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In ‘equity circles,’ teachers confront their own biases and stereotypes

Changing attitudes and deeply held cultural practices "doesn't happen overnight."

Together, Nick Bungard (left) and Cristina Hart led a session for teachers about being culturally responsive. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The men and women stood to face each other in the classroom at Benjamin Rush Arts Academy, asked to challenge a stereotype about their chosen identity. For instance, said the session leader: “I am an urban educator, but I am not here for the paycheck or the summers off.”

It was a diverse group – black, white, Latinx, Asian, people just out of school and in mid-career. After some hesitation, the examples came rapidly: “I am a gay man, but not less of a man.” “I am a world traveler, but not rich.” “I am an African American man, but not a criminal deadbeat or a gang member.” “I am a religious woman, but not trying to impose my beliefs on anyone.” “I am very well-educated, but not stuck up or trying to act white.” “I’m Southern, but not a bigot.”

The session at the weeklong teacher orientation in early August was called “Preparing to be a Culturally Responsive Teacher,” and it represented the start of an initiative taking hold in the Philadelphia School District this year – one that seeks to help teachers confront issues of race, ethnicity, and identity rather than pretend that they don’t exist.

The plan is to create “equity circles” in school this year with willing participants, in which teachers form communities to do the work of examining where they are coming from and the beliefs they hold about their students.

The goal is to “widen the aperture” through which teachers view their students, said Meredith Mehra, head of the District’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

“We have to help rewrite the narrative,” said Cristina Hart, a professional learning specialist in the office who is on the front lines of the equity work.

Two years ago, when the orientation first included sessions designed to make teachers more self-aware, it was based on the concept of implicit bias.

“We still do talk about that, but now it is a lot more,” said Hart. “My starting point is that we’re not here to fix the kids. We’re not the saviors; teaching is not something we do to the students. … We’re here to work with families, students, and the community to empower them.”

Hart, who has been doing this work with teachers for years, said that “there is often a disconnect between how a new teacher experienced school and how our students have experienced school.” Most teachers are white, female, and middle class. Most students in urban districts don’t fit that description.

So the goal is to help teachers “explore how their own cultural experiences unconsciously influence their decisions and identify their cultural blind spots and emotional activators around race, culture, and gender.” Failing to bridge the cultural chasm “is what leads to heartache for the teacher and challenges for the students,” she said.

The educators are being urged to read a book by Zaretta Hammond called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. It helps teachers understand that being “culturally responsive” is far more than using a wider variety of readings or mentioning other countries – it can involve a whole different way of understanding the world. It emphasizes the value that other cultures place on communalism, as opposed to individualism, and it emphasizes the importance of forming trusting relationships with both students and families. It also explains how the brain can become hard-wired over time to prioritize certain cultural responses.

Hart, a 30-year District veteran, describes herself as a “blerd,” a contraction for “black nerd.” Her teaching partner for these sessions is Nick Bungard, a young, white gay man. He acknowledges that this kind of profound self-study cannot be forced on people, which is why this session at the orientation was voluntary.

“This topic activates emotion on a deep level,” he said, noting that he has found himself questioning his privilege as a white male. “It’s a tough balance between encouraging self-exploration and not pushing this onto people when we don’t know what stage of the journey they are on.”

One scenario presented to the group involved a young woman in high school who seemed engaged and active in class, but never did her homework. The teacher couldn’t reach the girl’s parents, decided she was “lazy,” and thought a failing grade would teach her a lesson. That conclusion was reinforced after the teacher discovered that the girl’s younger siblings, in elementary school, always had their homework done.

But was that a fair conclusion? Several of the new teachers spoke up: It is just as likely that the older girl had a job after school, that she helped the younger siblings with their homework, and that the parents worked long shifts or at night and couldn’t answer their phones.

Hart spent most of her teaching career at Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia. It is a neighborhood school that fits the pattern in Philadelphia and most urban areas: low test scores, tough discipline, a revolving door of teachers, and, in its recent history, instability in leadership.

Students, she said, are well-aware of the stereotypes that define them – and that their teachers are likely to share.

Hart recited the refrain she often heard when she pushed rigor on her students: “’This is Bartram, we don’t do this. I am from Southwest, nobody expects anything from me.’” She added: “This is what the students bring with them.”

Teachers, she said, must “build opportunities to challenge that stereotype.”

As it happens, Courtney Carrington, one of the participants in that first session, has been assigned to teach chemistry at Bartram.

Carrington is black and a research chemist who turned to teaching as a second career. After several years working in a charter, she decided to apply to the District.

Students look at her, see someone who looks like them, and assume “she has all the same experiences I do. She was probably raised like me. Their assumption is that I will be the most relatable teacher. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

She explained that she went to a small private school in which she was part of a distinct minority. She has three college degrees. In reality, she said, she does not have much in common with most of them.

The sessions are more than just helping white teachers relate to students of color. They “helped me to take my biases and put them to the wayside. Even being a woman of color, they are valuable.”

While starting these sessions during the orientation with the new teachers – 700 have been hired so far – the plan is to include veteran teachers, as well, in the equity circles and have them spread in a voluntary way throughout the District. The first circles will be held in District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St. Ideally, some of the participants, with the proper training, will go back to their schools and organize a circle there.

“The circle will consist of activities that prompt discussion leading to continued self-awareness, led by individuals trained to continue the conversation,” said Hart.

Brooke Vaught, also in the Teaching and Learning office, said that the initiative goes hand-in-hand with trying to get more teachers of color into classrooms. The percentage has declined over the years and is now around 25 percent, although more than 40% of the cohort hired this year are teachers of color, according to Superintendent William Hite.

“Equity circles are peer-led professional development that creates conversations [leading to] personal, organizational, and societal change towards equity and diversity,” Vaught said. “We’re starting small with a look at identity, but the goal is making sure we are putting teachers in front of kids who can connect with kids who look like them and who don’t look like them.”

So far, she said, about 35 people have sent a letter of interest in response to a notice posted on teacher information boards.

“We’re hoping people will go back to their schools and have better conversations,” she said. “We’re hoping there are more circles to lay the groundwork of cultural diversity training.” The project, she said, will be “peer-led, and not hierarchical.”

There are still many people in the District, as in most organizations, who ask, “‘why do we have to talk about race?’” she said. “We could have a mandatory program, but we’re trying to be intentional about this. It’s about changing one’s thought process. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

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