by Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas
For many, the last year and a half has felt like an eternity. Many students’ identities have been battered during the pandemic by depression, isolation, and grief. One study found higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts by children ages 11-21 during the pandemic. Consider the mixed emotions students may feel as they return to school. Even for adults, it has felt both exhilarating and scary to go out in public and socialize again; students are likely to share these anxieties. However, as educators we can make the return to a new school year a joyous time by creating identity safe spaces where students are welcomed and accepted, and where they know that who they are and what they think and feel matters.
The Path to Healing for Ourselves and Our Students
The first step in helping our students to heal is to examine our identities and begin our own healing. We’ve all experienced recent traumas in both our personal lives and collectively through racism, sexism, environmental disasters, and from the pandemic. Without examining ourselves and doing our own healing work, we risk enacting coping patterns that perpetuate harm. To begin our own healing we can engage in self-care practices that nurture our bodies, minds, and hearts, including:
· Making sure we have the nutrition, exercise, and sleep we need
· Expressing feelings with people we trust
· Socializing and having fun
We also need to watch for emotional triggers when we become stressed and allow time for breaks, meditation, or self-reflection to strengthen our resilience and avoid burnout. Ultimately, our self-care practices benefit not only ourselves but also our students.
Ignoring Differences is a Barrier to Inclusion
The pandemic magnified social inequalities. Many people of lower income—disproportionately within Black and Brown communities—did not have the luxury of staying at home during the worst of the pandemic. Students of lower income tended to lack sufficient resources to learn online. We have been forced to face the reality of an unlevel playing field in which Black and Brown people experience higher COVID deaths, infant mortality rates, and shorter life spans. Statistically, they also earn less than white people in similar jobs and are arrested and sent to death row at disproportionate rates. In schools, students of color are suspended and expelled more frequently.
Ignoring cultural, racial, and ethnic differences does not increase inclusivity, in the classroom or elsewhere. On the contrary, social scientists have discovered that in colorblind spaces where people’s social identities are ignored, they don’t feel fully included. Identity safety research has shown that when each student’s identity is valued and where they learn to accept others, they thrive and do better in school.
Start the Year with Trust, Compassion, and Identity Safety
Alex Creer Kahn (Esensten, 2020) suggests, “Being intentional about learning to properly pronounce students’ names, using appropriate pronouns, and being aware of and responding to biased comments (helps) create environments where students feel valued for who they are.” Matt, a high school social studies teacher, starts each year by having students examine their identities and interview family and neighbors about their lives (Cohn-Vargas et al, 2021). He then brings in works of literature by authors of many backgrounds. As a result, trust is built, and stereotypes break down as students of different backgrounds get to know each other.
Emotional safety emerges through a student-centered curriculum that draws from each student’s unique personality, background, and needs. Invite students to share their feelings and experiences during the pandemic. A caring environment includes:
● setting clear expectations for respectful interactions while giving students a voice in designing classroom norms;
● seeking to equalize status within the classroom while fostering positive student-student relationships;
● addressing micro-aggressions, bullying, and biased behaviors thoughtfully by not only making classrooms but hallways and schoolyards safe for everyone;
● teaching students to be anti-racist and combat bias as upstanders who speak up and stand up for themselves and others; and
● showing students that you love them and have their backs.
A student-centered curriculum infuses academic and social emotional learning throughout the day, engaging students by:
● teaching with a growth mindset and ensuring them that mistakes are learning opportunities;
● incorporating diversity as a resource for learning by having students see people who look like them in pictures on the wall, in literature, and across your curriculum;
● building a culture of collaboration by teaching specific communication, cooperation, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills;
● helping students learn history from multiple perspectives, including the contributions and accomplishments of communities that are often portrayed only as victims, and the realities of oppression that need to change to ensure equity for people of all races and backgrounds.
Leaders Set the Stage
In caring communities, everyone can guide a path to healing and resilience as schools reopen. A few ideas include:
● designing professional development and dialogue about equity so everyone is on the same page;
● examining discipline policies to guarantee they are applied in fair and equitable ways;
● ensuring assessment systems promote growth, creating identity safe formative assessments, and giving positive feedback that affirms student effort and progress;
● launching authentic partnerships with students’ families by getting to know their communities, neighborhoods, and parents/caregivers, ; and
● listening to and elevating all voices.
We have a unique opportunity this fall to come back stronger from tragedy through collaborative efforts for schoolwide identity safety. You can learn more and find specific strategies in these three books about identity safe classrooms and schools.
Cohn-Vargas, B., Creer Kahn, A., Epstein, E. and Gogolewski, K. (2021). Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools: A Guide for Educational Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Esensten, A. (2020, July 9). Black Jewish Educator Advocates for More Inclusive Classrooms.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D., is the co-author of Identity Safe Classrooms, Grades K-5: Pathways to Belonging and Learning, Identity Safe Classrooms, Grades 6-12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning and Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools: A Guide for Educational Leaders. In addition, she presents internationally at conferences and provides professional development in schools and districts. For over 35 years, she worked as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and university professor. In each setting, she focused on educational equity and effective strategies for diverse populations. For more information, visit beckicohnvargas.com.