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In both K-12 and higher education settings, educators serve as key mentors for students. Through inclusive pedagogy and modeling of culturally responsive behavior, educators can influence how students think about the world, how they treat one another, and who they become after graduation.
Because students enter school from diverse backgrounds and belief systems, it’s crucial that educators use their unique position to foster equity both in and outside of the classroom. One powerful way for educators to do this is through allyship.
Allyship differs from being a bystander because it requires taking meaningful action against discrimination, bias, and inequality. Much too often educators and students alike verbally support a cause while remaining bystanders. In this article, we’ll explore what it means to be an educator ally, and we’ll provide practical steps for how you can embrace this role.
What Does it Mean to Be an Ally?
Allyship involves taking concrete actions to make a difference, while being a bystander often stops at expressing sympathy or agreement. But being an ally isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept; it varies depending on your identity, experiences, and familiarity with issues of power and privilege.
If you’re white, educator allyship may involve standing in solidarity with underrepresented students and helping white colleagues understand your position. One helpful resource for white educators exploring allyship is “The White Ally Toolkit Workbook” written by Dr. David W. Campt. This workbook can help white allies use their influence to “bring other whites along as part of their lifelong mission in dismantling racism.”
If you’re a member of an underrepresented group, educator allyship may involve speaking up for others in the school community who are underrepresented like:
- LGBTQ+ students and colleagues
- First-generation college students
- Students and colleagues with disabilities
- English as a Second Language (ESL) students
- Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students and colleagues
- Students and colleagues who identify as women
Allyship is intersectional. Every one of us can be an ally, while others can be allies to us. For example, white people can be allies to people of color, and able-bodied people can be allies to people with disabilities. Regardless of what groups you belong to, the fundamental goal of allyship is to actively support the rights of others.
The journey to becoming an effective ally begins with education. A commitment to learning how power and privilege operate within the school environment and society at large will allow you to understand the experiences of underrepresented students and faculty.
To educate yourself, seek underrepresented voices and perspectives through conversations, literature, workshops, and seminars. One helpful resource is a TedEd talk by Justin Ford on “The Pedagogy of Privilege.”
This video explains privilege and discusses how educators can use a multidimensional model to help students understand their privilege. It also includes reflective questions for you and your students to consider.
Engage in Self-Reflection
Self-reflection is essential to allyship. Take time to explore your own identity and how it differs from the identities of your students and colleagues. Try this exercise where you reflect on statements of privilege and determine whether you identify with them.
Here are some example statements related to white privilege to reflect on:
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well-assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
Allyship also requires an acknowledgement of your biases and blind spots. The book “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” is an excellent resource for this. In this book, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald explore the science of why our behavior doesn’t always align with our values.
Another Helpful Resource:
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is another research-based tool you can use for self-reflection. It can help you identify your hidden biases or comfort level about interactions with people of groups different from your own.
Speak Up and Take Action
One of the most significant responsibilities of an ally is to speak up and take action in the face of injustice. To transition from bystander to ally, you’ll need to confront racism, bigotry, and discrimination with a high level of intolerance.
Speaking up and taking action may involve:
- Interrupting a class discussion when a student says something offensive.
- Holding your colleagues accountable when they say or do something problematic.
- Including underrepresented voices in your curriculum.
- Discussing the absence of certain voices in a text or bringing in an analysis of the text from a different point of view.
- Taking part in activism events outside the classroom.
- Mentoring student groups and associations.
- Actively offering to serve as a reference contact to underrepresented students.
- Making space in your curriculum for culturally responsive teaching and activities.
An educator ally should also be culturally responsive. While you won’t be able to highlight all underrepresented groups all the time, you can strive to bring multiple perspectives into every lesson and create an environment where students feel seen and heard.
To take action in the classroom, consider this guide on how to keep classroom discussions productive. One strategy for handling inappropriate or offensive comments is to move the dialogue away from personal attacks and toward a discussion of why hurtful words can be damaging.
Challenge the Hidden Curriculum
The “hidden curriculum” refers to the unwritten rules and unspoken expectations of the dominant-culture that exist in educational contexts. The hidden curriculum implies a “right” way to think, speak, look, and behave in schools. It can perpetuate normative assumptions and privilege certain groups over others.
Some examples of the hidden curriculum include:
- Assuming students have access to the internet at home.
- Requiring students to speak in “Standard English.”
- Assuming students know how to search online library databases.
- Assuming students know what a credible source is.
- Assuming students know what it means to “analyze” a reading or “synthesize” information.
To be an ally, challenge this hidden curriculum by providing explicit instruction of expectations and resources to students. Avoid making assumptions about students’ backgrounds, access to resources, or prior knowledge. Assess and address any assumptions that your course materials may make and ensure all students have an equal opportunity to succeed.
Start by reviewing your syllabus for equitable and inclusive language. Ask students to point out areas that need clarity and use the REACH method to humanize it.
Commitment to Allyship Requires Resilience
Becoming an ally is an ongoing journey that requires dedication and resilience. Allyship can be emotionally and mentally taxing, as it involves challenging deeply ingrained systems of inequality. To maintain your energy and commitment, it’s important to practice self-care.
Be patient with your students, your colleagues, and yourself. Mistakes will happen, but it’s through these mistakes that we can learn and grow as allies. By actively supporting and advocating for underrepresented groups, you can create more inclusive classrooms and contribute to systemic change in education.
About the Author
Morgan Westling is an Associate Content Specialist at Course Hero. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Portland and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The University of the South. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing for over 7 years. Find more of her work at www.morganwestling.com.