We Must Always Look Inward

by Nicole Shimizu

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of participating in a pilot of Confianza’s new offering, Social Justice for EL Leaders.  In the first week of the course, we read an article from Teaching Tolerance written by educator Jeremy Knoll entitled, They Must Always Look Outward.  In the article, Knoll discusses the shift in his teaching as a result of the current status of our country and our world.  He explains that his focus has shifted from developing better students or writers, to developing, “better community members, more empathetic humans.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Knoll: as educators, our primary role is to prepare global citizens and to do such, we must ensure that our students always look outward – critically examining the world we live in.  But it struck me as I read that to support our students in looking outward, as educators we must spend a great deal of time looking inward – at our own social location and how that shapes the experiences we’ve had and the perspectives we hold and ultimately, the way in which we teach in our classroom.  Our social location is defined by factors such as our race, gender, sexual orientation, age, social class, ability, religion, and geographic location. As these factors converge, our roles in society emerge along with our access to power and privilege shaping our identity and how we see and experience the world.

About five years ago, in a training with other educators, I was introduced to a quote, “We teach our culture primarily, and our content secondarily,” (author unknown).  I remember the strong reaction of the teachers sitting at my table group:

“What? No!  Our job is to just teach the content, the curriculum.  To take a neutral stance.”

“I don’t teach culture.  I’m a math teacher. I teach math.”  

“Culture?  I don’t even have a culture.  I’m White.”

I began to think about my work in schools in grade level teams.  Even in teams with high levels of collaboration, where the entire team taught virtually the same lesson with the same standards and the same guiding questions, the way in which the lesson was taught was actually quite different.  Some classrooms were loud, kids were moving about the classroom freely, speaking to classmates and adults. In other classrooms, students were quiet, interaction was tightly controlled. Sure, classroom structures are something as teachers we make instructional decisions about.  But unless we take time to critically reflect on our teaching practices, we may not be aware of the patterns we fall back on, the patterns that were ingrained in us as young students – the identifying markers of the culture in which we were raised. Dr. Asa Grant Hilliard III describes our culture, or ideologies of race, as a “Computer software program that runs in the background, invisible and inaudible.”  He also warns us that “our silent and invisible ‘racial’ software is not benign. It is linked to issues of power and hegemony, the domination of a given group by another.”

In Dr. Dorinda Carter Andrew’s TED Talk, The Consciousness Gap in Education, she suggests three key questions to guide educators in critical reflection:

  1. How does my own social location shape my mindset about teaching and learning?
  2. What else is there that I need to know around culture, power, and difference?
  3. How can I be a more critically conscious leader?

These questions help us identify our cultural lenses.  We can simplify Dr. Carter Andrew’s questions to:

  1. What can I see?  
  2. What can I NOT see…yet?  
  3. What am I going to do about it?  

If we do not identify our cultural lenses, we won’t be able to articulate why we do the things we do.  Without knowing our cultural lenses, our response to the question, “Why?” will be, “Because that’s the way WE have always done it.”  WE being the ultra-exclusive dominant culture.  If we want our classrooms to be inclusive spaces that prepare our students to be, “Better community members, more empathetic humans,” we must first identify the lenses that we use to interpret the world around us so that we can expand our cultural lenses to reveal perspectives that were once invisible to us.  Thus I pledge, I must always look inward so that I can prepare students to look outward.

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