Critical Consciousness

Understanding and developing tools to address oppression, implicit bias, and deficit thinking are at the heart of what Drs. Daniel Spikes and Katy Swalwell are hoping to accomplish as they enter their second of three years of critical consciousness training with Ames CSD staff. This year, the work is expanding beyond principals and including instructional coaches and other staff in each building. Next year, administrators, under the guidance of Spikes and Swalwell, will roll out the training to all staff.

In the training, Spikes and Swalwell define a critically conscious person as one who is able to reflect on and take action in the world in order to make it more equitable and just. To make that academic definition more applicable to everyday life, it’s being able to recognize when inequity exists and knowing what steps to take that help address the issue.

Even for trained academics who have spent their life’s work to this subject, the topic can be challenging and requires constant growth and reflection. “I find myself having to consistently reflect on my own thinking and behaviors when it comes to reinforcing oppressive structures,” said Spikes.

Each session is designed to model how to handle this complicated topic, with the first session establishing “agreements.” These agreements include staying engaged, experiencing discomfort, speaking your truth, and expecting and accepting non-closure. Dr. Swalwell said, “These can be tough conversations to have, so we want to make sure we are creating a space where people feel willing to put themselves out there and take risks. That’s the only way we can move forward.”

Both Spikes and Swalwell recognize that this work can be misinterpreted as partisan. Although the material is often political in that it is about power and decision-making within communities, they never want it to be seen as promoting one party over another. Their goal is to help individuals, and in this case, a school district, to put equity at the forefront of decision-making.

The work this year will go well beyond academic theory. Part of the monthly trainings with the administrative team will focus on how implicit bias and deficit thinking are embedded within school policies and practices. Examples of that include how conferences are scheduled, access to extracurricular programs, student discipline, bias and bullying, curriculum, and school culture. Participants will explore different tools connected to these categories with the intention of improving education for students from marginalized and dominant groups. While they are highlighting race and racism, the workshops also include attention to structural inequalities in schools as they relate to religion, social class, different abilities, gender, sexual identity, and other social identities.

As an administrative team, we challenge our staff to embrace this training, ask questions, be vulnerable, and apply it in the classroom. With a staff population composed primarily of white individuals, it is our responsibility to dive into this work honestly to make a positive impact for all students in the District.