Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Essential Lists to Create Change"...In an age of instant and profound transformation.

Lists like this abound. Although well-intentioned, vague lists like this can be more dangerous than they are helpful. As an indigenous-Latina with strong European ancestry I know about straddling two cultures. My father's culture, Quechua Indian with Bolivian heritage is a communal culture where the strength is prized in the group. In my mother's European heritage, with the dominating spirit of the early pilgrims and subsequent puritans the strength of this culture is independence and individualistic efforts. So how the world is viewed and interacted with is very different to each. 

When you translate this into reforming school policy in an attempt to make schools more equitable, we have to be careful that we recognize the power of culture, the hidden belief systems held within each culture and how to honor these differences. 

For example, asking schools to make as a non-negotiable the importance of creating a warm and welcoming environment in and of itself is not bad. However, when it comes to implementing this, you have a very different picture. 

When I worked coordinating parent involvement at a school district, of course we visited this important list of non-negotiables, and more. According to research, the number one reason that influences parent involvement is creating a welcoming environment . So how to do this? I would sit with the school leadership team and we would pore over the research and these lists of non-negotiables, and school staff would say, "We do have a welcoming environment!" Here's what they do:
  • We send out flyers to invite them to meetings
  • We tell them about our events
  • We have pictures of staff on our walls
  • We have positive messages and decorations
  • We have back-to-school night
And on and on. And yes, these are wonderful efforts to invite families to your campus, if they are from your cultural script. In the dominant culture of our country - white, middle class values and beliefs - this is a great list. To each of these you could subscribe a belief system from this cultural group, in particular individualism. The flyer is to the point and it's up to you as an individual to make it happen. If you want to speak up at the meetings as an individual, you do. Staff pictures tell you about those in charge. Again, each of these subscribe to a belief system from this cultural group. But what if you serve people who are not from that cultural group? What if you serve people whose cultural group has very different norms of behavior and belief systems? Then these messages don't say the same thing. 

When I was a teacher, like all teachers, I was constantly moving from the moment I arrived on campus until late into the afternoon. I also knew the importance of developing relationships with the families of those I was serving. One day, as I ran from the staff lounge to my classroom, I heard someone call out to me.

Buenos Dias Ms. Marañón! I turned around and saw parents waving at me through the gates. 

A common response would be to wave back, "Hello, sorry I have to get ready for the day!"

I knew better.

I ran over to them to shake their hand and respond, "Buenos Dias! Disculpe que tengo que preparar la clase." 
"No se preocupe, anda, no mas queríamos saludarla!"

And with that brief interaction I gained countless hours. I knew from my home training that taking those few moments to shake their hand, say good morning and than politely excuse myself to set up my morning class spoke volumes about how important they were to me. 

When you come from a communal culture, relationships are everything. 

If I want you to join me in a meeting, I invite you personally and I greet you at the door with a warm handshake to welcome you. Food is waiting for you so that you have a nice drink and light snack while we meet and discuss ideas. Food is not there because I know that's why you'll come, but because I understand that food always helps create a warm and welcoming environment. Who we serve matters, not who's serving. Pictures of students and families and all the myriad activities that they're engaged in with our staff would abound. There is not just one night to engage with families on our year's learning, there are multiple moments and times to meet and connect around student learning. 

So when we say, Create a warm and welcoming environment, Develop students as good people and learners...we have to be very careful not to treat these as blithe statements, when in reality they are profound and require deep digging. How you interpret a warm and welcoming environment is different for each culture. What does it mean to develop a student into a good person and learner? Somebody who follows the rules? Someone who sits quietly and takes good notes and responds well on tests? Because these are not the people we venerate in history. These are not the people who created change in history. 

Non-negotiables in schools are a willingness to question, develop meaningful relationships with those we serve, learn to re-create and co-create our learning culture again and again as times change, people change and how we show up to our core values may also change. Our core values may not change, but how you approach them may. And probably most important of all, know that if we truly desire a learning culture, it means learning: make mistakes, listen with empathy, change course when needed.  

At the core of all of these statements is the true belief in equality. If I value you as equal to me, than learning your cultural language, your cultural norms, inviting you to help me co-create our shared learning culture that impacts someone we both love the most - your student - is not too much, nor too much trouble.