Equity and Mindfulness

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Culturally Responsive Mindfulness: Strategies for Teachers and Students

With all of the challenges and changes our schools and educational communities have faced since March 2020, it might be difficult to parse exactly what has happened since then. To start, reflect for a moment on the progress you have made. Take note of how you have shown up for your students despite everything that has occurred. Also consider: In what areas are you still working, still learning, and still growing? One aspect of the past year’s social, economic, and political upheavals that requires each of us to commit to more growth and consistent learning is the fight for equity and racial justice in our schools. As students face barriers accessing online learning and the spotlight is on the systemic injustices in our society, prioritizing equity in the classroom is of utmost importance. Together, we need to recommit to advancing equity and inclusion in schools across the country.

Jenny Muñiz of New America, a civic innovation and policy think tank, writes that “school segregation is [currently] on the rise. Far too many Black, Indigenous, and other youth of color lack access to educational resources, including technology, enrichment activities, suitable school buildings, and diverse and effective
teachers” (2020, p. 2). What’s more, she notes that these students of color are being held back because there are lower expectations for them than for their white counterparts. In addition, students of color often face exclusionary disciplinary practices and learn from curricula that neglect their backgrounds and cultures, leaving them on the margins of education and putting them at a significant disadvantage in school and beyond. The students who are more likely to find themselves on the margins of education have some common attributes (Milner, 2018):

• English is not the first language
• Low socioeconomic status
• Student of color
• Learning differences
• Marginalized and underserved due to their immigration status, sexual orientation, religious preferences, and/or geographic location

Compounding the collective trauma of the pandemic, BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) students are disproportionately impacted by additional traumas related to circumstances outside of their control (Quirk, 2020). For Black students, there are complex issues surrounding a well-founded distrust of government and the medical profession, social and racial injustice, and dealing with the emboldening of hate groups (Bridges, 2018). Given that the Black population has been impacted by COVID-19 at much greater rates than other racial or ethnic groups, Black students are more likely to be returning to school after having experienced deep, personal, pandemic-related trauma (Thebault et al., 2020).

Latinx students are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with higher rates of death and serious illness than white students (Baker & Snyder, 2020). Asian students have also faced unique challenges. Racist labeling of the coronavirus as “Chinese” and conspiracies suggesting that the virus was intentionally spread by China has led to racist abuse against many people of Asian descent, including Chinese immigrants and those from Southeast Asian (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Each of these elements have made an already traumatic shared experience uniquely painful for BIPOC students.

The pandemic has also worsened inequities of access for BIPOC students. They are already twice as likely to face food insecurity, and this has been exacerbated by the closing of schools and students’ resulting isolation (Silva, 2020). Access to technology and academic support has also proven challenging. BIPOC students are more likely to lack adequate access to the technology that they need for remote learning, and as a result will face long-term impacts caused by the inevitable loss of learning opportunities (Chandra et al., 2020).

As educators, we can address many of these equity issues by implementing culturally responsive teaching practices in our in-person, virtual, and hybrid classrooms.

What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) defines culturally responsive teaching as resting on “three criteria or propositions: (a) students must experience academic success; (b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and (c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order.” She notes that the two key tenets of culturally responsive pedagogy are to keep students as the subjects of their own education and to utilize students’ culture as a vehicle for learning (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 2014). Culturally responsive teaching requires adopting a cultural difference perspective rather than a cultural deficit one; that is, students’ culture should be viewed and leveraged as an asset to their learning. Culturally responsive teaching, then, uses students’ cultural knowledge, experience, and perspectives in instruction to increase relevance and efficacy of student learning (Gay, 2000).

Muñiz (2019) suggests eight core competencies for culturally responsive teachers:

  1. Recognize and redress bias in the system
  2. Draw on students’ culture to shape curriculum and instruction
  3. Bring real-world issues into the classroom
  4. Model high expectations for all students
  5. Promote respect for student differences
  6. Collaborate with families and the local community
  7. Communicate in linguistically and culturally responsive ways
  8. Reflect on one’s cultural lens

Whether you are just beginning your journey to implement culturally responsive practices or you have been using these practices for years, mindfulness can be a useful tool for building these eight competencies and deepening your ability to create inclusive, equitable classrooms for all students.

Mindfulness and Culturally Responsive Teaching

Before implementing a culturally responsive pedagogy, teachers and school leaders must reflect critically on their own identities, including their individual characteristics, family dynamics, historical factors, and social and political contexts (NAESP, 2018). They must ask themselves how these factors shape their understanding of their role in the classroom and of their students’ skills and abilities. Mindfulness is important because it is “a core concept used to help individuals reframe and reinterpret unfamiliar behavior or ways of communicating to understand rather than to judge” (Dray & Wisneski, 2011, p. 31). As mindfulness encourages nonjudgmental observation, practicing it will help educators move away from making quick assumptions and become more mindful about how they respond and react. Educators can do this by reflecting on how their own cultural lens may be attributing or misattributing meaning to students’
behavior. When interacting with students and specifically those with whom they do not share a culture, educators should learn to pause, take a cleansing breath, and then ask themselves the following questions (Dray & Wisneski, 2011):

• Have I already interpreted the behavior?
• Am I making assumptions about student behavior?
• Have I already assigned the behavior as good or bad? (Pause, and then describe the event, in order, to yourself)
• What led me to believe the behavior was good or bad?
• What about the behavior led to my interpretation?

Mindfulness is not only useful for teachers who are implementing a culturally responsive pedagogy, it can also be useful for students. There can sometimes be a gap between a student’s home culture and expectations in their educational settings, resulting in tension and misunderstandings between the student and teacher (Dray & Wisneski, 2011). Mindfulness can help students self-manage the stress, tension, or anxiety that can arise from these situations (Culturally Responsive Teaching, n.d.). Offering mindfulness in a culturally responsive way provides students with the tools to reflect critically on their experience in the
classroom, fostering agency and independence. If students are able to recognize and name their emotions when they feel tense or misunderstood by a teacher, or if they feel underrepresented in the curriculum’s materials, they will be better able to articulate their feelings and take steps toward solving the problem.

Mindfulness can also be a powerful tool for creating equity in classrooms by generating openness between teachers and students and cultivating an environment
of sustained compassion (Center: Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, n.d.). As educators and students practice mindfulness together, they can share what they learn through their observations and reflections and collectively create a culturally responsive classroom. The mindfulness principles of suspending judgment and reality check may be especially useful as adults and students work to uncover their biases and have open, direct communication about the ways in which their classrooms are and are not working. Using mindfulness to create culturally responsive spaces and advance equity furthers the goal of ensuring that students are the subjects of their education; it ensures that students have a stake in their learning and that who they and where they come from is prioritized and celebrated.

Tips for Mindfulness and Culturally Responsive Teaching

To help guide you on bringing mindfulness into culturally responsive teaching, consider the following:

Practice it yourself. It’s important for educators to understand the experience of practicing mindfulness. Meditation can often bring up difficult emotions or memories, and educators should know how to respond should a student experience this (Pettway, 2017). Using mindfulness as a tool for equity may also bring up a teacher’s uncomfortable emotions, biases, or habits, and practicing mindfulness can help to work through these in a nonreactive, compassionate manner so that the teacher can make deliberate choices about how to best serve their students.

Debrief and validate students’ experiences. Debriefing is important when using mindfulness as a tool for culturally responsive teaching and equity. Students should have the time and space to discuss their experiences in an open, nonjudgmental way. Be sure to validate these experiences, regardless of what they
are, because there is no “correct” way to practice mindfulness (Pettway, 2017).

Set students up for success. Explain clearly the goal of each mindfulness session and be sure to set manageable expectations. Use inclusive language—for example, saying “grown-ups” instead of “parents”—so students can better relate to the practice. Speak with students’ families so that they understand what mindfulness is and why it is being implemented in their child’s classroom (Christine, 2020).

Incorporate students’ cultural values. Have students help create a mindfulness routine that works for and resonates with them, generating a “for us, by us” practice. Use terminology and visualizations that are familiar and relevant to students. In culturally diverse classrooms, have students lead mindfulness practices so it is experienced in their own unique voices. This will also eliminate any feeling that students are being told what to do by a dissimilar authority figure, which can implicitly conjure race-based trauma (Watson-Singleton et al., 2019) and give students agency in their mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness and culturally responsive teaching practices are by no means solutions to complex, systemic issues in our education system and society at large. But they are accessible, powerful tools that help students cultivate a critical consciousness about their learning, and in tandem they can promote equity and inclusion in our classrooms. When we work to root out our own implicit biases and implement a curriculum that celebrates student diversity, we are showing up authentically for our students. And when we ensure that students have the tools to reflect on their educational journeys—the instructional materials they need, and their own emotions— we empower them to become autonomous learners who are engaged deeply with the world in which they live.

Download the chart to help you see how your assumptions and implicit biases may be impacting your relationship with students.