Race, Gender and Spiritual Preparation of the Teacher

Components of children’s development of identity includes gender and race. Nia House teachers and staff spent a Tuesday evening meeting unpacking the interplay of gender and race as a social construct and delving into the role we as educators play in children’s identity development.

We began by generating a list of stereotypes associated with gender, notions of what it means to be a “boy” or “girl”. The list looked as you might suspect- boys were classified as physical, math-minded, and tough while girls were emotional, meek, and care-takers. Together we reflected on what opportunities a child might miss out on if we subscribed solely to these social constructs. Next, we considered the roles implicit biases, or our automatic and unconscious motivators of how we treat people, play in the way we interact with and structure the school experiences of Nia House children.

Often, the opportunities, commentary, or praise offered to young children reinforces gender stereotypes. Girls are noticed for their clothing and boys are encouraged with sayings like “big boy” for doing physical tasks. When a child gets hurt, girls might be gently nurtured and boys supported for brushing it off. The list goes on and on. So, the Nia House staff asked the important question- What can we do (or do we do already) in our school community to ensure that each child has access to the full range of human characteristics?

Here is some of what the Nia House staff came up with:

·       Clothing for all. Children at Nia House can choose from clothing bins that are open for all children and whatever choice they make is accepted.

·       We refer to children as “friend” or “children” instead of as “boy” or “girl.”

·       Children sit with mixed ages and genders at lunch.

·       Bathrooms for all.

·       Works are open for all children: dolls, purse, baby washing, care of environment- folding, cleaning, gardening, building etc.

·       There are opportunities for leadership and care-taking for all children.

·       Objective observations are made for all the children.

o   Instead of saying, “What pretty red shoes.” We might say,“I see your red shoes, they look ready for running.”

o   Rather than say “What a big boy you are,” We will offer, “I see you are being very helpful by carrying that lunchbox.”

The truth is, offering children access to the full range of human characteristics seems to come very naturally to the Nia House teaching team. Yet, implicit bias is unavoidable. We are guided by the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori who tells us,

“The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self. The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character, it is a preparation of the spirit.” (The Absorbent Mind)

Montessori implored us to be spiritually prepared as educators. In the current contemporary educational climate we understand this preparation to include self-study on our implicit biases related to gender, class, race, and other identity markers.

At Nia House, we take Montessori to heart and find her teachings poignant in an educational climate where implicit bias is apparent and school success resolutely linked to gender and race. Yale University Child Study Center conducted a study in September of 2016 titled, Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? The answer to this question- yes.

“…boys in general, were endorsed as requiring the most attention by 76% of early education staff (52% more than expected by chance alone), consistent with research showing that boys (regardless of race) are at greater risk for classroom removal. Regardless of the nature of the underlying biases, the tendency to observe more closely classroom behaviors based on the sex and race of the child may contribute to greater levels of identification of challenging behaviors with Black preschoolers and especially Black boys, which perhaps contributes to the documented sex and race disparities in preschool expulsions and suspensions.”

Berkeley is not immune to this trend. In 2014-2015, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) looked squarely at the disproportionate rate of suspension, expulsion and special education placement of students based on race and gender. In that year, 477 students were suspended in Berkeley grades K-12. Of these 477 students, 323 were African American. Yet, African American students make up only 17% of the student population in BUSD. The Daily Californian reports that “Berkeley Unified School District and other organizations are working on programs that explore alternatives to suspending students, such as behavioral support and counseling.” Thankfully, the efforts of Berkeley Unified are working with suspensions on a rapid decline. Efforts including Restorative Justice, family engagement, self-esteem and healthy relationship development were all cited as efforts impacting the decline in suspensions. While Nia House supports these efforts whole-heartedly, we also take very seriously the work of self-study, acknowledging implicit bias of the teacher and educational institution.

Gender and race identity are forming in the lives of Nia House children. Also included in this staff meeting was a quick look at a fascinating CNN study which attempted to understand race relations from a child’s vantage. Though complex in analysis, this video highlights the grave nature of race identity and relations from children’s perspectives.

Though no one is immune to implicit bias, the Nia House teachers and staff are committed to an education of equity and this includes access to empowerment and expression within the full range of human characteristics. Children’s greatest obstacles towards the aim of empowerment and positive identity development just might come in the form of the teacher! Montessori writes, “The teacher’s happy task is…removing the obstacles, beginning first with those which she herself is likely to present (for the teacher can be the greatest obstacle of all).” (Discovery of the Child) The teachers and staff at Nia House exercise great humility, self-awareness, and commitment to Dr. Maria Montessori and to social justice for all the children in our care- indeed, we recognize this as our ongoing work of self-study and spiritual preparation.  

Our team hard at work:

Baby Moss leads our staff meeting:

Nia House

Nia House Learning Center, 2234 9th St, Berkeley, CA, 94710, United States

A Montessori Toddler & Preschool Program serving Berkeley since 1974