Jessica Brown

Written by Jessica Brown

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I watch a lot of competition cooking shows — to the point where I feel like I have an intimate understanding of knife cuts, reductions, and how to confit duck. Without any formal education and very little dedicated practice, I yell at my computer screen and judge contestants from afar knowing that I would be able to handle the pressure if I were in the kitchen. You see many folks like me appearing on these shows and getting hit with a strong dose of reality when they did not have the skills they needed to create beautiful, thoughtful, and — most importantly — delicious meals in that environment. And those with experience, judges and other contestants, will usually call them out for it or will pointedly glance.

What happens when the stakes are higher than a cooking show? What happens when power and responsibility are put into the hands of those without experience or knowledge of an environment?

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Teachers and students are at the heart of our education system but are often overlooked when brainstorming how education should be transformed. Most are never asked their opinions on how to improve different environments — from their classroom to district to national oversight. Similar to my yelling at chefs through my screen, decisions and priorities within education are decided by those who are watching, rather than those who are closest to it. Even more disconcerting is that individuals watching often have the power to set standards and judge progress.

You can not create successful, equitable solutions unless you are proximate. You can not cook without heat.

The work to be done is both complex and simple: let educators and students design and lead the future models of education. The Student Experience Lab (SXL) operates from a lens informed by what educators and students care about. We are excited that the folks at Teacher2Teacher have also been researching and mobilizing around similar themes. Recently they hosted a webinar entitled “What Teachers Care About” that explored which narratives matter to teachers (measured through online platforms) and how those of us who design with educators can leverage different topics to foster connection and learning for all.

The presenters talked about both positive narratives that reflect optimism and confidence and negative narratives that reflect concern about future direction. In 2014, teacher narratives were 54% negative, with top concerns being that teachers deserve professional respect, need opportunities to learn, and must focus on teaching the whole child.

Since then, narratives have shifted towards a more positive, hopeful language. Integral to this shift has been the presence of social justice focused narratives — specifically those surrounding racial and socioeconomic equity. Educators have explicitly named poverty, racial biases, structural influences, representative staff, and many more examples, as influential issues that need to be tackled. They have also been telling us that education is a right and that all students deserve both access and success within the education system.

So how do we get the experienced cooks in the kitchen to design thoughtful and lasting solutions? How do we make sure that educators and students close to issues surrounding equity have the power to create change?

Unlike a fancy competition kitchen, we have all had access to education from some angle — student, teacher, parent, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of folks in education are cooking without heat: they are not close to the environment, they aren’t focused on equity, and they are not listening to what students and teachers need.

Right now, and hopefully forever, many educators are hungry for resources that bring equity out of a solely learning space and into their practice. We believe that the work we are doing with our Teachers For Equity (T4E) Fellowship will begin to bridge those worlds in a meaningful way.

On an unseasonably warm weekend in February, BIF hosted 20 teacher leaders, one district leader, and our partner Pacific Educational Group. We took a deep dive into exploring racial equity, ourselves, PEG’s courageous conversations protocol, design thinking, and building communities of practice. The T4E Fellows will lead communities of practice that can include students, teachers, community members, administrators, and anyone else with a stake in creating equitable educational environments in their regions.

“Everything we need is in the room” -Leidene, PEG Equity Transformation Specialist, validating how much knowledge and experience we have to share with one another.

In the first few months of the fellowship, not only have these educators told us what they care about, but they have also shown us. These fellows have the will to engage topics of racial equity, understand their environments, and are prepared to cultivate communities that can create stronger, more supportive educational spaces. They have also shared stories with one another about successes and missteps as they build up equitable practices. The range of experience, both in teaching and life, has created a community where we all are empowered to teach and learn from one another.

Although they are experts in their experiences, the T4E Fellows have started by expanding their understanding of others in their environments. They have initiated conversations with both those who will inform their communities of practice work and those who will be active participants in it. They have already taken what they have learned and found ways to apply it to their leadership. One fellow has proposed that a good way to kick off their community would be by sharing those research conversation findings so that the group is informed by more than just one opinion of what matters. Others have recognized the powerful role students play in the communities, but also in emphasizing why this work is so important. In stepping back, the T4E Fellowship is modeling how to value student agency and strength. In short, the T4E Fellows are cooking with heat and I am excited to see what ideas and inspiration come out of their communities.