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.