Educator launches program to help teachers recognize biases and make classrooms inclusive
Last year, Meghan Zarnetske saw something on the news that convinced her she needed to be doing more to teach tolerance in her classroom.
A driver crashed a car into a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Zarnetske, thousands of miles away, was “paralyzed” by the hate she saw on TV. She was not struck still for long, though. A few months later, she launched a course to teach educators about their own biases and how to make sure hate and discrimination are not taught in their classrooms.
Zarnetske, an instructional coach and social justice teacher at Treasure Mountain Junior High, is now leading the second cohort of the program, called critically conscious training. She said there is still a long way to go, but the discussions participants have had do seem to be making a difference.
Cailin Davis, an English and Latinos in Action teacher at Ecker Hill Middle School, said she immediately made some changes to her classroom and teaching approach after going through the program in the spring. She was one of 30 teachers in the first cohort.
The curriculum, which Zarnetske compiled from social justice programs online and from universities, started by exploring the identities and privileges of the teachers. It then covered such issues as trans rights, racism and even the inequalities of dress codes. The training covers eight themes every other week.
Davis said one of her favorite parts of the program is the presentations from different community groups, including the Utah Pride Center and the high school’s gay-straight alliance. Members of the groups talked about what resources they could have utilized when they were in school or about changes they would have liked to see.
“It was really good to hear their perspectives and experiences. It was enlightening,” Davis said.
She learned, for example, that some students did not feel represented in their schools because they could not relate to images on the walls or the characters in books.
Their comments made an impact on Davis. At the beginning of this school year, she ordered several books from Latino authors or with Latino characters in order to diversify her reading library.
“It can be really simple things that you don’t even consider,” she said.
The shift in her classroom is subtle, but noticeable. She feels like she has a greater understanding of what some of her students might be going through, for instance. Plus, she said the training made her more aware of her own unintentional tendencies while teaching that could cause students to feel isolated.
Already, students have told her they feel more accepted, and she is glad.
“I am charged with teaching them English skills, but I also feel strongly about helping them develop into confident people,” she said.
Davis also walked away with a supportive network of teachers to talk to about these issues. That’s something Ed Potts, an instructional coach at Park City High School who also participated in the program, said was invaluable.
He signed up for the cohort to learn how to make a safe space for students in his classroom, and he said he walked away with much more.
“Sitting around talking to people who had similar concerns and similar issues is what felt really good,” he said.
Zarnetske said after the first cohort, 10 teachers attended a conference in Denver about teaching tolerance. She loved to see her program igniting a fire in the teachers that they wanted to continue.
Potts continues to keep in touch with teachers who went through the program in the spring. While finding ways to implement restorative justice into his classroom and the high school at large, he said it has been good to check in with colleagues to see what works for them.
As an instructional coach, he has adapted the strategies he learned from the program to help new and experienced teachers, such as creating a safe space for them to make comments.
“You want to make them feel comfortable and safe and brave so they can share their opinions and frustrations,” he said.
These kinds of stories are encouraging for Zarnetske, who ultimately wants to see all students represented and celebrated in the schools.
She said the conversation in Park City is moving toward focusing on inclusion, but people often don’t know where to start. For her, it begins with teachers and other district employees understanding their own identities and privileges and knowing how those affect the way they view the world. A district committee focused on teaching social justice would be a big step in the right direction.
“It’s big, and I’m not saying I am going to change anything,” she said. “But if we don’t do something, then it will continue being as harmful as it can,” she said.
She plans to hold the program again in the spring. To learn more or to sign up, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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