Pay Attention to Patterns of Participation

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In 2012, as a new teacher, I still remember my first staff meeting.  I was one of many new staff members, including our new principal.  As a staff, we took a moment to think about the vision of our school.  What should a thriving high school look like? Feel like? Sound like?  I was unafraid and raised my hand.  “Every week should feel like Homecoming week with all the excitement and energy it brings”.  The principal was quick to reply with a smirk, saying “spoken like a true rookie.”

I bring up this story because I believe the way voice and participation patterns exist in adult spaces greatly affects a school and organization.  Creating equitable learning spaces in classrooms begins with an equitable learning space among adults.

Thinking back now about that first staff meeting, I wonder how I had the nerve to raise my hand in front of nearly ninety staff members.  Where did I get the nerve?  Part of it, I would argue, is the fact that I was truly clueless and didn’t know any better.  But more than that, I think a large part of that nerve was because of my identity.  As a white male, society had always told me that my voice carries weight and there would be less judgement toward me if I was wrong.  I did not feel afraid or fear being judged.

That was then, in a staff that was almost completely white.  Now, I find myself working at a school with about half of the staff being people of color.

Staff meetings, both large and small, are noticeably different.  Agendas are carefully crafted with a lens toward equity:

  • all staff members taking turns facilitating meetings
  • creating small groups
  • giving time for each person to write first before sharing with a partner
  • giving each person to a minute to share their thinking, not more
  • providing sentence frames to shape the conversation

Most importantly, each meeting is shaped by the norms of our school, one of them being “step up, step back” and another “pay attention to patterns of participation”.  As a staff, a department, or a working group, we consistently monitor our participation.  It is expected that those of us that could have more status – more experience, more expertise, male, or white – become aware of our participation and do what we can to allow more voices to contribute to conversation.

Second, we process-check each meeting in our closing moves.  We reflect on whether we met all of our norms and values including leaving space for everyone’s voice.  Did anyone talk too much?  Did any specific group talk too much or too little?

There is no perfect answer to creating equitable voice in adult spaces, but I am really proud of the work my school does to move toward more diverse participation.  Next time, you’re in a staff meeting or department meeting pay attention to the different people and groups that are talking.

  • men/ women
  • white/ non-white
  • new/ experienced
  • content area

Create a conversation, establish a set of norms, check yourselves every time.  The process is never done.