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Transforming Myself to Transform My School (July 2001)
by Paul C. Gorski, Hamline University and EdChange

Multicultural education must be a transformational process; that is, it must be a process through which all aspects of education are examined and critiqued and rebuilt on ideals of equity and social justice. Most people who identify with multicultural education as an important process for improving education for all students agree that transformation--large scale change--is needed in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and other aspects of schools and schooling. A majority of multicultural education courses and workshops focus on these pieces of the education puzzle.

Most multicultural educators would also agree that some level of self-reflection and self-critique are important. But even those who are willing to fully engage in a discussion about curriculum transformation are often resistant to a discussion about self-change, or self-transformation, at the same level or depth.

One reason for this is that it is extremely difficult work to be self-critical and to open oneself up to the level of outside critique necessary for transformation. Just as my attempts at curriculum transformation must begin with a reconsideration of whose voices are being heard and not being heard and whose perspectives are being valued or not valued, all with an initial and constant focus on equity, my transformation of self must begin with a reconsideration and examination of everything I carry into the classroom with me--my value system, prejudices, biases, assumptions, pre-service experience, preferred learning styles, experiences as a student, etc.--and how these ensure, or interfere with, an equitable learning community for all students. This is a daunting, scary, exhausting process.

But even more daunting, scary, and exhausting is the realization that no matter how liberal and open and accepting I fancy myself to be, I, like everyone else, have prejudices, biases, and assumptions, and these prejudices, biases, and assumptions inform my teaching and my interactions with students as well as the ways in which my students and colleagues experience me. The intimidation factor of this process is intensified by the fact that I am already being critiqued through standards and tests and assessments by a system that seems to depersonalize teaching. I am already vulnerable to administrators, supervisors, parents, colleagues, national and local standards, and even my students. At the end of the day, it is often difficult to also answer to myself.

Another contextual factor that makes the process of self-transformation difficult is that I am constantly bombarded with messages that I should be "color blind" or that I should "treat all kids alike." Some people even suggest that by discussing prejudices and discrimination or different forms of oppression like racism or sexism, I am actually contributing to, or causing, the oppression itself. After all, we are teachers. We like kids. We want our students to achieve and succeed. I cannot possibly have a prejudice or take ownership of a bias because having a prejudice or a bias means that I must be a bad teacher.

But I disagree. I know that I have prejudices and biases, and failing to address them or challenge myself to think more critically about my role and its complexities in relation to those prejudices would constrain me--would, in effect, make it impossible for me to be the most effective educator I can be for all of my students.

The next question, then, is how to engage in this process of self-transformation. What are some entry points? What are some concrete things I can do or think about?

Through my own reflection and critique, I developed a list of ten critical and self-critical things I can do to be a better multicultural educator. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but a starting point. And I am not intending to make a statement about what every educator must do, but instead voicing and owning things I, as an educator, can and should do to begin the process of transforming schools by transforming myself. The list appears below.

Ten Critical and Self-critical Things I Can Do to Be a Better Multicultural Educator

  1. I can engage in self-reflective writing or journaling to explore my processes of identity development and how I react to different events or people.

  2. I can invite critique from colleagues and accept it openly. Though it's easy to become defensive in the face of critique, I can thank the person for their feedback and take the time and responsibility to process and consider it fully.

  3. I can understand the relationship between INTENT and IMPACT. Many times, especially when I'm in a situation in which I experience a level of privilege, I have the luxury of referring and responding only to what I intended, no matter what impact I have on somebody. I must take responsibility for impact, recognizing that I can never be totally aware of the biases and prejudices I carry into the classroom and how my students or colleagues experience me.

  4. I can reject the myth of color-blindness. As painful as it is to admit, I know that I react differently when I'm in a room full of people who share many dimensions of my identity than when I am in a room full of people who are very different from me. I have to be open and honest about that, because those shifts inevitably inform the experiences of people in my classes or workshops. In addition, color-blindness denies people validation of their whole person.

  5. I can recognize my social identity group memberships and how they may affect my students' experiences and learning processes. People do not always experience me the way I intend them to, even if I am an active advocate for all my students. If I appreciate this, I will find deeper ways to connect with all my students.

  6. I can build coalitions with teachers who are different from me (in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, first language, disability, and other identities). These can be valuable relationships of trust and honest critique. At the same time, I must not solely rely on other people to identify my weaknesses. In particular, in the areas of my identity that I experience privilege, I must not rely on people from historically underprivileged groups to teach me how to improve myself (which is, in and of itself, a practice of privilege).

  7. I can invite critique from my students, and when I do, I can dedicate to listening actively and modeling a willingness to change if necessary.

  8. I can reflect on my own experiences as a student and how those experiences inform my teaching. Research indicates that my teaching is most closely informed by my own experiences as a student (even moreso than my pre-service training). The practice of drawing on these experiences, the positive and the negative, provide important insights regarding my teaching practice.

  9. I can challenge myself to take personal responsibility before looking for fault elsewhere. For example, if I have one student who is falling behind and misbehaving, I will consider what I am doing or not doing that may be contributing to their disengagement before problematizing their behavior or effort.

  10. I can celebrate myself as an educator and total person. I can, and should, also celebrate every moment I spend in self-critique, however difficult and painful, because it will make me a better educator. And that is something to celebrate!

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