Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies: Reflections on Dismantling Classroom Hierarchies

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At the root of everything I’ve written in this series is unconditional love. Dismantling hierarchies, self reflection, leading and acting from the heart with the community, trust… all of these things require unconditional love. I guess some people would call that humanism. Humanism proposes that we have the solutions to meet our needs. “We” is the key, and the composition of “we” is going to change depending on the need.


Here, I want address the needs in a classroom. As educators, we should know that these needs vary from place to place, content to content, school to school, grade to grade, etc. This idea that one solution fits all needs to go. Even things like charters, RULER, and other PBIS systems fall short to adequately consider differences. Often times, these protocols are only used in schools with high student of color population, which reinforces data that shows we approach students of color as deficits.


If we love our students, we can trust them to decide how their education will be experienced, at least in our classrooms. We have to accept that we are only older, maybe wiser, and hopefully more experienced at certain things, but we are not experts on their needs. They are.




First and foremost, step back. Every year I give my introductory, “Welcome to Ms. Gill’s class” speech, and part of it is me explaining how I am only at the front of the class by virtue of age and formal education. I tell stories of how I’ve learned from my students and how impressed I am each year by the knowledge and wisdom that sixth graders bring to the classroom. I then go on to teach them the difference between banking education and problem posing education. In these lessons, I emphasize challenging how they’ve been taught to learn.


For example, one of the first activities is one in which they work in groups to design a video game based on my “Welcome to Ms. Gill’s class” presentation. In my presentation I talk about where I grew up, my family, what I like to do, what books I read, etc. Then I tell them to design a video game based on that. What a vast majority of the kids fail to do is ask additional questions. I walk about the room and they happily share with me their witty designs (for real, they’re so creative!), but they never stop and ask, “Hey… do you even play video games?” or, “What’s your favorite kind of video game?” Once in a while I’ll get one or two, “What’s your favorite weapon?”


After everyone’s finished and they present their video games, I show them screenshots of the games I do play, and point out that nobody asked. Then we talk about what it means to be institutionalized and how they’ve been taught to be passive learners. We then proceed on to other activities that have no right answer, but have a lot of questioning and sharing of opinions. Students really struggle with that, but by the end of the school year, that’s all they want to do.


We assume the formation of opinion is something that’s innate. It may be, but sharing it in public isn’t. Students need direct instruction on that. They need encouragement. I find that they’ve been conditioned to only speak if they are sure they have the “right” answer. This is a direct result of hierarchies and educators believing they “know more” than kids. We don’t give them space to question, challenge, make mistakes, come to consensus through discussion, or heaven forbid – fail! The first step to deconstructing hierarchies is for you to step back and facilitate these opportunities for your students.




This is hard. I know it is, and it’s necessary. We must not judge our students. Judgement is the result of hierarchies and the belief that we are in some way better than those we judge. We must not judge them when they don’t do their homework. We must not judge them when they sleep in class. We must not judge their parents for these things, either. As a parent that last part is even harder, but as a parent that’s experienced poverty and homelessness, it’s a little easier for me than some of my colleagues.


We talk a lot about “meeting students where the are,” but I get the feeling that mantra stops at academic readiness, and does not extend to social/emotional readiness. This does not mean, however, that we lower expectations for our students. It just means we understand humanity is complex, and we give leniency and grace where we can. We will never know what other human beings are going through. Even if their circumstances could be exactly the same as yours, their human reaction to it won’t be. Love and acceptance will have a greater impact on your students.


When we address “disruptive” or “destructive” behaviors with our students, we should 1) listen more than we speak, 2) remember that we may never know or understand the whole story, 3) validate the student’s experiences and feelings, 4) ask for a solution from the student while offering support toward that solution, 5) make sure that student knows we love them. This won’t always work the first or fifth time, and it may never work. There are some students who have experienced so much trauma they are beyond our reach. That’s hard to accept, but remember it’s not about you. It’s not about the student, and humans are not inherently “bad.” Seek help without judgment if you can’t meet a student’s needs. That includes unconditional love for yourself and not judging your inability to reach every student. We are humans, too. Deconstructing hierarchies includes allowing ourselves grace and accepting we can’t do and be all.




I know a lot of us cringe at this phrase. One reason could be the pressure put on us to make sure every kid is “behaving” every second of every day to get as much instruction time as possible. It makes us feel like we have to be watching at all times and driving the kids to sit quietly with their noses in books or essays all of the time. Nonsense! Classrooms should be noisy most of the time! There are appropriate times for silent, independent work, but I believe that if people aren’t talking and laughing, they’re not truly learning.


We need to reimagine what management of a classroom looks like. First of all, it should be managed by the kids themselves. In my classroom there is one rule: respect. I started out this practice by having the kids define what that means to them, but quickly discovered they don’t even know. So now I tell them we will define it as we go, and it may change over the course of the year. This is where class meetings and restorative justice circles come in. This is where respect is defined, practiced, demanded, and restored.


Classroom meetings and restorative justice circles are great spaces for reflection and transformation IF the teacher can take a step back and allow students to facilitate their own meetings and discussions. This will generally require some direct instruction in the beginning and a lot of practice, but it can be magical. I’ve seen disruptive students completely turn around without me saying a word to them because their classmates addressed it and resolved it in class meetings.


This is a great practice for dismantling hierarchies only if the adults trust the students with decision making and follow through with what the students have decided is best for their classroom. The rule is we will try anything (within reason and what is legal) as long as we come back to it in the next meeting if it’s not working. The only thing I will interject into decision making is the result of natural consequences. For example, students will say, “We should have class meetings every day,” so I will remind them if they choose that option, they will still be held accountable for getting their lessons completed, so that may result in more homework. Usually they’ll vote it down after that, but if they don’t, I hold them to it. It’s not a punishment for their decisions, it’s just the natural consequence of using class time for things other than lessons.




Lastly, what and how the kids learn. I am passionate about ethnic studies and liberatory education. We can’t do either if we are not promoting and facilitating uninhibited dialogue. My rule as a parent and teacher is if they’re savvy enough to question it, they’re mature enough to hear an honest answer. Bringing this into the classroom means they’re mature enough to discuss it with their peers. Don’t fool yourself into thinking similar conversations aren’t happening in the halls, at lunch, or on the playground. Bringing natural curiosity and discussion into the classroom is a healthy way to approach learning.


I do not censor the discussions of my students. I don’t allow them to be offensive or use racial or xenophobic slurs, but I also don’t tone police, correct their language, or even prohibit profanity. I let them be them and discuss their learning in ways that make sense to them. Anything less is imposing an etiquette rooted in the belief of white supremacy and patriarchy. The word “fuck” might be offensive to you, but I love it. My idea of an offensive word is more like “assimilation.” What is considered offensive and appropriate is often arbitrary and, again, based in white heteropatriarchy. Dismantling hierarchies using unconditional love and trust means accepting our students for who they are, including the ways in which they choose to express themselves.


*Disclaimer: I don’t want anyone to think I’m claiming to be perfect and do these things all of the time. I have judged students and parents. I have policed language until I realized I shouldn’t, and the transformation of my classroom from me managing it to students managing themselves was messy and complicated – and still can be! But I have to go back to the idea that I am not an expert. If I thought I was I would be perpetuating hierarchies instead of dismantling them and I wouldn’t ever try anything new. Just as our students have been conditioned to fear failure, we have too. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to share that failure with your students. It’s a way we can share our humanity with them.

This Isn’t a Blog Post!

I know I made a commitment to post every Sunday, but you guys! I was on the most epic vacation with my child for the past month! We traveled all over Europe, just the two of us: Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Normandy, Paris, Zurich, and Rome. We took a train through The Chunnel. I drove a car really fast in France! And together we had some amazing experiences.

Now that I’m back State Side, I’m slammed with Ethnic Studies duties! Seattle Public Schools is in the beginning stages of codifying a K-12 Ethnic Studies program, and I feel so fortunate to be on the ground floor, BUT that means less time for blogging. For now, I’m re-blogging my last post, but I will be back in a week with the final post of the four part series just in time for setting up your classroom (I hope!).

Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies Part 3: Dismantling Knowledge Hierarchies


Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies Part 3: Dismantling Knowledge Hierarchies


What is knowledge? Without looking at a dictionary, I would define knowledge as an accumulation of facts and ideas through life experiences and education that shape our convictions and paradigms. What I really want to unpack here, though, is how we qualify education, and how it creates what I’m calling “knowledge hierarchies.” In part 3 of this series, I’m going to argue that we equate education with knowledge and ability – falsely. I recognize that, as educators, thinking otherwise will challenge our own paradigms, but challenge them I will!

First, let’s look at some people who are “educated” in the formal sense:

George W. Bush, Yale 1968

Sarah Palin, University of Idaho 1987

Donald Trump, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania 1968

I thought about listing more, but I think those three will help make a point.

“Professional women and men of any specialty, university graduates or not, are individuals who have been ‘determined from above’ by a culture of domination which has constituted them as dual beings.” You guessed it, Freire. Here’s where we equate education as not only knowledge, but also as a way to define “leader.” School administrators are almost always determined from above without regard for the wants and needs of the community of their school(s). Generally, they are chosen because of their education status and how long they’ve been an educator. Their skills and accomplishments may be taken into consideration, but education status is a gatekeeper. This creates a situation in which the administrator believes they know best because they were chosen by an elite group. Consequently, they “lead” with their ego instead of their heart and love of their community.

Formal education measures a person’s ability to attend a university, and their ability to complete a degree program. That’s it. A formal education may deliver knowledge to an individual they did not previously have, but it is in no way an indicator of that individual’s ability to perform any type of job or responsibility. For evidence, see the above list.

I make this argument as a person who has 3 degrees and intends on obtaining a fourth. Let me explain why I have them and intend on getting more, and then I will explain how I believe we can work to dismantle knowledge hierarchies from within the hierarchy.


I grew up in a fairly poor family who struggled to make ends meet in a fairly poor exurb of Los Angeles. I knew no one with a college degree besides my teachers, doctors, etc, but was convinced education was my way out of poverty. Once I became pregnant at age 17, I knew for sure that college was what would save me and my future child. Unfortunately, I became pregnant again at 18, and college had to take a back seat. Because I was a teenage mom twice over, my family experienced extreme poverty. My husband became abusive, and when I hit rock bottom, I committed to earning my degree at any cost.

Going to college full time and being a mom caused the abusive relationship to reach new heights and I left my husband before graduating. At that point, I had no other choices. I was living off student loans and living with my parents, who thought I should have been working instead of going to school. I stuck with it, though, and here I am with a Master’s degree and teaching middle school. I don’t make a ton of money, and I’m $70,000 in debt, but I’m better off than I was all those years ago. My education saved my life and gave me the ability to help my children.

Did I gain knowledge in college? I guess I picked up some facts and trivia fodder. I maybe changed the way I thought about a few things… but not anything significant that I can think of. I was able to put labels on things I understood about life and the world prior to having a formal education. My education definitely did not prepare me to walk into a classroom and teach students who need a lot more than education. I would say that most of the success I’ve had as a teacher comes from my life experiences and my ability to relate to and unconditionally love my students.

This is the knowledge hierarchy trap. For many people experiencing poverty, who are disproportionately people of color, formal education, if achieved, is an act of survival more than anything. What does that mean for the millions of others who don’t have access to it? Are they any less capable or knowledgeable? My argument is that they are not, and we should not exclusively measure knowledge or ability with formal education.


As previously mentioned, I plan on returning to school to obtain a doctorate degree. After what I’ve just said about formal education, you may be wondering why I would bother. Well, now that I am out of survival mode and have been working in education as a teacher activist, I realize that formal education plays an additional role for marginalized and oppressed people: resistance and liberation.

With as much as I have accomplished with institutionalizing racial justice in the form of ethnic studies, I have definitely hit a credibility ceiling because I’m “just a teacher.” A PhD or EdD after my name would get me into conversations where my ideas could have more weight. It would get me into meetings with people who are resistant to change, not because they respect me, but because they respect the title. Fighting within the system sometimes requires us to use the infrastructure of the system we’re trying to dismantle.

The problem, however, is that many people who hit the credibility (or income) ceiling obtain their credentials for the wrong reasons. How many school administrators who you know are in it for the love of people and community? How many school administrators actually get behind racial justice instead of paying lip service? How many school administrators actively challenge the status quo and put their jobs on the line to fight systemic racism in our schools? I’ve met great educators that go to school to be school administrators and come out as different people. Recently, I applied to a graduate program that included obtaining administrator credentials and was told I would need to “step away from racial justice work to study leadership.” I spent a lot of time in that conversation arguing how one is not separate from the other, but my argument wasn’t being heard. I decided to pass on that program, but it explains why we have the type of administrators we do.


I believe a solution to this problem is for more critically aware educators to go into administration. We tend to avoid it because of its current state, but if we are going to be effective in making structural changes we need to leave the silos of our classrooms. I’ve struggled greatly with this. I love my students, and I went into teaching to love and teach young people, but the more I’m in the classroom seeing the inequities and how we are hurting them, the greater the urgency to change the system becomes.

It’s not enough to have more administrators of color. It’s not enough to have white allies as administrators. We need accomplices who are committed to building a true community that values the voices of all regardless of education status; who lead equitably, providing a space for the voices of the oppressed in their community. We need leaders who recognize their position as in contradiction to both the oppressors and the oppressed and who actively work to dismantle the structures that create this triangular leadership. This means challenging and rejecting oppressive structures and practices like standardized testing, disproportionate discipline of educators of color, recruitment and retention of educators of color, and, of course, dismantling hierarchies to achieve decolonization of education.

If this is not the goal of administrators, we only serve to perpetuate white supremacy, white saviorism, and the tokenization of administrators of color. If we, as people of color, are taking positions of leadership to fulfill a diversity quota without this critical consciousness, the harm to our students is exponentially greater than if we are a white administrator. First, we perpetuate white supremacy, and second, we teach students of color that the desired goal as a person of color is to assimilate instead of fight for racial justice. It’s not enough to just be the person of color in the room.