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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Teacher Agency for Equity’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 13, 2017 7 min read
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Raquel Ríos agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement.

Raquel Ríos is an Instructional Designer at New Teacher Center, a national resource on mentoring and coaching for teacher effectiveness located in Santa Cruz, Calif. Her research focuses on language, literacy, and critical mindfulness in education. She lives and works out of New York City.

LF: This is a three-part question. The title of your book is “Teacher Agency For Equity.” Can you first define “equity” and then give a definition of “teacher agency”? And, given that many teachers might feel that they have their hands full just coping with the day-to-day job of preparing and delivering effective lessons, why should “equity” be on their “to do” list, as well?

Raquel Ríos:

Typically, when we talk about equity in education, we are talking about how we can make sure every student receives what he or she needs to succeed. We view education as a pathway to social mobility and improving educational equity is about identifying disparities and fixing them, based on performance. In my view, equity is about ensuring the fair and balanced distribution of resources so that each human being can reach his or her maximum potential. This definition does not contradict previous definitions; it aims to enhance it. For one, it sets forth a much more sophisticated goal. If we ask ourselves, what is the maximum potential of human beings, we consider Maslov’s hierarchy which leads us to think self-actualization. What do we mean by self-actualization and do we consider this as an expectation for students in schools that service the poor, for example? Self-actualization is something all human beings need and seek. It involves a creative life, a life with purpose, fulfillment and inner peace. It is a life free from suffering.

Teacher agency is based on the belief that we can make a difference in the lives of students that extends beyond the classroom. It is enacted when we channel our energy towards that aim and by activating the mind, body and spirit in everything we do. If we understand our capacity as teachers to draw out an awareness of the potential within us—we are authentic agents of change. Teacher agency requires considerable deliberation, critical mindfulness and attention to the socio-cultural, political and evolutionary context in which we live. It involves questioning our own authenticity, sense of purpose, level of fulfillment, inner peace because how can we pave the way for our students without self-awareness and a familiarity with such grace?

It is true that teachers are frequently trapped and busy preparing and delivering lessons and dealing with issues of compliance. They often function on automatic. Not to mention a concern for survival. Still, even teachers who check all the boxes are suffering and often feel powerless. They cannot escape the daily reminders that something is wrong and we are not healthy as a society. Regardless of race, class, religion, gender, education attainment, etc., we are suffering. Richard Wilkinson, the British social scientist, talks about our collective poor health which he argues is a result of vast inequality. Chronic stress and anxiety, mental illness, obesity, violence, militancy, fanaticism, fascism, excessive consumerism, low-trust, widespread drug abuse, escapism are all examples of this imbalance. When we prioritize equity we are fighting for personal and collective well-being.

In the book, you make some observations about social emotional learning and altruism, and their relationship to equity and racism. Can you talk about—and expand on—this topic?

Raquel Ríos:

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is important because it is about creating learning environments that are responsive to the needs of the whole child. SEL validates the role of relationships, trust, and the emotional demands of classroom activities. Despite its benefits, social-emotional learning does not address the systemic and structural issues related to the inequitable distribution of resources in schools and society rooted in racist ideology. Therefore, social-emotional learning cannot be a substitute for equity, although in some circles, it has been positioned to do just that.

In my book I point out that the great majority of teachers go into teaching for altruistic reasons. It is good that we have committed teachers who want to help others. Altruism left unchecked, however, in the context of schools where many teachers and administrators are white while the student population is majority students of color may perpetuate the problems we wish to ameliorate, such as racist ideology or inequality. For example, is there reciprocity in our teaching relationships or are we trying to fix or save the children that we have identified as being broken or “at-risk” as determined by data, bias or legacies of oppression? How are we actively using our privilege to advocate for the school or district to employ individuals from the community who are underrepresented?

This is probably an unfair question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Can you summarize the “Six Principles for Teacher Agency for Equity” that you discuss in the book?

Raquel Ríos:

The practice of Conscientious Engagement aims to shift teacher mindsets and instructional practices towards a more holistic, integrated education experience for both teacher and student. The framework combines elements of Mindful Inquiry (Bentz & Shapiro) and Social Justice pedagogy. It also builds open Palmer Parker’s work in that it involves the full activation of the mind, body and spiritual pathways.

The framework is made up of six interlocking principles: Spirit Consciousness and Authentic Presence, Entanglement and Freedom, Meliorism and Emergence. Spirit Consciousness and Authentic Presence are about embracing our mind-body-spirit nature as a way to access divine intelligence. It is about activating our whole self so that we can inspire and infuse purpose into the act of teaching and learning. Entanglement and Freedom are about how we as human beings are still largely driven by the primal need for survival and belonging and a strict adherence to consensus building can often limit our work for equity. By transcending entangled relationships, we can be free to engage with those who are equally invested in our life purpose. Meliorism and Emergence refers to how we make a difference in the world through human effort. Understanding how to conserve or channel our energy in ways that strengthen our work for equity is an essential component of agency.

LF: What are two concrete actions that teachers can take next week to help develop equity and what are two actions they can take over the longer term?

Raquel Ríos:

In my book I suggest teachers start by considering tough questions like, do you believe that equity is possible in the United States? What does an egalitarian society look like and what have been the barriers to its realization? The deliberation on these questions has a curious, transformational effect. After individual reflection, I encourage teachers to explore these questions with friends, family and colleagues because in dialogue we begin to unpack the complexity involved in the work. I recommend teachers to use this book to ground professional learning conversations. Each chapter ends with reflection questions to guide critical conversations about equity, bias, self-awareness and teaching.

For the long term, I suggest teachers practice some form of daily meditation, which means to quiet your thoughts and focus on breathing. The word inspire comes from the Latin root to breathe. It means to give rise to or to bring about. Focusing on our breathing, liberating ourselves from incessant thoughts, will give rise to consciousness. Once you create this open space, you can begin to meditate on a specific topic, problem or person, such as your school climate or a student. This last component of meditation is the start of moving from awareness to action.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Raquel Ríos:

My book is divided into two parts, each with a different tone. In the first part, I speak frankly about politics, racist ideology, poverty and perspective. These topics continue to drive our conversations riddled with emotion. I don’t think we can move ahead in any authentic way without situating ourselves in our current context, acknowledging our past and the deep suffering we experience being part of a segregated society with a racist, hegemonic history that continues on. In Part 2, I introduce the notion of an emerging Spirit Consciousness into the conversation. This is a radical shift for some. It is a call for us to evolve and expand our world view at a very critical time. We must challenge ourselves to speak our truth and to also let go of our attachments. It is the only pathway I foresee ahead of us.

LF: Thanks, Raquel!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.