Equity in the classroom

When Meir Muller calls teaching a “life and death occupation,” the University of South Carolina assistant professor of early childhood education isn’t being dramatic. He’s merely underscoring the fundamental importance of good teachers — and of equity in the classroom.

As an example of the latter, he cites some hard numbers related to preschool suspensions and race.

“Nationally, 18 percent of our preschool students are students of color, yet 46 percent of the preschoolers suspended or expelled from school are children of color,” Muller explains. “And once you’re suspended or expelled, it’s that much harder to be successful. Often, the preschool-to-prison pipeline is in the hands of teachers who are expelling these children.”

It’s an eye-popping statistic, made doubly relevant in the context of Muller’s own classes at the College of Education.

“I need my students, who are about 88 percent white, to start seeing that and recognizing that, and then transforming the way that they interact with children, and the way that the school itself interacts with children,” he says.

For Muller, an ordained rabbi who also serves as principal at the Cutler Jewish Day School in Columbia, it’s critical to meet students where they are — whether they’re 18 or eight — and then build on their knowledge and personal experience.

“I try to look at the students holistically, then understand them as people, not just as learners,” he says. “If I understand just a little about them and their lived history, I can tailor my teaching and tailor the content to make it meaningful for them.”

Muller also encourages his students to apply a critical lens to their own experience as students and as educators, to the texts they use in the classroom, to the culture at large, which often marginalizes the cultural norms of certain communities. Whose voices are being heard, he asks them to ask — and whose are silenced? He wants his teaching to be transformational and for his students to be similarly transformational when they begin their own classroom careers.

“I want them to change as people, in the way they see schooling, and truthfully, the world,” he says. “And because most of my teaching focuses on issues of equity — especially racial equity — I want students to be able to look at any text, at anything they see, and be able to tell whose voice is privileged and whose voices is silenced.”

It’s not just the students who reap the rewards.

“There’s a tremendous sense of happiness, of success, when I hear my students speaking to young children about issues of equity in our society,” says Muller. “It’s that idea that, ‘Wow, I made a change. Now the classroom is a little bit more just, this child won’t be suspended, this child can move forward knowing that they are incredible.”

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