Educators Can Dismantle Oppression in Their Classrooms. Here’s How.

Young people learn best in classrooms where they feel valued, and where the social and emotional aspects of their development are prioritized by teachers and other adults tasked with their care, according to a new report by the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. This finding is hardly surprising, as few adults thrive in settings where they feel devalued. Indeed, few adults look back on their own childhood without some disdain for the teachers who made them feel invisible — or worse, targeted. And few adults look back on their school years without genuine fondness for the teachers who made them feel special — or, even better, loved. While the creation of loving classrooms benefits all children, the Aspen Institute found that creating a classroom culture centered on the whole child “disproportionally benefits children from low-income communities.”

Creating a classroom culture that values marginalized children has been fairly impossible in school systems that are rooted in institutionalized classism, racism, sexism and other biases. The history of public education in this country is one of exclusion and disenfranchisement. Policy decisions regarding education access consistently reasserted the privilege of wealthy white Protestants. Changing the power structure that enabled unequal schooling is a revolutionary, multifaceted project of which professional development is one component.

Given this well-documented legacy of inequality in U.S. schools, dismantling the internalized biases that erode the ability of teachers to affirm their students in genuinely loving ways should be a primary goal in all schools. In addition to making suggestions like ending punitive disciplinary policies and giving young people the power of voiced expression, the Aspen report recommends that schools “provide instructional materials and professional development that incorporate strategies for affirming students’ varied backgrounds. And they…

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