Research from The Educational Forum: Lifting the Smog: Coaching Toward Equity for All

Today’s bloggers are Jacobe Bell and Reshma Ramkellawan, self-employed instructional coaches in New York. They reflect here on what led to their research article recently published in The Educational Forum.

A man stabbed, his fresh blood splattered all over the bodega counter. A crumpled body in the middle of the street, framed by paramedics, police officers, and weeping bystanders. What was supposed to be a rare lunch break with school administrators became a day that shook Jacobe to her core. It’s not every day a teacher wanders onto the scene of a murder. But Jacobe will never forget the incident for another reason: the perceived indifference of the school administrators. She still wonders if their response might have been different if the murder victim had been of a different race or a higher socioeconomic class. Who knows? What we do know is that a person’s lived experiences affect how they interact with and think about others. What causes educators to become desensitized? What causes educators to see some people differently than they see themselves?

We don’t have simple answers to these questions. Our experiences as instructional coaches, however, have allowed us to gain insight into how teachers develop nuanced understandings of the students they serve in the contexts in which they choose to teach. Smog and Discourse (Tatum, 2003; Gee, 2015) are two theoretical concepts that explore how our subconscious is a manifestation of our lived social, economic, racial, and cultural experiences. In the case of Discourse, implicit beliefs around class, economics, and education are articulated in our word choices (e.g, “these kids can’t do this,” or “stuff like this happens everyday—no big deal”).

Teachers engage in these language patterns because they are surrounded by smog that reinforces their beliefs. The administrators’ reaction to the murder scene is an example of this. They likely had been bombarded by media reports and personal experiences that perpetuated the image of the school community as violent, aggressive, and dangerous. This district in particular has several police officers on consistent patrol. As a result of their lived experiences, administrators (and teachers) often subconsciously fail to see the narratives of their school constituents beyond their own psychological constructions of them. No one ever wants to believe they have made their implicit biases explicit, whether they have chosen to work in an urban setting with children of color or in any community where ethnicities and races are different from their own. However, we cannot always control the smog within which our psyche formulates meaning of the world, especially if we do not have a say in our formative experiences. Institutional racism has significant influence on the smog we are surrounded by and its manifestation in Discourse.

As women of color, we are keenly aware of subtle indicators of racism. We want as many allies as possible in the fight for educational equity. In order for urban educators to be true allies, it is imperative that all of us spend time unpacking the reasoning behind the things we say, the topics we choose to teach, and manner in which we enact pedagogy. As instructional coaches, we help teachers unpack belief systems that impact the instructional decisions they make. It can often be uncomfortable having these difficult conversations with teachers. The approach we ultimately utilized, outlined in our article in The Educational Forum, relied on the foundation of trust and good intention that we established with our teachers. In order for us to ask difficult inquiry questions (e.g., “Why do you believe your students are incapable of learning?” or “Did you notice your tendency to make deficit-oriented statements?”), the teachers we coached needed to understand that we were not judging them for the Discourse and smog that shaped who they are. Rather, we wanted to support their transition to empathetic teachers who are responsive to the needs of their students, moving toward equity for all.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Reshma and Jacobe’s article free with the education community. Access this article and the whole issue at Taylor and Francis Online, free through October 31, 2017.