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Professional Development

September 30, 2020

Professional Development for Good: Principles & First Steps for School-Wide Racial Justice

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Maribel Valdez Gonzalez

There are truths about professional development that many educators can agree with. They are mandatory time sucks, and educators of all levels often wish that they could be using the time they normally spend in PD to plan for upcoming lessons. Generally, administrators hope that professional development will help teachers become more efficient in producing student-centered, standard-achieving, academically-rigorous lessons. So, extra time spent in conversations with other educator professionals is supposed to help you deliver classroom instruction that helps students learn; prepare effective lessons; grade student work and offer personalized, individual feedback; manage classroom materials; productively navigate the state-mandated curriculum and district demands; and collaborate with other staff. This sounds like an oxymoron, right? Can PD magically make more time in the day?  

All jokes aside, we know that professional development when done well can be useful in cultivating a focused adult learning community that translates to all classrooms, both in-person and virtual. To achieve this, trainers must model good teaching practices by grounding all PD with tenets of culturally-responsive and relevant pedagogy. This includes authentic community-building, creating space for dialogue and healing, transparency in the pervasiveness of institutional racism in K-12, and being deliberate about creating access for all students (especially Black and brown students). In 2020, we have to be explicit about how racism shows up in our schools, and PD is a great place to start cultivating a truly equitable learning environment for all learners—grown-ups and youth included.

Trainers must commit to the following Principles & Actions in order to experience a school-wide shift towards racial justice. Achieving racial justice in schools means eliminating real and perceived systemic barriers, and creating access to educational pathways for all students, by centering and celebrating the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other students of color.

The actions outlined below are not exhaustive but are helpful starts that will create equitable learning spaces.

Co-creating community agreements

Principle #1: Building relationships around a shared understanding of, and commitment to, the co-created community and accountability agreements will help teachers move through the discomfort that is undoing internalized racist beliefs.

Action #1: Begin the school year by co-creating community agreements for how to engage in conversation that has the potential to create hurt feelings, resistance, and defensiveness. To be clear, these reactions are normal. The goal is not to avoid or prevent these reactions from happening—rather, to have protocols in place that will help learners feel affirmed, validated, and equipped to move through these feelings in a constructive way. Model vulnerability by being honest about your own struggles, goals, and strengths. By modeling vulnerability and metacognition, you give others permission to openly express themselves and learn publicly. Be sure to reference these community and accountability agreements in every PD session by uplifting agreements participants are doing well and agreements that need to be revisited.  

Being transparent & truthful

Principle #2: Transparency is key. Being transparent and explicit about how education has reinforced false, harmful narratives about Black and brown children and centering conversations around antiracist teaching practices will create educational and leadership pipelines for all students.

Action #2: Revisit a PD you have recently facilitated or plan to facilitate. Ask yourself the following questions:

When addressing problems teachers face in their learning spaces...

  • Am I putting the blame and responsibility onto students and their families? What is the impact of this on how teachers approach problems?
  • Am I asking teachers to reflect on how they can change their teaching practices and mindsets to meet the needs of their students?
  • Am I asking teachers to accept their students as valuable, whole human beings?
  • Am I asking teachers to critically confront their own bias and examine how it informs their attitudes towards their students and their families?

When introducing a new teaching strategy...

  • Am I choosing strategies to share that are inclusive of all kinds of learners, including emerging multilingual students, SPED, and advanced learners?
  • Am I explaining how this strategy culturally and emotionally centers the lived experiences of Black and brown youth and why all students will benefit?
  • After teaching the strategy, am I giving space for teachers to reflect on the process of learning?
  • Am I giving space for teachers to unpack how their experiences in K-12 inform their expectations of how this strategy will land in the classroom, and how these expectations can lead to punitive measures of discipline that disrupt learning?

Celebration & representation

Principle #3: Celebrate and honor the lived experiences of all participants, and provide exposure to the lived experiences of communities and cultures that aren’t represented in your school.

Action #3: There are a myriad of ways to do this. Here are a couple to get you started:

  • Use teaching and learning examples from Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, such as books that are authored by BIPOC as well as those that have BIPOC protagonists.
  • Refrain from saying “regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.,” when talking about opportunities. This is another version of saying that you don’t see color. This phrasing diminishes the very real experiences BIPOC have around systemic barriers that cause harm to them and their families.

These actions are a starting point, not the whole journey. Nevertheless, making a shared commitment to equality and racial justice within your school is an essential first step. When all educators and administrators share the same goal, you’ll start down the path of a school culture that truly makes every student feel supported, valued, needed, and heard.

In her 10 years as an antiracist educator, in various institutions and intergenerational community spaces, Maribel Valdez Gonzalez has been honored to work with youth and adults to decolonize and humanize pedagogical practices, social structures, and belief systems in classrooms. Her goal is to create academically engaging learning experiences through a culturally-responsive environment that fosters empowerment, healing, and radical kindness.

Maribel is a founding leader of the Education Amplifier program which began in the fall of 2017. She has since served as Amplifier's educational consultant for multiple national public art campaigns to bridge the gap between social change movements and education by providing educators with teaching tools created by Amplifier partners to guide students toward action. She has collaborated with and offered curricular guidance to non-profit organizations such as the Women's March, March for our Lives, Earth Guardians, Families Belong Together, She Can STEM, and many more.

Author thumnail image

Maribel Valdez Gonzalez

STEM Integration Transformation Coach

Technology Access Foundation

Maribel is a former grade 6-8 English Language Arts and World Cultures teacher and is currently a STEM Integration Transformation Coach for Technology Access Foundation, where she works to create transformative systems of learning for students and teachers of color to eliminate race-based disparities. Committed to sharing her passion for equity and justice, she also serves on the advisory board for Teaching Tolerance and is a member of the Antiracist Arts Education Task Force for Visual & Performing Arts for Seattle Public Schools.

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