Beginning Steps to Building an Equitable Classroom: Step 3

Examine your own belief systems.

 Specifically, get curious about the beliefs you hold regarding:

  • What makes a “good” student.
  • The impact a strong relationship with a student has on her learning.
  • What makes a “good” parent/guardian.

Notice if the beliefs you hold remind you of yourself as a student, of your own parents or perhaps they remind you of children who will simply put their head down and comply without questioning anyone or anything. Previous life experiences have shaped our schema for what we believe is “right” or “good.” Likely, this means that anything that does not fit into that frame will then be considered “wrong” or “bad.” 

Do you know who is likely to not fit into our frames? A lot of the time it’s people who look and sound different from us; people who believe something different or who simply show up in spaces differently from how we show up. So be very clear on the frame you are walking into your school with because as you go through your day, you are assessing what fits and does not fit into that frame of your world.

When someone wants to try a new strategy with a student they perceive as misbehaving, for example, I ask them for all the things they believe about the child. We have to explore beliefs. We even write them down. If the beliefs are negative, any new strategy will not work. Guaranteed. 

Here’s a quick example.

Alex’s 7th grade math teacher, Mrs. Jones, told me that “good” students always follow the rules and respect authority. When I probed what “respect” looked and sounded like she shared that it simply meant doing what you were told without arguing or pushing back, no matter what. In other words, she was expecting submissive compliance and blind loyalty. Well, Alex was not having that (and honestly, I wouldn’t either). 

Alex wanted to fully understand why moving his body (without entering the personal space of others) was such a big deal. “Moving helps me stay focused,” he explained to her. But Mrs. Jones only saw what she referred to as: defiance. They engaged in a back and forth verbal altercation in front of the whole class which resulted in Alex getting kicked out of the room. 

Mrs. Jones really wanted me to give her a new strategy to use with Alex but I could tell this would be another strategy that would tossed to the ‘does not work’ pile. This wasn’t a gap in strategy this was a gap in beliefs. When I asked her what beliefs she held about Alex, she quickly ticked them off:

  • Alex can’t stay in his seat. 
  • Alex can’t behave.
  • Alex is disrespectful.
  • He is rude and has a nasty attitude.
  • That attitude is not going to get him very far in the real world.

Whoa! Would any strategy work when derived from that belief system? NOPE! Notice everything she shared about Alex was negative, not one asset was named. That’s a thing. A big thing. 

What if instead, Mrs. Jones chose to believe: “Alex is expressing a need and I can help him create the conditions to ensure that need is met. It is really helpful that Alex is so self-aware of his own needs. Self-awareness is a critical skill of strong leaders and he already has a strong sense of that.” Alex’s experience (and his teacher’s experience!) would be significantly different. This new belief would prompt a more positive set of behaviors and actions from Mrs. Jones which in turn, would prompt Alex to respond differently and likely mirror the positivity of his teacher. If you are curious about the approach I took with Mrs. Jones, check out this previous blog post for the steps I use to explore and coach beliefs.

Let’s be clear: the engagement of children will not change until your beliefs about them change. A shift in your beliefs will change your behavior which will create a shift in students’ beliefs which then creates a change in their actions. 

Let’s be even clearer: The success of children hinges on what you believe about them. 

So, where do we go from here? The easiest way to get started is to think of a student, colleague, parent or even yourself, and list out all the beliefs you hold about that person. Notice which ones are positive and conducive to a relationship that can get good work done. Then, scan for the beliefs that will likely hold progress back. Explore how those beliefs came to be, shed the ones that do not serve and commit to the ones that do. Remember, your beliefs are in your direct locus of control. After that, it’s just about embodying the new beliefs and practicing over and over again. By “practice” I mean literally practicing how a person who holds that belief would walk, talk, stand, enter a classroom, help a student, approach a parent, etc. Old beliefs are familiar so they offer us a sense of comfort which can make them hard to release but, as we get better at embodying the new beliefs they eventually become necessary parts of us.

I know people want the template and the specific things to say or do to build equitable classrooms and schools. We will do precisely that at the Equity By Design workshop in February, but if you don’t have the above locked down, you are not going to get very far. 

So, what’s your next step?

To Do: Looking for the template and the straightforward steps on how to make your classroom (or school or system) more equitable? Register for Equity By Design to experience a customized workshop explicitly and intentionally crafted to focus on equitable practices that incorporate coaching – but move beyond it. 

Other Posts To Read:

Five Ways to Do Equity Work Daily 

Secrets in Equity Work: How to Coach Beliefs

Equity as an Act of Love: Three Practices