional moment they had at work with a colleague, a student or a parent that left them with a strong emotion or a wondering.
- How aware were you of your race, power, positionality and/or privilege in that moment? How might that have influenced or shaped the way you showed up in your words or actions?
- If you go back to that time, what feelings were coming up for you compared to how you are feeling now?
- How is being self-aware of your identity (race, power, positionality, privilege) a strength in your teacher leader work?
Why now? Why did you decide to support our teacher leaders to explore this new layer of supportive challenge?
Honestly, I think it came out of my last inquiry while teaching last year. I was part of the Social Emotional Lead Learner Group with Oakland Unified School District and I was a Teacher Leader myself with Lead by Learning. I had this huge Ah Ha moment, and my interest in supportively challenging ourselves starts there. I was looking at my inquiry data and I was naming the SEL competencies I was trying to build for my students and then it clicked that the SEL competencies I was putting value on for students were the same competencies I had identified as my strengths: relationships skills and social awareness. Rarely were my inquiries about self awareness and self management. It was in that moment that I realized that though my inquiry was student focused, I had simultaneously learned about myself and how my identity was impacting my decisions in the classroom. I wasn’t expecting to build this self-awareness when I became a teacher leader, but it ended up happening. Ever since then, I have become interested in supporting other people to discover more about their identity and how who they are impacts how they work and how they make decisions as educators.
Also, I don’t feel there is any time given in teaching to do this kind of self awareness and self reflection. There is no space, or very few spaces, for teachers so join a racial affinity group or sit and do some reflective thinking within their school or district communities.
You mentioned racial affinity groups which was a structure you used for the first Teacher Leader Network. This was also the first time Lead by Learning had used this structure during one of our events. Can you talk to us more about why you chose to organize the evening around racial affinity groups and what you learned from that move as a facilitator.
As a teacher, I never had an experience in any racial affinity group in a professional setting. But after I experienced it once, I realized how important it is to have opportunities to enter a brave space with people who look like me. The truth is our teacher force is predominately white, over 80% according to the National Center for Education statistics. On top of that, it is important that we acknowledge that we live in a white supremacist culture which means that it’s often not safe for teachers of color to share and be vulnerable when it comes to matters dealing with race and identity. Therefore, I felt that it was important for everyone to have an experience of affirmation and being heard for who they are.
Knowing that I wanted to focus the Teacher Leader Network on supportively challenging ourselves and doing the work of looking inward, it felt even more important to have these groups because of how much systematic racism is in education. What is right and what is valued is the “white” way. A lot of us have internalized and compared ourselves to those white standards. When you ask people to bring up things that are personal it is powerful to be able to share that with people who look like you and to be seen for who you are.
For the White educators, a White affinity group may be spaces they are already used to, so I am still trying to understand what a supportive challenge looks like and feels like for our white educators, but that’s the work. It is not my job to know what that’s going to feel like.
For those who feel nervous setting up racial affinity groups for their colleagues I think it is important to have a really clear purpose and communicate that “why.” We cannot just group people without being transparent and without allowing people to give feedback on how it felt for them. But it is also important to remember that while people are nervous about the way affinity groups may be leaving people out, our country, since the beginning, was built on exclusion, so affinity groups are a way of letting people in.
The Teacher Leader Network is a space for us at Lead by Learning to learn from our partners. What takeaways did you have from the event? What did you notice in the data? What was surprising?
I learned that people have a desire and need to have these conversations where they can be reflective and they can practice that vigilant self awareness that Dena Simmons talks about. I also learned that people need support on how to supportively challenge themselves because it is not scheduled into their work time or something schools or districts have said is important. I am left with the question, “How do we continue having these conversations so it becomes the way I do things, the way I am?”
Especially now, teachers want to feel heard and they want a space to share and connect with others. Educators right now are both hyper visible and invisible at the same time. The news, media, images are all around us and the spotlight is on teachers. And, at the same time, educators are working in silos in our home offices, bedrooms, and living rooms. Knowing that, teachers need spaces where they can just share what is on their mind and be connected and be supportively challenged by others and themselves. Where are those spaces? They are far and few in between. So how are we holding our teachers?
Our Teacher Leader Network will be meeting again in February to explore the next layer of what it means to supportively challenge ourselves.