Teaching Behind the Mask is a series of voices from infant, toddler, and pre-school classrooms across San Francisco. It’s a collaboration between Barbra Blender, Eliana Elias, and the remarkable early-childhood education teachers who continue to serve children and families during the pandemic. You can see more installments here.
“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”
Many of us value democracy. We agree that democratic societies need democratic institutions. But for most of us, discussions about democratic and inclusive values in our preschool classrooms are difficult to imagine.
“Aren’t children innocent? Isn’t a preschool classroom just a place for play, joy and love? Aren’t early childhood educators caring individuals, who “are not affected” by all the hatred and ignorance they see around them?”
These questions open a small window into the common image most people have about the work of ECE teachers as apolitical, unselfish and devoid of strong opinions about the larger issues that affect our communities. They also reveal an image of young children as “immune” to biases.
However, preschool classrooms are also places that have been harmed by society’s prejudices — and children are perceptive students of the power imbalances that they see playing out in the world.
For many years now, early childhood leaders have been thinking about approaches that help address biases early on. These approaches are rooted in the belief that our preschools and infant toddler classrooms are microcosms, where we can practice the building blocks of an inclusive and democratic society.
In 1989 a groundbreaking publication called Anti-Bias Curriculum, Tools for Empowering Young Children, now appropriately re-titled Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves started to help early childhood professionals think more deeply about how to respond to biases in the classroom. It summarized resources and ideas for working with young children and it emphasized how educators can also use self-reflection to study their own attitudes and biases. The goal is to create early learning settings that not only “tolerate” differences, but invite conversations, challenge biases and celebrate differences. The Anti-bias curriculum proposes four core goals for early learning settings:
Goal 1 (Identity) Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.
Goal 2: (Diversity) Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity, accurate language for human differences, and deep, caring human connections.
Goal 3: (Justice) Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.
Goal 4: (Activism) Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.
Director Brooke Giesen and teacher and artist Solitaire Miguel agreed to let us witness their conversation about how they have been striving to support the Anti-Bias goals at The Community Preschool-Grace Cathedral, where Giesen has been a director for 13 years, and Miguel has been a teacher for 10 years. Their conversation gives us an insight on their thinking about how their work with children connects to their desire to build a more inclusive world for all children and teachers. Their words also remind us that our own identities and histories are an important part of the conversation and that authentic relationships play an important part in addressing biases.
BROOKE GIESEN: When I was exposed to the Anti Bias Curriculum, I did not understand its power. Initially my understanding was very shallow. I immediately related it to helping children with activities such as paint colors that reflected different skin tones, or a more “tourist approach” to cultural differences. After all these years, and much exposure to the four goals of the Anti Bias Curriculum (Identity, Diversity, Justice and Activism), it boils down to my desire to see all the children who graduate from The Community Preschool hold a strong sense of their own identity. I want them to feel proud of where they come from, and to know themselves well. And I want them to know that they are not the center of the world… that there are other human experiences and that these are also important.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: I feel strongly that, as teachers, we must start this work in our classrooms through our interactions. I believe teachers at our school are doing a good job because we know how to support the children in connecting with one another, empower them to use their voices and develop an awareness of the concept of fairness.
BROOKE GIESEN: The more I learn about the American education system, the more I learn about how it is built to maintain and sustain the dominant culture. Disrupting this system is important everywhere, and it is particularly important in a diverse community such as ours. At the core of social injustices, we find power imbalances and over-valuing of one group versus another. This is a central issue that starts to show up early in childhood. Solitaire Miguel, you are so amazing at addressing these power imbalances!
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: Thanks! I do talk often about “power.” I want the children to know that there are different ways of using our power that aren’t hurtful to others. When we make those power structures visible to the children, they respond well. They understand the concept of fairness and are naturally curious about how to make things “right.”
BROOKE GIESEN: In classrooms these power imbalances show up in social play, when children start to exclude one another either because of racial or gender differences, linguistic backgrounds, abilities or other perceived variances. And you always center it back to power, and how we should use it positively.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: It is important to work on the first two anti- bias goals, but also find developmentally appropriate ways to work on the last two goals, so we are supporting the children in becoming advocates for themselves and those who might need support.
BROOKE GIESEN: I have watched you do that! You take even small opportunities to discuss how children might speak out for themselves and for their friends. Recently some children expressed how they were not happy with their lunches, and you encouraged them to write letters together and let the kitchen staff know about what they wanted.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: And I feel like we as adults are modeling that too. Becoming a stronger community who cares about each other and who stands up for each other. I love the fact that we, as teachers, use all kinds of opportunities to talk to children about fairness and about their responsibilities as part of a community. And we do that with the adults too, don’t we?
BROOKE GIESEN: Absolutely. A good example of how our families came together recently was when the incidents of violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community were broadcast. We scheduled a meeting and brought all the families together via zoom. We made an intention of centering our AAPI families but we encouraged all families to attend to learn from each other. As a team, we prepared and we listened to one another. One of the teachers brought up the important point of not putting the onus on our families of color, but making sure that this was a shared responsibility so that we all support one another.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: As a teacher, I feel like I need to be very aware of my own identity and upbringing in order to recognize my own biases too. I am an Asian and Pacific Islander, queer womxn – my pronouns are they/she. And I grew up in a working-class family in Hawai’i. I didn’t grow up talking about differences, and I didn’t have much language around discussing differences. I now believe that giving children the opportunities to develop a healthy attitude and correct vocabulary to discuss all sorts of differences is important, and helps us set a different course for the future.
BROOKE GIESEN: And for me, as a white person, it’s important to go deeper into how white privilege plays a part in creating the false illusion that our experience is at the center of the human experience. At the beginning of my career as an ECE director I had an interaction that helped illustrate this. I was outside working with two 4-year-old boys: one spoke English and the other was a Spanish speaking child, in the process of learning English. The English-speaking white boy turned to me and asked: “Why does he talk like that?” And when I answered I said: “Because he speaks Spanish at home. His brain is so powerful that he knows two languages-Spanish and English!” I decided to probe a little: “What do you speak at home?” And his answer was an aha moment for me: “I just speak normal,” he said. That event made me realize that we do a disservice to white children when we don’t help them decenter… when we don’t help them experience and value other points of view, languages and ways of being. And what I have come to see in your work, Solitaire Miguel, is that anti bias curriculum is not just a reaction to something: It’s constant action that’s embedded in everything you do in our classrooms.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: I have learned that the Anti Bias Curriculum is a good way to start talking to children about many injustices, even before they start understanding history and there is so much we can talk about, conceptually, that relates to fairness, a “gateway” to anti-racist curriculum. As an educator, I could not do this work if I did not have the support of our school community.
BROOKE GIESEN: This made me reflect back on when I first started working at Grace Cathedral preschool. I saw the job posting before the school even existed. “A job post at a cathedral,” I thought to myself… and I was not sure. I identify as queer (my pronouns are she/hers) and had concerns about being part of a religious organization. But then I googled the organization and discovered that the dean at the time was a woman who was an out lesbian and I immediately felt that Grace Cathedral would be a safe space for me. When I came for my interview one of the men on the panel, was outwardly a gay man, and that also made me feel safe and comfortable. This brings me to ask you: as a teacher do you ever talk about the fact that you are part of the LGBTQ community with the families?
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: I have never announced it in a big group with the kids, but I talk about the qualities of my gender fluidity and actively try to make it visible. With the families, I haven’t verbally shared it unless someone is sharing with me that they are queer. I talk more explicitly about my identity with the other teachers in the program as I feel it’s a safer space. How about you?
BROOKE GIESEN: I have shared with the families that I am part of the LGBTQ community. But I think it is a different experience for me being a white, cisgender, feminine presenting woman. Even in the queer community I often get questioned because people still think that I am straight by how I present. I am definitely aware of the privilege and safety that I hold in having the choice to out myself to the families or not. I also am aware that my experience as an out queer early educator would be different as a cis gay man or trans man. Due to the misogyny of our society, it can be much more marginalizing for gay men to be out in ECE. Also, the fact that I am a cis woman who is feminine presenting and not masculine of “center” affords me privilege. But I find it interesting that children notice something about me; every year there is at least one child who asks me: “Teacher Brooke Giesen, are you a girl or a boy?” I think children see my queerness. But I too feel nervous and vulnerable at times to say things like “my girlfriend” or something about my sister and her wife. I feel particularly nervous to mention it with some immigrant or religious groups; which taps into my implicit biases. Even in the way we express this idea, languages sometimes don’t translate well. For instance: I have never gotten married, so when I talk about my girlfriend, that word is ambiguous even in English. With some families, I might intentionally use the word partner.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: The fact that you are out and open does make me feel safer. And I do believe that talking about my gender fluidity has an impact on children who might be feeling the same way. It normalizes it.
BROOKE GIESEN: You know, I have felt judged by people who question the reasons for us bringing in our personal lives into our classrooms. “Politics don’t belong in the classroom,” some might say. But in my view, there is no neutral classroom. I like who I am and that is part of being who I am; I would be ignorant to believe my identities do not influence my practice.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: I am still learning so much about this, but I feel like I have evolved. A few years back I might have fallen into the BOY and GIRL binary but as we learn more about gender identity, I have changed the way I talk to children. When a child asks me if another child is a girl or a boy, I now respond by saying: “Let’s go ask and see how they identify and instead of boy and girl I add: do you feel like you might be in between or something different or not at all? I have also introduced the children to great children’s books that introduce this topic and discuss pronouns in a developmentally appropriate way. For a list of some of the books we are using to click here. It is never too early to discuss differences and fairness and children’s books are a great tool. For additional suggestions on different topics we invite you to explore this website.
BROOKE GIESEN: Solitaire Miguel, you were transformational when you supported a child who was assigned male at birth and transitioned to female while in preschool with us. Can you share a little about that?
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: Sure. This child came to our program and was searching for a gender identity that better matched how she felt inside. Every day she would seek out the dress up corner and put a dress over her pants for the entire day. For months she became a female character from a film. After some time, the child clearly told us: “I am not a HE.” This was a journey and process for the family. But the child was clear, and we did not shy away from our desire to honor the child’s wishes and to talk about this and seek to educate ourselves. Slowly, with the support of The Community Preschool, the family sought out information and started to affirm the child’s identity too, and, together with the child, chose a new name that better matched the child’s gender identity. The child’s transition into kindergarten was successful, and I feel like we learned a great deal in the process.
BROOKE GIESEN: There are so many pieces to all of this. How weaving this deep respect for children and families, and, at the same time, becoming advocates for children, we as educators grow more in our ability to be full participants in our society too. Aside from all the support you give children and families, I also want to emphasize that we are striving to model for them, a community that shares leadership and respects each others’ point of view.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: One reason I enjoy working here is unlike other places that really emphasize a hierarchical model, here, I feel empowered. There is no hierarchy: no assistant teacher, no aide or lead teacher. It feels equitable and we all come from different educational backgrounds, having access to different resources. It feels affirming to be part of a team where everyone has access to decision making.
BROOKE GIESEN: As a director, I do my best to inform you of decisions I am having to make, and get feedback from all of you so the decision making process is transparent. I don’t want to burden you, but/and I believe it is important to include the teachers since most of the decisions will impact you directly. That, to me, is also about social justice and equity.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: I look at you as a team member. Sure, you are the director, but because of how transparent the decision-making process is, and of how supportive you are of my work, you are a teammate. I feel like challenging the traditional hierarchical model of leadership has a lot to do with power distribution and we are building a trusting community when we have transparency and support.
BROOKE GIESEN: I feel like our process is getting better. This year, for instance, we created community agreements and we start each meeting by revisiting these agreements. We hold each other accountable and I feel fortunate that you all feel comfortable to hold me accountable too. I talk to you often, but it has been great recapturing our collective commitment to have our practices with children and all the adults at our school reflect our value for inclusion, equality and equity. Thank you for chatting with me.
SOLITAIRE MIGUEL: It was great to see how these ideas and values connect across the work we do with children, families and each other. There are so many levels of relationships in this job. I hope we can continue to work towards a community that sees each individual with respect and value, and that we continue to cultivate this sense of celebration for the different ways in which we all exist on this Earth.