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Correcting Inequity in Our Schools

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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Illo of an ant carrying an elephant

Fifty years ago, in June 1965, President Lyndon Johnson made a commencement speech to Howard University. He said, in part:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "You are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

This belief Johnson addresssed is still too prevalent. It creates victim blaming and pessimism. And it provides a reason why social-emotional and character competencies (emotional intelligence, to some) are so important in educators' work.

Though there are some deniers, inequity cannot be denied, and it is deepening. Further, inequity is insidious because it leads to a pedagogy of pessimism. Gradually, folks don't expect much from certain others and don't believe there will be follow through.

Hardworking educators are not met halfway and instead see a lack of enthusiasm and engagement. It's natural to begin to think, "Why go the extra mile for children who don't seem to want to go the extra yard -- for their own best interests or the best interests of their loved ones?"

We must counter what I call the pedagogy of pessimism with an attitude of optimism and the enhancement of human dignity. These factors matter with respect to the ultimate outcomes of what we do in each and all of our classrooms and schools.

Equity Area #1: Build Social-Emotional and Character Competencies

Part of the attitude of optimism is to ensure that all students have the social and emotional skills and character they need for success in school and life. President Johnson knew, half a century ago, that equity demands thorough preparation. How many schools cut back on their SEL and character efforts in favor of test preparation drills?

We see the negative consequences of this in our schools, where we know that pushing students in test prep that will make little difference in their scores mainly allows us to evade blame for their continued failure. Too often, students have stopped being children to us -- instead, they are test scores, and who needs to establish relationships with test scores?

When we build relationships with students, we communicate that they have positive possibilities. And to enact possibilities in life, students require both SEL and strength of character. These are the competencies that undergird success in any life endeavor and resilience in the face of frustration.

So the first order of equity is to make sure that all children have all the requisite skills needed for success in life -- and that includes social-emotional and character competencies. Without these, academic abilities will rarely come to fruition, and likely will add to the already alarming dropout rates from higher education.

Equity Area #2: Treat All Others with Dignity

The second arena of equity is human dignity. When you and I work in schools, we are at the front lines of preserving human dignity. But we cannot be concerned only with our own actions. Ultimately, we can't be any more effective than those in the classroom next door, those who administer or supervise, those working in the school office, or those monitoring hallways, lunchtime, and recess.

We must function as a village, and we must allow those we work with to feel embraced by our village. As Maya Angelou said, people want to know you care before they will truly hear what you have to say.

How we do can't be separated from what we do. You have all been to restaurants where you are greeted sincerely, or in a perfunctory manner. We have all entered houses of worship where the way we are greeted shapes our subsequent comfort, receptivity, and experience.

And we have all been in doctors' offices, banks, and places of business where the way we are treated was a turn-off or an encouragement.

The reality is that the coldness of the few can offset the caring of the many. When we are encouraged, we listen more carefully, are more likely to follow suggestions, and even ask questions when we are not sure. There is research to support this, and you know it from your own experience.

So the second order of equity is to exhibit caring and kindness regardless of response, and to see the glass as half full, a quarter full, a tenth full -- in other words, in an optimistic mode. Only by our working together do we have a chance of restoring the confidence that inequity robs.

Equity Area #3: Political Action Is Needed

Finally, the third order of equity recognizes the need for political as well as educational solutions. A history of inequity supports the persistence of pessimism and ensures that a vicious cycle of failure will continue.

The ongoing and accelerating lack of equity experienced by many of those with whom you, and I, work requires redress in policy and regulation. We cannot accomplish this in our roles in schools, but rather in our roles outside the school, as citizens and advocates.

However, while that process moves forward, we must face the children in our schools with an attitude of optimism -- a commitment to systematically build their social-emotional and character competencies.

We must also commit to a determination to give the benefit of the doubt even when we have doubt, and relate with genuine warmth and support to all, and especially those whom we may have discounted in the past.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

If you want students to become knowledgeable, they must be ready and motivated to learn, and capable of integrating new information into their lives. If you want students to become responsible, they must be able to understand risks and opportunities, and be motivated to choose actions and behaviors that serve not only their own interests but those of others. If you want students to become caring, they must be able to see beyond themselves and appreciate the concerns of others.

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