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How active empathy and allyship advance education in the classroom

Black History Month

How the concept of windows and mirrors creates crucial learning opportunities, strengthens allyship, and helps students to feel seen in the classroom.

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement

It’s 2022, and for teachers, everything feels like a potential minefield. After nearly two years of pandemic impacts on education, along with a highly charged social and political landscape that is filtering into classrooms, teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers and the number of candidates lining up to enter the field continues to decline. Even though I transitioned to the private sector nearly six years ago now, my entire professional and social circle consists of teachers, and so many of them around the world tell me they are exhausted and at their breaking point.

Many elements of conflict are impacting teacher burnout and retention. Just last week, I spoke to a friend with more than thirty years of experience, who said, “I don’t feel like I can do anything right. Every decision I make upsets someone.” What we know about this sensation is that it makes it infinitely more difficult for teachers to be the allies that students need; truly being an ally requires an element of vulnerability, and right now being vulnerable doesn’t feel safe for many.

Which brings us to Black History Month. When I talk to both BIPOC and non-BIPOC educator friends about this sacrosanct time, they tell me that they feel anxious, afraid that they will inadvertently ignite tensions and make their difficult lives even more challenging. I see it in their faces, and I understand the fear.

Ignoring Black History Month, though, cannot be an acceptable option. Why? Well, let’s talk about that. As overwhelmed and stretched as teachers are feeling right now, Black History Month speaks to something bigger than all the challenges, bigger even than ourselves; the weight of it lies in the greater teacher mission - impacting lives and advancing humanity.

That may seem dramatic, but one relatively simple concept, windows and mirrors, helps reveal why the stakes are so high. The simplest way to understand the idea is to think about what we see when we look in a mirror and what we see when we look through a window. When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves - our experiences and how they’ve shaped us. Mirrors in stories and other content are about representation, knowing we each have a place in the world, that we are not alone.

When we look through a window, we see the rest of the world, what we may not ever know firsthand. Windows in stories and other content are about possibilities and options - they are an opportunity to see other people and their lives, to see things we might not ever experience for ourselves.

Like so many mission-driven educators, when I first heard the concept of windows and mirrors articulated by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, things fell into place with an almost audible click, providing the words to describe a core belief. While not a BIPOC educator, the impacts of generational poverty did shape me. When I devoured books as a child, I was always searching for mirrors and windows without knowing it. Like so many of our students, I needed to find validation that I wasn’t alone; I needed to know that people like me could have the life I envisioned for myself.

As an educator, what I came to understand is that we all need to see the world, including ourselves and every other possibility. Books and the stories within them can unlock those possibilities. Natural readers may find a lot of mirrors and windows on their own, but we cannot “hope” that students will find their own mirrors and windows.

All students deserve the careful guidance of teachers and librarians, and we cannot pretend that all students are equally or accurately depicted in the curriculum. We must make the effort to make space for each and every student; we must seek out true reflections of history and the part of all groups of people in shaping it, especially if those truths are not as visible. Doing so also directly impacts student learning outcomes as it is about helping students to distinguish between fact and opinion, providing context to make sense of our world, and building the tools needed to analyze critically.

The educators’ act of representing all students and all possibilities in the curriculum - regardless of the month - is a critical act of allyship. It says to students, “I see you, and you matter.” It can feel daunting, but some compelling resources include:

Ultimately, helping students see themselves and their peers, is a big part of why so many of us became educators. These acts aren’t only for the benefit of students either; they act as a balm for us as well. By helping others and by serving as allies, educators are able to create a sense of belonging in our own classrooms or schools and a sense of purpose even when so many things are outside of our control and feel senseless.

Both windows and mirrors matter, for every student. Whether your students are predominantly BIPOC or predominantly not, each of them needs to have mirrors and windows in your classrooms and in the resources you use. I’ve heard some argue that Black History Month divides us, but in reality, the mirrors and windows at the heart of honoring Black history can only help us all to see how we are connected. What is a mirror for one student may be a window for another, but neither is more or less important. Those mirrors and windows make up the fabric of our shared history… and our shared future; staying silent for the sake of perceived “politeness” or fear is a missed learning opportunity. So, don’t miss the learning opportunity. Be a little vulnerable. Show your students the mirrors and windows they need. Honor Black history, this month and every month.