Group of school students

My Awakening to Equity

by Jill Eggleton

As I contemplate writing this article in the midst of a global pandemic, I am deeply moved to think about the enormity of the challenges teachers have encountered and continue to do so. I am in awe of your resilience in the face of change.

I know teachers, and I know that you are passionate, compassionate, kind, and caring — and that you desire, above all else, to improve the learning outcomes of every one of your students, regardless of race or background. I am confident that in this year, as in all years, you are striving for equity among diversity.

The world was a different place when I began my teaching journey. While I know I had a huge desire to do my best for each child in my classroom, I think I was ignorant of the word equity and what this actually meant. It wasn’t a word mentioned in those days.

Today, however, we are aware of the increasing diversity among students in our classrooms. We are aware of the challenge for educators to ensure that every student has the support to be successful. Simply put, every student, regardless of cultural background, deserves an equal chance for success.

Seeds of awareness

When I look back on my struggling beginnings as a classroom teacher, while I was ignorant of equity and what it involved, I am thankful for a seed of something in my soul that caused me to reflect on what and how I was teaching students whose cultural background was very different from my own.

Jill Eggleton and her class at Waima school
My class at Waima. I am seated with the children, and standing behind me is a parent, grandparent, my teacher assistant and respected elder. The baby in the photo is my son, Kyle, who was part of our classroom from the age of one. He was so touched by the people in this district that many years later he returned as a doctor, and in 2020, he completed his Ph.D. based on unconscious bias in the field of medicine.

As young teachers, my husband and I taught in a two-teacher school in the very North of New Zealand. The students here were all Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. My husband and I are white New Zealanders of European descent. I look back on those teaching days as one of the most profound teaching experiences in my career.

“It was here in this school that I felt the stirrings of something in my soul — a realization of the need to make my teaching practice reflect the needs, passions and cultural backgrounds of the children who bounced eagerly through my classroom door, trusting me to teach them.”

In reflection, I probably began this teaching job with an unconscious bias, but these students taught me so much. I learned I needed to adapt and change my teaching practice to align with their cultural background. It was here, I believe, that the first seed of awareness was sown of the need to know my learners — really know my learners, not just in the classroom, but beyond the classroom walls.

I discovered it was impossible to teach children whose cultural backgrounds are different from your own if you don’t really know them and their world. This is what helps to erode unconscious bias.

It was in my efforts to teach these students to read, that I first encountered inequity, although I was unaware of the terminology then. The Department of Education in New Zealand provided every school with free reading material, but this free reading material made no sense in the lives of these students. The characters in the stories were white and middle class. The families were typically two parents in conventional roles, with two children — a Peter and a Sally. These children were prim and perfect, with smart clothes and shoes on their feet. They lived in a neat street in a neat house with their own perfect bedrooms and went on outings to the town or the beach in a ‘respectable’ car.

The brown-eyed children in my class had vastly different home lives. I remember them coming to school in winter, walking over the icy grass with no shoes. I remember their homes bursting with whanau (family) — grandparents, uncles, aunts and anyone who needed a place to shelter. I remember their modes of transport — sometimes a horse, tractor, or maybe a car in need of repair. Above all, I remember their huge smiles and their eagerness to come to school, their sense of humor, their caring and sharing.

But seared in my memory is the anguish I felt when I couldn’t engage them or teach them to read with the material provided by the ignorance of an education system that did not then understand ‘equity.’

“If children don’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

– Ignacio Estrada

It was here in this school that I felt the stirrings of something in my soul — a realization of the need to make my teaching practice reflect the needs, passions and cultural backgrounds of the children who bounced eagerly through my classroom door, trusting me to teach them.

Ignacio Estrada said, “If children don’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” This is being mindful of equity.

Teaching the way they learn

Sounds of books by Bill Martin Jnr.
Sounds of Language books by Bill Martin, Jr.

I introduced the approach of shared reading using stories such as Bill Martin’s rhythmical, rhyming texts, which I laboriously enlarged into books they could all see. Every day we would chant the words together, moving to the rhythms of these excellently crafted stories. 

While I didn’t have the courage, being still an emerging teacher, to abandon entirely the boring, culturally insensitive supplied material, I spent a great deal of the reading time with my created texts. Why? Because my children were engaged, they were having success, and I intrinsically knew that every child needs to know success. This is a hallmark of equity. 

It was about this time on my teaching journey that I began to read Teacher, by Sylvia Ashton Warner, and her beliefs resonated with me because the children she was teaching were from the same cultural backgrounds as the children in my class.

Her methods arose out of warmth and passion, rather than out of mere theory. She called her teaching ‘Organic Teaching,’ believing it had to be particularly centered around the culture the children had sprung from, rather than being imposed from above in a kind of educational imperialism. 

I was greatly influenced by Sylvia Ashton Warner and her vision. This vision was to enable all children, regardless of culture or race, to take hold of the great joy of reading and writing. In an extract from her book, Teacher, she says,

Sylvia Ashston Warner's book, Teacher

What a dangerous activity reading is; teaching is. 

All this plastering on of foreign stuff. Why plaster on at all when there’s so much inside already. So much locked in? If only I could get it out and use it as working material. And not draw it out either. If I had a light enough touch it would just come out under its own volcanic power. 

The reaching out for a book needs to become an organic action. Deadly dull reading material, dead vocabulary. I’m so afraid of it. It’s like a frame over a young tree making it grow in an unnatural shape.

Sylvia Ashton Warner knew about how young children come to be writers. First and foremost, she believed that writing must come from the child’s own experience.

I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, whether it is good or bad stuff, violent or placid stuff.

You never want to say that it’s good or bad. That’s got nothing to do with it. You’ve got no right at all to criticize the content of another’s mind. A child doesn’t make his own mind. It’s just there. Your job is to see what’s in it.

The role of a teacher, striving for equity in 2021, hasn’t changed since Sylvia Ashton Warner wrote the words all those years ago — the job of the teacher is to discover what is in the mind of each individual child, and how best that child can be empowered to succeed in the classroom and beyond. 

It is only as we make that determined effort to understand all cultures different from our own that we reach across the divides with deep understanding and respect. Our cognizance of equity ensures that the frame over the young trees in our classrooms will not make them grow in an unnatural shape, but rather support them in growing strong roots and branches that reach for the sky.

Reflections on equity

I am thankful that throughout my teaching journey I have gravitated towards teaching those children whose cultural backgrounds were different from my own. I am thankful, because these children have opened my eyes and opened my heart. They have given me a greater understanding that every child needs an equal chance for success. They have made me aware of the existence of unconscious bias and a determination to know — really know — my learners both inside and outside the classroom walls.

After teaching a few years, I wrote this simple poem as a reflection. And although simplistic in its content, it reminded me each year of the brevity of time we have with our children and of how we need to remain focused on what is important to engage them in the learning process.

Three children give Jill a hug during her visit to their class in South Africa
What Did I Teach?

I scan the sea of faces
Different cultures,
Different races.
Like tiny grains of sand
upon a beach,
they slip quickly through
your fingers.
Only a memory lingers,
And I wonder,
Yes I wonder,
What did I teach?

Did I read to them enough?
Did we laugh at silly stuff?
Did I give them goals 
achievable to reach?
They’ve slipped quickly through
my fingers,
Only a memory lingers,
And I wonder,
Yes, I wonder,
What did I teach?

– Jill Eggleton, 1971

I am hoping that this simple question, What did I teach? might evoke reflection for you and that in the face of all your daily issues and challenges, you will be encouraged to focus on what it really means to teach. Believe in yourself and your amazing ability to meet the needs and touch the heart of every child, for when we touch the heart of a child, we leave handprints on their soul.

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