By Carly Riley
Even with eight years of teaching under my belt, the beginning of the school year always felt the same. Anxiety and excitement would swirl together causing butterflies in my stomach, restless nights filled with dreams about all the things that could go awry, and racing thoughts about my miles long to-do list in preparation for the first day of school.
Each August was spent meticulously cleaning and arranging my classroom materials and furniture in hopes of finding the perfect layout that would lead to optimal concentration and cooperation. I scoured garage sales for special pieces of décor that would make the space feel cozy and inviting, and I would fastidiously detail minute-by-minute scripts and lesson plans so that I was not unprepared for even one second of the first days of school—an especially crucial exercise when welcoming 3-6 year-olds to what is often their first experience in school!
However, I also had the good fortune of working alongside veteran educators who taught me that these rituals were only one part of truly meaningful and impactful back-to-school preparations. In fact, all the preparation in the world is for naught if it doesn’t include building relationships with children and families, gaining place-based insight into the land and community in which we teach, and engaging in the life-long work of developing our own critical lens.
With this in mind, Embracing Equity seeks to pass on the wisdom and foresight that was handed down to us over the years from the educators, children, families, and communities who have made us stronger and more critically aware practitioners. On the website’s new “Resources” page, you will find two documents to support your back-to-school preparations this September:
Building Authentic Relationships with Families: While I always made phone calls home prior to the start of school, my first years’ focus was on logistics: start and end times for the day, sending an extra set of clothes along for an inevitable mess, making sure my records were up to date regarding allergies, etc. And while those are important bits of information to relay, these more experienced educators taught me that laying the groundwork for trusting and reciprocal relationships with families and children requires more listening than talking. These first conversations that we teachers have with families allow us to gain insight about children’s strengths and lives outside of school, key relationships and central figures that are part of the network of support for their education, and their families’ own hopes and fears as their precious children begin a new school year.
Embracing Equity Environment Audit: In order to build authentic relationships and prepare our classroom environments to honor, value, and sustain the cultural ways of being of our students, their families, and the community in which we are teaching we must develop a place-based understanding of the legacy of the land on which the school sits. This knowledge further supports our ability to prepare classroom environments by engaging in and incorporating learning opportunities rooted in the local and indigenous history, environment, ecology, culture, economy, literature, and art of the neighborhood, community, city, and/or region.
Our ability as educators to build strong relationships and affirming classroom environments is dependent on the development of our own critical lens. The development of such a lens allows us to consider the types of interactions we have with students and families and that students have with one another. It also supports us in critically examining the messages conveyed by the images on the walls, the books on the shelves, and the arrangement of the furniture with a keen eye toward diversity, equity and inclusion. The life-long work of developing a critical consciousness is necessary in our ability to carefully and intentionally prepare our classrooms to support individual learning and collective healing for racial justice in education.
Please feel free to use these resources to support the practice of you and your colleagues— the team here at Embracing Equity wishes you, your children, and their families well at the start of another wonderful year!
Carly Riley has served as a pre-K and public Montessori educator, coach, academic advisor, professional development consultant, and most recently the director of a nationally accredited Montessori teacher training program in Memphis, TN. She is the Director of Operations for Embracing Equity and enjoys bike riding, gardening and camping near her home in St. Louis, MO.