In classrooms, intentionally or not, we sometimes use students as scapegoats, to allow us to cast off discomfort with ourselves and our practice and to avoid confronting our own weaknesses and insecurities. In Western thought, Hegel described this as the creation of the Other (Kain 1943), or someone who is different from us in some fundamental, lesser, and inferior way, such as values, religion, gender, race, ethnicity, species, or sexuality. The Other is our scapegoat, which in common psychology is the person or people held to blame for a multitude of problems for which they are not responsible.

I’d be doing a real injustice to children if I led you to believe that the creation of the Other existed only in the brain. Because of bias, we’ve created institutions that reflect and enact it on people. This kind of institutionalized othering is called institutional bias. Even if we can’t escape it, we can certainly take responsibility for recognizing it and our role in upholding it.

If you are asking, “What does this have to do with my work as a teacher?” here is the simple answer: If we don’t see the institutional conditions that impede the Other, then we can’t understand their experiences or create equitable learning environments for them. If we don’t see the institutional conditions that impede children, we are led into misunderstandings that we need to fix students instead of fixing the conditions that marginalize students—and the fixing-children mind-set and teaching-children mind-set oppose each other. As participants in educational institutions, who bring our own biases into the classroom, we need to examine and own our role in maintaining its racist practices.

Planning for students to become people who know they are meaningful members of the school community, who are competent, and who are autonomous requires that we have compassion for each and every student—but especially for the student who is most unlikeable to us. We have all met them, have all taught them, and at times it seems like those children are demanding that we have heroic levels of patience and persistence. We really start to lose it when we realize that patience and persistence are not enough. We can’t tolerate it when being who we are in this moment is not enough.

I’m suggesting that we shift our paradigm about how children can and should fit into the structure of a classroom community. Many of us expect children to conform to the model we envision. This often seems like expecting a square peg to fit in a round hole. Just because many children can do it, it doesn’t mean everyone should be expected to. Instead we should be thinking about how to make our instruction, both social and academic, conform to student needs.

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