Big Ideas
Chapter: No Such Thing As Neutral

(4) Identity, Culture & Privilege

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-7-18-38-am Often our classroom leadership models and approaches to training and support seem to be relatively quiet (if not silent) on the local histories, structures, and systemic injustices that privilege certain groups and perspectives in our communities while marginalizing the identities and culture of the students in our classrooms.

By contrast, in our most transformational classrooms, we often see teachers and students wrestling together with those issues of culture and identity, discussing difficult topics like prejudices and expectations related to gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and learning differences.  We see teachers provoking reflection on the local and cultural histories of oppression that students (and teachers) live in every day. We see students  exploring (in age-appropriate ways) the systemic injustices they will have to navigate to reach their vision and the cultural, collective, and individual assets they have to do so.

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-7-19-34-amSome of our teachers share elements of their identity with their students.  Some of our teachers do not.  Either way, our strongest teaches describe the relevance of the unjust “norms” and systems around their students, and the ways that being part and products of a system that has historically perpetuated injustices threatens to inhibit their connections with their students.  Sometimes these teachers describe a conviction that silence or “neutral” passivity on issues like sexism, classism, and racism makes them accomplices to the perpetuation of those injustices.

As Graciela Pérez, an alumnae of EnseñaChile describes in her context:

Chile, and many or all countries in Latin America are extremely segregated between rich and poor. Interactions between the two social classes don’t exist, except in very rare situations like teaching through EnseñaChile. Essentially, your social class defines who you are and what you can do. If you’re born in a well-off family, you’ll stay there. And vice versa. This is why I believe that addressing social and cultural capital gaps among our students will help take our work further. 

Profound Additional Impact

peru_monteza_gabriela_071112-copyStudies several years ago at Teach For America revealed evidence that teachers who share the racial or ethnic identity of their students can be additional effective at leading those students to academic gains than teachers who do not report such a shared identity. We hypothesize that this additional impact is related to building strong, more asset-based and more authentic relationships. These corps members at Teach For America also get higher responses to student survey questions pertaining to students being happy in school, the teacher making students feel good about themselves, and the teacher caring about the student as a person.

Across the network, we see in our most successful classrooms that engaging with students’ social and political awareness is a critical element of unleashing their full potential as leaders in their own lives and communities.  Validating what we see in the classroom, social science researchers like Dr. Te Kawehau Hoskins from the University of Auckland, emphasize that a teacher’s ability to navigate dynamics of difference and sameness with students often requires deep “self” work:

Engagement of disadvantaged families and communities by leaders and educators is as much an inward process of critical self and school reflection and transformation, as it is an outward process of identifying strategies for parental and community engagement. Leaders and educators require sophisticated knowledge and understanding relating to equity and social justice, and the social location and cultures of those families they are trying to reach…I think critical self reflection for educators and leaders (especially those from dominant cultural groups) involves two paradoxical things. On one hand, most principals and school leaders in Aotearoa-New Zealand are Pakeha (white), and often have little knowledge of, or relationships with, Maori, Pasifika and other minoritised communities. Admitting, as a leader, that you don’t know the answers – but that you are willing to be open and learn from others is a critical disposition if you are going to form relationships and begin to understand who communities are and what they want/need from schooling. The flip side of this approach is that educational leaders must also lead. They must be courageous and grow their knowledge about social injustice (and their location within such dynamics) and be prepared to lead systemic and cultural changes in their schools.

How could our programs support our teachers, alumni, and students to explore issues of identity, culture, and privilege in ways that maximize students’ self-determined leadership in life?

Some Resources to Further Explore The Theme of Identity, Culture, and Privilege

  • Meet Esther, a Maori woman in New Zealand who experienced challenging questions of culture and identity.  This five part series of reflection is SUCH a potent illustration of the issues of privilege and power that are inextricably infused in our work:
  • Another (short) video series from New Zealand , this one about engaging across lines of difference. 


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