President John F. Kennedy said ‘Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.’ Elected in the year 1960, I would say that statement was ahead of its time! Blending in with the crowd in every aspect was safe and even admired until the relatively recent past. Once upon a time, even claiming to ‘not see color’ in others…not in our neighbors, not in our colleagues, and definitely not in our students…was a point of pride, an altruistic statement. Often used innocently and with the intention being to express a lack of judgmentalism or racism, the use of this phrase and mindset is now widely frowned upon. What happens when we don’t see one another? Seeing who people truly are, including the color of their skin, is critical; particularly within the walls of our schools and classrooms. Why? Because respectfully recognizing who our students are and all that it encompasses…their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, first language, home country (or city or town), hobbies, and so on, allows us as educators to address each students’ value and their need to belong. Consciously or not, ignoring who students really are can prevent us from teaching them well.
In attempting to be ‘fair’ and not factoring in our students’ identities, we overlook their unique experiences and backgrounds. This only conveys that who you really are doesn’t matter. As educators we know the importance of building relationships, lowering student anxiety, and creating classroom communities. What we may be neglecting, though, is fostering our student’s identities. How can we acknowledge, build, and foster identity-safe classrooms? Here are some simple yet worthwhile ideas to get you started!