Claude Steele, Dean of Graduate School of Education at Stanford, and author of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Times) visited Blake November 5-6th. In addition to his symposium, he met with faculty, staff and administrators, sharing some very powerful, personal experiences and talking about ways to intervene when we feel people in our community are affected by stereotype threat. More importantly, he shared strategies to get us thinking about how we will help rid our school of cues that call up stereotypes about certain groups in the first place.
Steele made it clear that in order to create an educational environment where students can succeed, we have to begin by shifting our perspective. He suggested that as we explore the reasons why students from some groups might be underperforming in our school, we stop looking at the problem from the “observer” perspective where the student is centered in our mind’s eye. This view leads us to a consideration of a student’s skills, abilities, and approach to school and then to findings that are often limited to seeing him/her as the problem to be fixed.
Instead, he suggested we examine the problem from the “actor’s” or student’s perspective, that we stand in his/her shoes, sit in the classroom, walk through the halls, and eat lunch, seeing through his/her eyes. From this point of view, we see the environment, the school community, the social dynamics, teachers, coaches, and the experiences the student is immersed in and navigating everyday. If we look carefully, we can then tease out the reality of triggers that might cue stereotype threat at each stop along the way:
- Does she see herself reflected in the curriculum of her classes, in the teachers, administrators and staff of the school?
- Do assemblies, programs and clubs cater to his needs, interests and passions?
- Do teachers and coaches see the student’s hard work or is he considered to excel or fail because of who he is, rather than what he does? Do they expect him to succeed or fail?
- Do people know her, how she learns best, what makes her laugh, engage, shut down?
- Does he have friends (who are they?), time in the day to follow his passions, connect with people and things he loves?
- What causes her pain, joy, surprise or leads to disconnection in her school encounters?
- What is lunch like for him? Homeroom? Recess?
- What does he do when he gets home? What language does he speak?
- Do her parents are guardians feel comfortable and connected in the school community?
- Does homework engage him? Is it challenging, meaningful or yet another hurdle to leap?
Steele shared how the subject’s perspective allows us to understand how in order to perform at one’s highest level, a student needs a sense of well-being, to be seen and supported, to know his teachers and peers expect the best and are not seeing him through the lens of society’s stereotypes. Then, once we actually better understand the student's experience and lens, we can work to create an environment where the student feels known, connected, and challenged, and is then able to fully engage in the learning process.
The observer’s stance is not inessential; however, it's secondary. Once we truly know the student and have created a safe, connected and fun environment for him to learn, this perspective can allow us to better understand some of the personal hurdles he must be skilled at navigating. It may also help us recognize the symptoms he shows when dealing with stereotype threat and other challenges in the environment, and as we work to change the systemic triggers, to recognize when we are truly successful.
As I think about the work we must continue to do at Blake, Steele’s visit heartens me because we have already begun this journey—examining and revising our curriculum, creating a more visually diverse environment, working with teachers and administrators to investigate their own perspectives and asking them to look critically at what and how they teach. Blake has invested in an infrastructure that can help the school implement necessary changes. We have PK-12 Department Chairs who oversee curriculum and pedagogy and support teacher development. We have the Office of Equity and Community Engagement which supports the school in living its mission, from its policies and practices, to its teacher training; to the opportunities provided for students and families, to the way in which we interact with the communities we inhabit. Blake's mission, values and strategic plan also make it clear that diversity and inclusion are at the heart of what we define as academic excellence. Now, we just have to sustain the work across the institution and find accurate measures of the impact of the changes we are making.