Commentary: Creating Equitable Schools with Teachers at the Forefront

Research & Action Report, Spring/Summer 2011

by Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D.

U.S. education is in trouble. Many types of school reform have been proposed and tried, but most are not working. They are not creating real solutions to problems. I believe that education reform will continue to falter unless it treats teachers as whole human beings, not as neutral pass-throughs, or as failing parts of machinery. Too often teachers are punished, disrespected, and excluded from conversations on what might actually make education successful for all of our students. What teachers know, what they can contribute, is left out of most efforts to reform education. We cannot change our schools, our systems, without respecting the deep experience of teachers.

The National SEED Project puts teachers at the center of their own professional development and helps them to mine and use their own knowledge of education and of life, in conversation with each other, to change themselves and their schools. SEED—Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity—aims to create inclusive and equitable schools through transformative professional development of teachers. The SEED Project carries with it the work of hundreds and now thousands of people and carries my learnings and chief convictions from my 54 years in education.

The SEED Project is staffed by educators who understand that teachers are whole human beings, and like everyone else, they are more apt to change and develop when they are given the opportunity to examine their own lives, beliefs, assumptions,and practices, in reflective conversation with a group of others who are doing the same. Teachers’ changes can, in turn, spur change at the school and system level.

A SEED seminar—the core feature of the SEED Project’s work to drive social change—is formed in a school by teachers who wish to discuss how to make the curriculum, teaching methods, and school climate more gender-fair, more multicultural, and more inclusive of students from every kind of background. Meeting monthly for three hours, including a meal which nourishes bodies and builds community, educators in SEED groups use interactive exercises and inclusive pedagogy to address the matters of power which make some students, parents, and teachers feel they do not really belong in the school or the school community.

I founded the SEED Project 25 years ago, after leading five years of monthly seminars on curriculum revision and expansion for college teachers, and four years of seminars for schoolteachers in New England and mid-Atlantic states. After years of braving bad weather and delayed flights to get to seminars in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, I wondered how to solve the problem of winter travel. At the same time, a growing recognition of what made for good group process was creeping up on me. I noticed that toward the end of a year-long seminar series in which the time and attention had been shared among all the members, there was a relaxation of tension over the question of leadership. About seven months into a seminar that distributed time and attention equitably, it seemed not to matter who was “in charge.” All of the group members trusted each other. I felt I did not need to be there.

This revelation expanded like an airbag. Suddenly I saw that we could have a national program with seminars anywhere! All that was needed was to prepare seminar leaders to facilitate in an inclusive way that shared power in a group. One or two individual teachers from a school could be brought together for a week of intensive facilitator training. Then they could go back to their schools and lead year-long seminars with their own colleagues, using the inclusive methods and conceptual frameworks that they had learned during the training week. The National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum was born. 

Each summer in California about 40 teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States and other countries come together in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group to experience life based on some of the key SEED ideas. One key idea is that unless we as educators re-open our own backgrounds, to look anew at how we were schooled to deal—or not deal—with diversity and connection, we will be unable to create school climates and curriculum which more adequately equip today's students to do so.

Another key SEED idea is that intellectual and personal faculty development needs to be supported over time in order for real change to happen. One of the aims of SEED is to enable students and teachers to develop a complex balance of self-esteem and respect for the cultural realities of others, in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. This takes time. It takes a long time for people to form prejudices and exclusionary habits, and it takes a long time, and hard work, to see and undo exclusive assumptions, values, ideas, priorities, and behavioral patterns that any of us have learned and been rewarded for learning, consciously or not.

SEED emphasizes that teachers and other school personnel are the authorities on their own experience. Once they experience being put at the center of their own processes of growth and development, they can more effectively put students’ growth and development at the center of their educational aims. What SEED Co-director Emily Style and I named “faculty-centered faculty development” parallels student-centered learning and achievement.

SEED exercises model respect for one’s own authority and also respect for the stories of others since they, too, are authorities on their life experiences. The SEED balance of testifying and listening, absent in most classrooms, creates a democratic balance between self and other in SEED influenced classrooms, schools, and communities.

Frequently it takes school emergencies to start conversations about equity. Racialized incidents, bullying, sexual harassment, even killings trigger questions like, “How could this have happened?” SEED does not need a school emergency to have conversations about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and other dimensions of power in a school. When a SEED seminar has been established, a whole new conversation begins among teachers or parents or both and the roots of a more equitable school culture take hold. In SEED, teachers and parents begin to realize, with relief, that existing curricula, teaching methods, and school cultures that reinforce white privilege, class privilege, and heterosexual privilege can actually be transformed to include the interests of all of the students. SEED teachers have the tools to create classrooms that offer students more equitable experiences of race and class.

For example, one practice that teachers learn in a SEED seminar and can use in their own classrooms is timed Serial Testimony in which everybody in a group or class speaks about their own experience without reference to what has been said. Everyone speaks and everyone listens. This method of teaching, which can be used in many kinds of class discussions, humanizes everybody to each other and also increases everybody’s capacity to think about structural oppression and privilege, as manifested in the many differing and similar experiences people talk about. This exercise is impactful. I hear repeatedly from participants that the SEED methods are unlike anything their schools have ever tried.

When teachers and parents carry SEED methods into their classrooms and homes, the balancing of speaking and listening decreases polarization and increases thought, empathy, creative problem solving, and the capacity to decrease structural inequities that we have been taught to take for granted and not even to see. SEED methods improve the student-teacher relationship and can be used at any grade level in any subject area to connect academic subjects to the present lives of the students; they give teachers ways to make the subjects more real to students’ lives and to see and use “the textbooks of their lives,” as Emily Style phrases it, as curricular material in its own right.

SEED seminars have been led by 1,920 SEED leaders in schools across the United States and world over the last 25 years. Each seminar enrolls 10 to 20 voluntary members who sign up for the whole school year. SEED seminars are different from usual meetings in that they use methods that de-emphasize abstract opinion and that bring forth participants’ own concrete life experiences. But these personal testimonies, shared, in a group, lead to re-consideration of school practices and policies—and may lead to changes in reading lists, in the ways that a school publicizes itself to its community, in classroom décor, in hallway messaging, in teaching methods, in testing methods. In tiny, incremental, potent, and organic ways, SEED work changes school climates.

SEED is a magnet for teachers, administrators, and parents who crave equity in the school climate. Again and again we hear from SEED seminar participants that the Project changed all aspects of their lives, including how they teach, how they learn, how they make policy, how they relate to students, and how they relate to their own histories and circumstances of birth as well as their current family arrangements.

I previously saw the SEED Project as an experiment. And indeed it started as an experiment. But I am confident that it has made an important and innovative contribution to school reform in the United States in our time. I think it belongs in the history of U.S. education. Most school reform is generated by white people, has a top-down quality, and frankly is not working to improve either teaching or learning in the schools. SEED is working because it elicits and takes seriously diverse and varied voices in education and applies what it learns to teacher education and school reform. Nine of the 14 core staff who facilitate the summer SEED training are people of color and five are white. All come from very different backgrounds. They co-create the summer training program and their leadership attracts many new SEED leaders who are persons of color.

SEED Co-director and college teacher Brenda Flyswithhawks says that teachers—along with other people— have it in them to answer all the questions that will be put before them in this life. Judy Logan, SEED leader and author of Teaching Stories, says that teachers need a chance to tell their stories and tell what they have learned. Emily Style, SEED co-director and high school teacher, says that all students deserve a curriculum that offers a balance of windows and mirrors: windows out to the experience of others, and mirrors of one’s own reality and validity. Emily Style also calls for what she describes as a “balance of the scholarship on the shelves with the scholarship in the selves.” And I, as founder and co-director of SEED, reiterate the need for deep autobiographical exploration of the conscious and subconscious elements in us that can illuminate the oppressiveness of most education, inner and outer. Both my work on white privilege and my Interactive Phase Theory rest on autobiographical exploration of power systems.

Educators and parents in SEED seminars often come to further understand how oppressive schooling was for them so much of the time, and how filled with systemic inequities schools continue to be. Some examples of systemic inequity are curriculum materials created entirely by and about white people who are native English speakers, or literature focused on the lives of males and on mythical societal norms, or stereotyping of certain kinds of children or families, or the permitting of bullying without adult intervention, or teaching methods that further entitle the most assertive young people and that, sadly, privilege argumentation as the key academic skill. How can we change our schools without better understanding how privilege and oppression have influenced their formation?

SEED enables teachers to envision and implement changes in their classrooms and schools that empower everyone— staff, children/youth, and families—to participate on increasingly equal footing. To develop this ideal we need systemic understanding of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, region, and other interlocking societal systems that impact education and the psyches of educators. Without systemic understanding, individuals who try to transform the curriculum will lack coherence about what created the partiality of the school curriculum to begin with. It is naïve to think that adding a few famous “other” people to the curriculum deals with the underlying power systems that led to exclusion in the first place. But group conversation, when democratically structured, can support teachers and administrators in creating accurate, validating curricular materials and teaching strategies that are more gender-balanced, multiculturally equitable, and globally attuned.

I believe that we should not be ashamed, blamed, or guilty that we were shaped by the cultures or environments we grew up in. We did not invent the systems into which we were born. But as we come to see systemic inequities in our own conditioning and in our institutions and workplaces, we can and should tease out questions of who we were taught to look up to, who we were taught to look down on, and who and how we really want to be, now, in our present lives. I am deeply concerned that the existing hierarchies have not democratically served the development of souls, minds, bodies, or hearts of teachers or students. At present, only a few segments of our society are greatly empowered by our educational systems. In general, these are the same segments that are empowered by our economic systems. Schools’ inability to empower so many U.S. students translates into huge societal losses, which affect everyone’s quality of life in some ways. Therefore, as I stated in my first Interactive Phase Theory Paper in 1983, we work for the decent survival of all, for therein lies our own best chance for survival.

SEED calls for, and models, greater democratic distribution of respect, power, access, support, and opportunity. Starting in the individual school building and in the individual minds and hearts of teachers, meeting monthly, we ask: What are we teaching, and why? And how can we change curricula, teaching methods, and school climates so as to make this school more gender-fair, multicultural, welcoming, and inclusive of students from every kind of background? If the United States is to educate everyone, it needs to support teachers to ask such complex questions and to act on the answers they offer.

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