Friday, October 24, 2008

The All-Terrain Teacher

Things are getting rugged, and change is in the wind.

But a few things are becoming more clear for educators. One obvious fact is that the diversity train has left the station in our society. No matter who becomes the next president, some things in our country and on our continent are changing, and those of us who teach kids had better be ready. I keep hearing predictions as to when "Whites in the U.S. will be a minority"--2020, 2050, it doesn't much matter, because it is the future.

But when will this racial and cultural diversity be manifest everywhere? Not regionally, not city/suburb, not public school/private school, but everywhere we go and everywhere we look and everywhere we live. Sadly, I think they date when this is likely to happen is bit farther off, as the majority has become quite adept at keeping to itself when it's in our (ouch! but yes, it's true) interest to do so.

If independent schools are as committed as most of them say they are to issues of equity and justice, and if they really want to enact the ideals in their missions, they still have some work to do. Lots of our schools are busy doing that work, discovering that the farther along they get, the harder the work becomes. Idealism of any sort requires great courage and great honesty, and humans are frail; when having to open our minds and our hearts to whole new ways of being and knowing, we are often more frail still.

A few years ago a colleague by the name of Nadine Nelson did some amazing work at our school helping us figure out how to be a better school for our students and colleagues from underrepresented groups. She had a term that has stayed with me, the "all-terrain kid." The ATK was the student who would be sufficiently curious, sufficiently self-aware, sufficiently humble, sufficiently informed, and sufficiently brave to be at home in any cultural milieu. Parachute the All-Terrain Kid into any setting, and he or she would be able to present himself or herself with respect and intelligence and to communicate on an authentic level with anyone.

The All-Terrain Kid is an ideal I still hold in my head for our students and for my own children. That's the kid who won't care about a whole lot of things that agitate our society now, and for whom newly evolving communities that truly represent the diversity of our society and our planet will be welcoming, exciting places.

I think schools should be thinking equally hard about developing the All-Terrain Teacher. However one construes "diversity," the ATT has to be able to negotiate it with the integrity, wit, and courage in all of its manifestations. Who is going to teach a generation of All-Terrain Kids, if not a generation of All-Terrain Teachers?

A while back TJX Corporation put together a diversity task force build around what they called the "arenas of diversity." I like the model, and drawing on it I would propose that the training and the work of the All-Terrain Teacher be built around these Five Arenas of Diversity:

  1. Age and generation. We've become cutely adept at naming generations and fractions of generations to differentiate them, but differentiation cannot become segregation. Boomers, Millennials, or whatever--they will represent significant diversity in an aging society paradoxically built around youth culture, and they will need to learn to understand one another and work together. This is especially true in schools, where the (relatively) old and the (relatively) young must come together for the highest of common purposes
  2. Race and culture. Whatever the other dimensions of diversity, these remain at the heart of the matter. Often visible and burdened with a long and terrible history, race matters, and so, broadly construed, does culture, especially in a society dogged by its own identity crisis, as witnessed by the fact that people can seriously ask the question, Is Barack Obama really American? and by a dangerous ambivalence on the issue of immigration.
  3. Gender and sexual orientation. How do we build a society that can guarantee security, respect, and equal opportunity and reward to all people, regardless of gender and sexual identity? Schools are already unsafe places for children who wrestle with these issues, and the achievement gap between boys and girls seems to be growing. These challenges must be addressed, and again, schools are the crucibles in which better practices must be forged.
  4. Class and status. We've been living through an era when income disparities have risen to all-time highs and when "Masters of the Universe" privilege themselves in every conceivable way. At the same time, the "middle class" scarcely knows how to define itself. Teachers and schools are going to have to face difficult issues in this arena.
  5. Ability and wellness. Issues around health care, accessibility, genetic testing, and accommodation of different abilities will continue to grow as genetic science moves forward and as our society ages. How will differences in access to services and support manifest themselves among students and and teachers, and how will schools be able to confidently address these differences? Will schools have to take stands on issues we cannot now even foresee?
The All-Terrain Teacher in the thoughtful school will need to have given enormous intentional consideration to each of these areas. Some schools may choose to opt out of this work, keeping their doors and hearts closed to certain kinds of difference, but the terrain that their students, families, and faculties will be negotiating will change nonetheless. Those who choose not to participate will surely be left far behind.

Like the All-Terrain Kid, the All-Terrain Teacher is an ideal. But the ideal can be fulfilled. It will take more than workshops and seminars, more than "diversity days" and diversity offices. It will have to begin with a systemic acknowledgment within the school that the world is truly changing, and that old modes and orders are going to be giving way to new ones, regardless of anyone's comfort with the change. To do the work will take nerves of steel and a willingness both to try new things and to learn from our blunders as we do.

Perhaps there is a Sixth Arena of Diversity, the arena of change itself. Above all, schools that want to be themselves "all-terrain" will need to master the art of moving forward like a camel in a sandstorm, amid ever-shifting conditions and the ever-present temptation to stop and rest. The goal, a world whose ideals reflect the ideals of the school, is out there right where our words and our hopes have placed it, and if we just keep it in sight, we can make it through the most rugged of times.


reyacono said...

It does feel like moving mountains, especially when anyone who takes a stand is accused immediately of having some kind of personal problem.

At the school where I currently serve as the Director of Diversity, the work I am excited about centers around faculty and staff wellness -- the physical and mental health of the adults, which affects their own ability to lead students to have open hearts and open minds. It takes the shape of everything from book groups to yoga classes, open forums and table tennis. One of the most immediate shifts has been among the Lower School faculty, a group that tends toward shutting their classroom doors and building their own universes. They are already more connected with each other as well as to the work of the school.

How does that play out in diversity work? Well, it means that the more difficult conversations are easier to have, and faculty have started viewing each other as fellow travelers (oops! Probably ought not go there, eh?) in their efforts to connect the students in deeper ways.

One last question -- where does religion fall in your list of aspects of diversity that schools should address? I wonder whether its omission is a function of your work in secular schools, of the geographic region of the country where you live, or some intentional thoughts about it. It is an issue, along with socio-economic class, that I navigate daily at my school, while over issues of race or ethnic or sexuality or religion are present, but not as pervasive in the organic routine of our community.

Oh, and I love the term "all-terrain" for the vision of the work we're talking about. Kudos, Nadine!


Peter Gow said...

To Guerita--

You're dead right about faith and spirituality--perhaps yet another arena of diversity that should be included. Maybe I have been spending too much time among the secularists--or at least in a school so diverse with regard to religion that we tend to give it fairly wide berth in our own discussions. Interestingly, when we devoted some faculty and student work to this topic a couple of years back the discussions didn't really get terribly far. Perhaps people felt this area was more private, even, that issues around sexuality and class. Or perhaps the feeling was that there are fundamental conflicts latent in the topic that are so intractable and vexatious that no one wanted to pursue it. Perhaps because we are a secular school, even presenting a position on religion can look and feel very much like proselytizing to some students, families, and teachers.

I'd have to say that the contemporary political climate in our society has done nothing but exacerbate this. Largely this is because religious expression seems to appear as part of public discourse largely in response to stereotypes of extremism imputed to just about every faith tradition from the Religious Society of Friends to Islam to philosophical atheism. Whether one is on the offensive or defensive, one is always made to feel that one's own religious or spiritual position is either vulnerable or intolerant. It reminds me of the way in which White America from the colonial period through the 19th century dealt with Native Americans: see or imagine signs of some sort of threat, loudly play the victim, and then respond by attacking with overwhelming force. It's the "paranoid style" at its most egregious.

But I would certainly extend the arenas to six, and let those who are smarter about these things than I am imagine how forward progress might be made.