Four years ago, I joined three friends to march on Washington DC in protest of the election of Donald Trump. While distraught at that time given how Trump showed up in his campaign and by the fact that he lost the popular vote by 2.87 million, I was also still naive.
Four years ago, I did not know how fragile our democracy truly was, nor how brazen Trump and his supporters would be in their attack on the basic rights of so many. Since that time, we have seen cruel immigration policies that tore children from their families (and have still not reunited 100's of them), open attacks on people of color, blatant cronyism, and policies that have left us more vulnerable as a nation. Our environment has been traded in for profit, and individuals with the most need now have decreased access to resources. Meanwhile, the rich have gotten far richer. And, in the midst of a pandemic, where other first-world nations have found the means to get it under control, Covid-19 rages unchecked. To date, more than 400,000 people have died in the United States.
Four years ago, I thought that I understood the impact of bias and racism in this country, but my eyes have been opened. I have seen many people, including family members, look the other way while Trump attacked people of color and voiced support for White Supremacists. Trump has emboldened those among us who harbor biases and hate and we are all less safe because of it. While Trump lost the election, more than 74 million Americans voted for him and wanted another four years of the hate, lies, chaos, and blame that have marked the last four. We as a country are deeply divided. There is evidence of that just this week in my small town where a man stood outside with a rifle while a peaceful procession honoring Dr. King passed by.
Today, I join with millions who are breathing a sigh of relief as Trump exits the White House and President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris take the helm. With this transition, we will have our first-ever woman, African American, and South East Asian American Vice President! Today, I can feel the stirrings of hope that we can rebuild our country and heal from the past four years.
Today, however, is not a sign that we can just return to normal. Speaker and activist Sonya Renee Taylor explains where we are so well. She says, "We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature."
The gift of the past fours year is that we as a collective nation see more clearly the destructive impact of hate, systemic racism, and of “othering.” Today, we must find a way to reach across our divides to join together from a place of love and community. Today, we must start to learn from the lessons of our past (and not just the last four years) to reimagine an America that truly embraces and empowers us all. I am deeply inspired to get going and I hope you will join me. We CAN do this!
In recent years, the education community has become increasingly aware of the role that our conscious and unconscious beliefs play not only in how we experience the world but also in how we interact with and affect others. In my mind, understanding our individual and collective beliefs is some of the most important work we can do to transform opportunities for students because beliefs have the power to unlock infinite possibilities or exert profound limitations on our students’ future success. If we want to produce more equitable outcomes for students, as educators we must develop our cultural consciousness and become aware of how our beliefs shape our expectations of students and interactions with parents.
We can define a belief as, “an internal feeling that something is true, even though [it] may be unproven or irrational.” Dr. Sara Truebridge puts a finer point on this definition, stating that beliefs are “thoughts and mindsets that affect our behaviors, [and are] socially constructed and often personal assumptions [and] judgments…that we make about ourselves and the people, places, and things around us.”
The word belief is usually ascribed to one’s morals or values, such as, “It is against my beliefs to…,” or, “I believe that…and therefore I…” We develop beliefs about ourselves and others in response to what we are exposed to, and we use beliefs to help us to understand the level of connection and compatibility we have with others. Beliefs help us to feel safe, attract in the familiar, and to create guidelines that help us to make decisions. People sometimes take huge risks to defend their beliefs, and from my experience, the idea of beliefs is generally treated as a positive thing.
While beliefs can be catalyzing and inspire us to do great things, there is also a “shadow side” to beliefs. Because beliefs create a filter through which we experience the world, they can cloud our judgment and our understanding of ourselves, the people we encounter, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. Beliefs have the power to create invisible barriers that keep us isolated and limit what we think we can accomplish and what we understand to be true about others. Seen from this angle, beliefs are notions that must be brought to light and interrogated so that we can be conscious about how they influence our perceptions and impact others.
Where do beliefs come from?
As we develop from infants to adults, not only do we undergo stages of physical development, but our brains and levels of consciousness transform as well. Sociologist Morris Massey and scientist Dr. Bruce Lipton have independently identified distinct stages of our development and their impact on the formation of our values and beliefs. While their labels for each stage differ, they both assert that beginning at birth, our understanding of the world comes primarily through interactions with our immediate family. As we age, we gradually add in the influence of others within our social circle (such a teachers, religious leaders and peers) until we have formed our sense of self and solidified our beliefs, usually by the time we reach age 20.
Dr. Zaretta Hammond in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2015), identifies culture as the foundation of our values and beliefs. Aligned with Massey’s and Lipton’s theories, Dr. Hammond notes that, “culture…is the way that every brain makes sense of the world,” and that, “the brain uses cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events.” Hammond identifies three levels of culture (surface, shallow and deep), each with an increasingly profound impact on one’s sense of self, feeling of safety and cultural identity.
Our beliefs not only reflect our values and culture, but they also become filters that attract in experiences and create outcomes that mirror and reinforce themselves. For example, if one grows up with messages that they are smart and that they can accomplish anything they desire, then they develop a belief that they are smart and successful. This person will unconsciously replicate this belief throughout their lives, experiencing a sense of empowerment and efficacy that will allow them to accomplish anything they set their mind to. If, on the other hand, one grows up with messages that tell them that they are not smart and that they are doomed to fail, this person will likely encounter constant challenges and will not strive to accomplish lofty goals because they do not see themselves as successful.
Beliefs and Education
Each of us is a product of our shared history in the United States, a history that includes the mass genocide of the Native Americans, enslavement of African Americans, internment of Japanese Americans, and systematized subjugation of the rights of women, and people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transexual, and on racial and socioeconomic lines.
Given that our beliefs and self-conceptions develop in direct response to the information we gain from birth, both from our experiences at home and in society, then we must acknowledge that not only have we been influenced by our parents and community, but also we have been influenced by our collective history of racism and subjugation. The impact of this has influenced both how we see ourselves and how we understand those that do not share our backgrounds.
In schools, I believe that the influence of this shared history shows up in the form of microaggressions, inequitable expectations for students, and instructional techniques that do not reflect or integrate the cultural values of all of our students, among other issues. Dr. Hammond uses brain science to prove that when elements of one’s culture are not respected or come under attack, it sends students into a fight or flight response that prevents them from being able to learn appropriately. This means that whole groups of students in our education system are at risk of not being provided with learning environments that set them up for success.
As educators, it is incumbent upon us to become keenly aware of our perceptions, inherent biases and ways that our upbringing may be influencing how we treat our students. This is not to say that anyone is bad or wrong, as has been demonstrated through the research, we developed many of our beliefs as children and did not choose them. Nonetheless, a core part of our training and responsibility as educators should be to enter into an ongoing process of getting curious about and unpacking our beliefs. We must become aware of how our perceptions and interactions with students influence how we treat them. We must also become aware of how the subtle and overt messages we convey to students impact their sense of self and what they believe they can accomplish.
This is not easy work. Examining our beliefs requires that we question our assumptions and take the risk to acknowledge any biases we may be harboring. Nancy Love notes in, Using Data/Getting Results,
“Most educators believe that their expectations for children have a strong influence on students’ confidence and performance. They are right. Most also believe that teachers have the same expectations for all children, regardless of class, color, and gender. They, unfortunately, are wrong. Now we have decades of research that show that teachers tend to expect less of poor, minority, and female students and treat them differently in the classroom. These students receive less attention, praise, ‘wait time,’ and feedback than their white and male peers. And, because ‘what you expect is what you get,’ students quickly learn to sink to the teachers’ lower standards.”
While this is sobering information, the good news is that we have the tools and capability to change our beliefs and instructional practices. To do this, we must create safe spaces and provide intentional and ongoing training for educators in culturally-responsive instructional strategies and in how to identify, unpack, and transform limiting beliefs. Through this work, not only do we become more empowered to consciously choose our beliefs, but also, we have the potential to change the trajectory of millions of students’ futures.
We are living in dynamic times. Many of us feel persistent levels of anxiety and anger because of what is happening on a national scale to the rights of women, people of color, low-income communities, those who identify as LGBTQ+, and to the basic tenants of our Constitution. Much of our media and attention are drawn to a leader who uses his platform to spread hate and discord. As a result, since President Trump has taken office, hate crimes have been on the rise, and attacks on one another, our failings and mistakes, can go viral overnight. I believe this is true because many of us are releasing our internal pressure valves by mirroring the same hate that we are being inundated with day in and day out.
Our attention is a form of energy and we have a choice over what we feed, the positive or the negative. Right now, many of us are giving our power over to Trump and his cronies by engaging in the same tactics that they are using. While we may be voicing counter arguments in defense of basic human rights, if we do it with hate and fear, we are still contributing that energy to our collective consciousness.
As we continue to fight for our civil liberties, I believe that we also need to take back control of our personal energy and how we interact with one another. Just as I say to my son when he gets drawn into an argument with a classmate at school, we need to rise above the put downs and not lower ourselves to their level. The Obamas have a family phrase, “When they go low, we go high.” In 2019, it is time to go high.
How can we do that? I believe it starts with basic human kindness and making conscious choices about what we give our attention and energy to. Kindness can be defined as being friendly, generous, and considerate. What does kindness look like? It can be smiling at a colleague or a stranger, truly listening to some one share about their lives, or simply saying hello to the people we pass by at work. It can be anonymous, like the woman in my community who writes positive phrases in chalk all over town. One of those phrases is featured in the header for this article, and every time I read one, my mood is lifted. It can be volunteering our time at a local charity or just being more patient and gentle with ourselves.
The best thing about kindness is that it is free, can be expressed in a way that reflects our personal values, and is scientifically proven to have a positive impact. Research into kindness has shown that it reduces the effects of stress, improves our moods, and boosts our immunity.* Kindness is also contagious. A joint study by Harvard and the University of California San Diego found that kind acts had a ripple effect that reached out to at least three degrees of separation!* This means when we demonstrate kindness, the people we show that kindness to pass it along to those they interact with, and so on.
So, in addition to celebrating love on Valentine’s Day, let’s make February the month of love. Let’s try to find at least one way that we can contribute more love and kindness to the world each day. Let’s bring our focus onto positive and life-affirming things to balance out our attention on national and world events.
For me, this means that I am going to take a 28-day break from complaining and voicing negativity. I am going to do my best to keep my attention on all the things that are going right, and on all that I am grateful for. I am also going to share this positivity outward by posting stories of everyday love and kindness in my social media feeds. Some of these examples affected me deeply, others just made me smile, and I hope they will have a positive impact you too! I truly believe that spreading more love and kindness is a simple and easy way to shift the energy of our whole country, and I hope you’ll join me!
*Science of People (2019). Blog article: Kindness: Six selfish reasons to always be kind to others. Viewed on the internet on January 29, 2019, https://www.scienceofpeople.com/kindness/.
Since the lead up to the 2016 election and for the two years since, we have all been inundated with messages of hate, division, and fear. When our leaders show such callous regard for basic human decency, for honesty and integrity, we cannot be surprised when the rest of the country follows suit. This time in our country (and in the world) can feel frightening and disorienting—like we’re in an Alice in Wonderland kind of alternate reality; where what’s down is up, where what’s wrong is right, and where, what we assumed were common standards for behavior, no longer apply.
Here’s the thing though, when we point fingers, wring our hands, and mock our current leadership, we’re only making things worse. The Obamas have a phrase, “When they go low, we go high.” For them, this means that when their detractors spread lies or discord about them, they rise above it. Rather than defending themselves or attacking back, they keep to the high road of truth and decency.
As a country, it’s time for us all to go high. When we spread mean memes about the President or the Republican leadership, we’re also guilty of sending messages of hate. When we refuse to speak to those who still support this administration, we’re helping to build the wall. Our self-righteous indignation can be just as divisive as their biased views. Our refusal to see the commonalities we share with people whose beliefs differ from our own makes us guilty of the same kind of judgments that are threatening some of our civil liberties.
In this time of so much hate and fear, we need to respond with more empathy and kindness. This is not to say that we should stop voicing our concerns. We must continue to fight to protect the rights of all who live in the United States—to ensure that people from all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and countries of origin have equal rights and equitable access to opportunity. I’m not advocating for passivity. I am saying that part of the action we take must include making a conscious effort not to mimic the same hate speech, isolationism, and bias that is being exhibited by many of our leaders.
Van Jones, author, speaker, and CNN commentator does a beautiful job describing what I mean. Check out this clip of a recent speech he gave on empathy. Going high isn't easy—at least not for me. I am angry and frightened, and like a wounded animal, my impulse is to isolate and defend myself. As much as I'd like to stay in my corner and prepare for battle, however, I need to remember that the people I am most upset with share that same impulse. When we attack one another, we become more entrenched and the divide between us widens. To heal our country, we must remember our common humanity and seek to understand one another--to disagree with love and to enter into debate about the issues with curiosity. Energy is catching. While the president and many of our leaders hold sway over the country, we hold sway too. Compassion can spread just as effectively as hate.
In the midst of all of the challenges in our country, I decided to enter my local school board race. This is an article I wrote in response to persistent debates about the qualifications of each candidate. This was written in the immediate aftermath of Justice Ginsberg’s death.
This week, as we honor the profound legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, we are also seeing increased threats to the basic civil liberties of women, people of color, and those who identify as LGBTQ+. Senate Republicans are going back on their words from just four years ago, where they said that placing a new justice on the Supreme Court should not happen during the same year as a presidential election. Instead, they are seeking to push their nomination through as soon as possible, many vowing to approve the nominee even before they know who it is. On the line are issues such as universal health care, women’s reproductive rights, and much more. At the same time, President Trump announced this week that he is expanding his ban on racial sensitivity training and instead is seeking to promote “patriotic education.” In these actions, he is trying to rewrite history and to squash discourse about the systemic racism that has plagued this land even before the United States was formed.
As I consider the national debates about equity and representation, I cannot help but connect them with the election I am involved with at home--my run for a seat on the School Board in Alameda Unified School District (AUSD). Many Alamedans are debating the merits of each candidate, wondering which combination of us is best positioned to support AUSD during this tumultuous time. Justice Ginsberg said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made...It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” This premise is so simple and applies to all groups of people--representation matters. With a current female-majority school board, and with five of the seven candidates being women, I am heartened to know that women will be well represented in AUSD. This is how it should be--in a female-dominated profession such as education, males have historically held most of the leadership positions, so having a majority-female board is a powerful indicator that women’s voices increasingly matter in the places where decisions are made.
Representation also matters for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and as well as for people who identify as LGBTQ+. I have learned through my career leading educational initiatives at the school, district, or state-level that discussions about the issues at stake, inclusive of all of those impacted by those decisions, is the best way to ensure that we develop lasting and equitable outcomes for students.
As a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman in this work, I have been on a journey to understand my own biases and how they influence the way I interpret the world and the people I encounter. In this journey, I have also sought to understand what I represent to those who do not share my identity, and how to be an ally to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. For a long time, I thought that the best way for me to be an ally was to use my voice to speak on their behalf in the places where I held influence. While this kind of advocacy is needed, I have come to understand that my allyship does not replace the direct experiences and impact that people from those communities bring to the table. Rather than speaking for others, I now understand that one of the most significant ways for me to use my privilege is to make space at the table for underrepresented groups to speak for themselves.
Representation matters among our leaders not only because people from underrepresented communities can draw upon their experiences to shape our policies, but also because they open the door to increased engagement from those who share their backgrounds. Further, representation signals that all identities matter, are welcomed, and valued. What a powerful and essential message to send during this time, especially to our children.
Because of the detrimental impact of bias, racism, and white supremacy in our country, we must create safe spaces for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, families, and staff to share their insights and ideas, and we need people who share their identities to support and guide this work. Alameda Unified will be a stronger, more community-centered district with increased representation of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC individuals at every level of our system, including at the school board. While it might seem counterintuitive for me to stress that representation matters since it could divert votes away from me, there are bigger issues at stake than my personal political gain. If 2020 has taught me nothing else, our unity as a country requires that we step outside of our own interests and work towards the common good of all. My support for Alameda has grown stronger than ever through this election process, and I vow to remain in the work no matter the outcome of the election.
Educating our youth is a calling, one that draws some of the most hard-working and dedicated people around. We enter this field with our eyes wide open that the pay is low and the work hours are long. Most of us also understand that educating our students will take all the love, attention, and energy we can spare. Education is a calling because, despite all these things, we do it anyway.
While educators are incredibly giving towards their students, we don’t treat ourselves with the same level of care. Overwork is a badge of honor that many of us wear proudly. We tend to equate the number of hours we put in as a measure of our (and our peer’s) dedication to our students.
The thing is, this kind of logic just doesn’t make sense. In a job where the physical, mental, and emotional demands are so high, how can we possibly continue to give our all every day if we have not spent time taking care of ourselves? If we imagine our reserves of energy like a bucket, we cannot continue to give from that bucket without refilling it. Many of us, however, empty our buckets and continue pushing forward without taking the time to rest and rejuvenate. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that we are prone to burnout and often leave the profession just a few years after entering it.
It’s time that educators start filling their buckets by embracing self-care and self-compassion. Self-care means caring for oneself. Examples of self-care include getting enough rest, exercise, and healthy foods. Self-compassion means treating oneself with patience, kindness, and understanding. When we practice self-compassion, we use our mistakes as opportunities to soften and be vulnerable. Instead of beating ourselves up, we show ourselves heaps of love.
Dr. Kristin Neff is a self-compassion researcher, author, and professor. According to Neff, developing our self-compassion is important because it is linked to reductions in anxiety, depression, stress, over-thinking, perfectionism, shame, and negative body image (Neff, 2013). Additionally, research conducted by Juliana Breines and Serena Chen (2012) has shown that when we show ourselves compassion after a setback, we are more likely to take action towards improving in the future. In short, self-compassion helps us to feel better, rebound from our challenges, and fuels us to keep going down the path of self-improvement.
So how can you start showing yourself care and compassion right now?
In the end, learning to take better care of ourselves will enable us to continue to do what we love—educating kids! If we don’t, then we will continue to burn ourselves out, and the churn of teacher and leader turnover will maintain the revolving door of people in and out of our students’ lives. Our kids suffer when they experience persistent changes in teachers and teacher quality. Schools cannot maintain strong academic programs if the leadership changes year after year. If we really want to stay in our calling and educate our youth, we must learn to take care of ourselves first. Our students will thank us for it.
Breines, J. & Chen, S. (2012). “Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 38(9) 1133–1143.
Neff, K. (2013). “Resilience and self-compassion” [lecture]. Empathy and Compassion in Society