By Rebecca Atkins and Alicia Oglesby | October 2019
Imagine that you are sitting in your school’s school improvement team meeting. As a team, you discuss schoolwide data and create a plan to address areas of need. When it’s time to discuss behavior, your administrator shows office referral data disaggregated by race. Your team begins a discussion around a hypothesis for this behavior discrepancy. You notice a pattern of exclusion (those are the kids that are bused in), misunderstanding (it’s probably because their parents don’t care how they act), and denial (we’ve tried everything but there’s nothing we can do). As a school counselor, what do you do to advocate for your students in this space?
We are often in meetings or collaborative spaces where educators of all types – administrators, teachers, counselors, support staff – are hyper-focused on a student’s behavior. Have you ever been in a meeting where a list of students with concerning characteristics was distributed and the first actionable step of the educators was to stop and reflect on their biases before they begin to discuss each student? Probably not. We are not accustomed to reflecting first when we are considering what we perceive as problem behavior in children. However, we can interrupt our biases to create a more equitable environment for problem solving.
During leadership team meetings, one of the first questions we can ask of the group is “Who is not here?” By asking this question, we acknowledge that perhaps everyone’s voice within the school system is not heard. As often as possible, we want to include and invite other participants into the conversation about students. Before each meeting, ask,
Who needs to be there? Who has relevant input and why?
At what point do we include the student’s perspective?
Why is mom or dad not here? Do we need to hear their perspectives about their child?
How will parents feel most comfortable sharing their thoughts?
Do we not want to hear from parents/guardians? Why or why not?
We know that there are complexities and nuances related to student behavior and that histories within communities are relevant to what happens in the present day. We want these truths to inform our decisions. When we invite student voice, we are respectful of students' lived experiences and students can actually agree to next steps, even consequences. In our ability to reasonably make conclusions with necessary voices at the table, we are able to achieve true equity. Equity that, to students, feels like fairness.
Action Step: Include the voices of all students and families in school decision making.
Problem-solving meetings around behavior can start in a place of bias. Educational institutions are inherently biased toward students who can sit in a chair, listen quietly and raise their hand to speak only when called upon to do so. Educators have a bias of assuming that these students are well-behaved, well-adjusted, smart, understand the content, and self-managing. As we continue to unpack those beliefs, we should spend equal time reflecting on our education from kindergarten through 12th grade. We should reflect on our growth and how educators responded to us. Not often are we, as educators, asked to share details about our upbringing in schools. Imagine how your experience may have been different from that of Ruby Bridges, LeBron James or Hillary Clinton. What were they like as second graders? What were you like as a second grader and how different is that from who you are now? Perspective taking removes us from auto-pilot educating. We can unfairly form a child’s narrative based on who they are while they are within our field of vision. We may believe other educators’ opinions without question. Let’s start pausing to ask more critical questions, such as “If this student called her teacher a bad word, what kind of relationship do they have? A contentious one? How does the teacher typically interact with the student? Is this kid just having a really bad day? Are we contributing to making this kid’s day more awful?”
Action Step: How you interpret and make sense of events changes your response. Reflect on the stories that we tell about our students and purposefully increase the positive stories you tell.
As school counselors, we can advocate for our students by increasing student and family voice and exploring the stories that we, as a school staff, tell about students. Consider how you can take action on behalf of your students today. A phone call to touch base with the family of a student who is having a hard time or has been really succeeding can be enough to hear what the student and their family need from the school. Being the one to share the positive aspects of a student (or group of students) when a negative narrative is leading the conversation can alter the trajectory of that conversation. Interruption can have a big impact on student outcomes.
Rebecca Atkins, M.Ed., NBCT, is senior administrator for school counseling with the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina. Contact her at email@example.com. Alicia Oglesby is director of school and college counseling at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md. They are the co-authors of "Interrupting Racism: Equity and Justice in School Counseling."