The Labyrinth of Identity: An Individual’s Accounting of Her Journey Through the AMS ABAR Course
Our world and country found themselves in the middle of two crises in the spring of 2020, the pandemic and our reckoning with systemic racism. The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters, one signifying “danger” and the other, “opportunity.” These crises presented clear dangers, thus, as a school leader, it was my duty to make sense of the opportunity by learning, understanding, and taking action.
We witnessed continued horrific effects of systemic racism in the U.S., including the prominent deaths of several people of color, as well as the social and economic inequities exposed and made worse by the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis. And while it may be that at the very heart of Montessori education is the promotion of peace, establishing peace is not a passive stance but rather an active and disciplined pursuit.
At that time, I knew I was not doing enough. I had to use this opportunity to educate myself, so I could do more. I enrolled in the AMS Anti-bias, Antiracist (ABAR) Certificate Program, during which there were moments that I thought I was in a maze, sometimes lost and hitting dead ends. But as I reflect back on this experience, I realize I was, and continue to be, walking a labyrinth rather than a maze. A single continuous path towards a center point. There are instances that it seems to turn away from the nucleus, yet the path eventually finds its way back… once again moving forward.
A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. The labyrinth represents a journey to the center of your deepest self then back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and takes us out of our ego and toward "that which is within." The way in is the way out.
Through this ABAR course, I realized the social justice work that I have been engaged in was missing that center. The equity journey is not only a collective one, but an individual one. It takes focused attention on my individual experiences and on the lived experiences of individuals and communities. It takes recognizing that this work is a practice that aims not only for individual but also collective liberation. This course has provided a space for me to explore how my identity and culture have shaped who I am and the ways that I show up in the world for myself and others. I lacked confidence regarding the issues surrounding social justice. I wanted to run, to go backwards. But this course encouraged me to stay and learn to be uncomfortable. In order to do this internal work, I had to be willing, intentional, and open… to see the ways that I am biased and the ways I perpetuate systems of oppression, and to acknowledge the harm I have caused, even to the children I so deeply loved.
Montessori pedagogy lends itself to creating respectful, inclusive classrooms, celebrating diversity in all its forms, crossing cultural boundaries, and modeling engaged citizenry; nevertheless, anti-bias and antiracism education cannot just be about the peace table and Grace and Courtesy lessons. It goes beyond occasional activities about diversity and fairness topics. To be effective, anti-bias and antiracism education works as an underpinning perspective, which permeates everything that happens in our program, including our interactions with children, families, and coworkers, shaping how we operate our school.
We have to honestly evaluate our current practices and recognize how and why this work has been deprioritized in the past. Why have we remained silent and limited our work to surface-level diversity initiatives? Celebrating diversity and multiculturalism is not the same as antiracism or dismantling the socialization of racism. We have to gain awareness, reflect on our practices, and take action toward creating a new system and collaborative effort that will evaluate our processes and programming, so that we can make decisions based upon the principles of equity and inclusion, which are critical.
I have to be able to dissect how I am conditioned. I must ponder the root causes of conditions, negative experiences, and fixed mindsets in order to determine who I am and how I want to live in expansive ways that liberate myself and others. This course gave me historical context, knowledge, thinking systems, and strategies on how to apply my new awareness in real life, actualizing the use of an equity lens to interrupt. This new lens allows me to see how the interconnectedness of systems of privilege and oppression create complex interdependent experiences of discrimination and advantage. We interrupt when we unlearn what we have always done, so we can construct more equitable, more just, and more inclusive environments. We begin by removing one obstacle at a time. It takes risk-taking and a willingness to adopt new knowledge. It takes vulnerability and the courage to leave your former-self behind.
The course was contemplative, deliberate, and restorative. It is stepping inward and slowing down in order to listen and receive messages from deep within. It is always turning towards SELF… gently and slowly leading to an awakening. Illumination happens then takes you outward, hoping you will illuminate others, much like a labyrinth.
I didn’t realize how this ABAR work had entirely shaped me until I went on an accreditation visit. I had been on so many of these visits before, but something had changed; I had changed. My view had changed. I approached this work differently and there was an urgency to it that I had never felt before.
My inquiries were, of course, based on the AMS standards and the school’s self-study, but this was the first time I was explicit with my questions regarding equity.
- How does the school acknowledge learner diversity in a deeper way and encourage learning in more uncomfortable areas? Is inclusion embedded in the school (including international schools) through the stressing similarities ideology? This ideology acknowledges cultural differences but emphasizes common ground, what is shared between individuals (“We are all humans”) and the necessity of treating everyone equally. School climate research has shown consistently that the stressing similarities ideology remains the dominant approach reflected in the school curriculum, but we need to go further.
- How does the school take into account inclusion, diversity, equity, and antiracism, as well as student voice/agency, in the school culture, climate, systems and practices, curriculum, and materials?
- How is the school strengthening criteria related to cultural competencies of their leaders and faculty/staff as well as the cross-cultural relationships between all stakeholders?
Observation is a big part of accreditation and validating standards. Until my ABAR work, I never realized that observing with an equity lens included the whole process of observation. This was the first time I felt uncomfortable about observing during an accreditation visit.
- We did not know the teachers’ identities or their life experiences.
- We did not have the opportunity to build a relationship, so we could observe how their identities connect to their teaching.
- We did not know if someone would experience our observation as threatening or loaded. How would this affect the teachers, administrators, and students?
- Although we were clear about our reasons for observing and what we were going to be looking for, we were unable to give the teacher the opportunity to provide background and context for what we observed in class.
- Each observation is one moment in time and may not be representative of the teacher’s practice. And yet, we are unable to observe all teachers regularly to build a clearer understanding of their standard practices.
- I was aware of my own biases and assumptions and often had to interrogate them.
- For example, do I believe that effective teaching looks a certain way based on Montessori pedagogy or because that practice is something I have been acculturated to prefer?
- I learned to structure my observations with “look for” and “observables” lists of observation criteria that are aligned to the AMS standards.
- Although we often do not get to talk to each teacher one-on-one after the observation, we do get to interview them as a group. We use this as an opportunity to learn about their teaching practices and their own professional development. I tried to end each interview by identifying something I learned or reflected on for my own self as a result of having observed the teachers.
I was also very explicit with my questions regarding equity. I found myself asking a series of questions related to policy, practices, and programs. For example:
- How does this policy, practice, or program promote inclusive collaboration and engagement?
- How have stakeholders affected by the policy, practice, or program been involved in their development, implementation, and evaluation?
- How does this policy, practice, or program educate or raise ABAR consciousness?
- How does the policy, practice, or program educate and encourage sharing about race?
- Who benefits from and/or who is harmed by the policy, practice, or program?
- How will a policy, practice, or program affect systemic change?
- What are the specific strategies used to support ABAR work throughout the school community? How are these strategies evaluated?
I believe accreditation will increase focus on both individual competencies and institutional systems; schools and their leaders should feel emboldened by the proposed revised standards written with an ABAR lens, to cultivate mindsets that value diversity and equity and to institutionalize structures that mitigate discriminatory behaviors in cultures that they inherit.
This cultivation of this mindset also extends to individuals who visit schools for the School Accreditation Commission (SAC) or Teacher Education Action Commision (TEAC). The ABAR course cultivated my mindset through reflective discourse.
- I examined my belief systems and the effects of those systems on my students, faculty/staff, and families.
- I acknowledged that my worldview is based on my life experiences that are different from others. It helped me analyze how this may affect the dichotomy in my school and to realize how my pedagogical and philosophical truths can sometimes create barriers for diverse students, families, faculty, and staff.
- I learned the positive immediate and delayed benefits that equity practices will have on schools, the communities, and society as a whole.
- I learned that equity leadership is about being self-aware, self-regulating, and self-motivated, as well as developing habits, skills, and practices that demonstrate courage and bold action.
I appreciate that AMS saw the need for large-scale change to our practices to ensure timely support for our members in matching the reality of what Montessori education looks like amidst the urgent and magnified focus on the gaps in inclusion through diversity, equity, and antiracism practices and behaviors across Montessori schools. The hope is that the increased focus, resources, discussion, and training on ABAR will begin to change the mindset and ultimately the systems and practices of those who work in or with Montessori schools.
The hope is that the increased discussion and focus on equity will begin to change the mindset and ultimately the behaviors of those that work with Montessori leaders and educators. SAC and TEAC can better create a roadmap to what ABAR should look like in a Montessori school if the work to address individual work in ABAR is prioritized.
This work is personal work, and, much like a labyrinth, it is one that I essentially walked alone. It is through this personal journey of discovery that I received clarity and understanding. The entrance and the exit of the labyrinth are the same place and the only difference is the direction in which I was facing, my view. This journey is continuous and there will be many more labyrinths to traverse to continue to understand my identity and discover ways to interrupt and illuminate.
About the Author
Cassi Mackey, MEd, is passionate about helping communities create identity-safe spaces where people are encouraged to make changes to improve relationships. Cassi has witnessed the transformational power of communities that engage in Courageous Conversation, Collaborative Coaching, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices. It is a promise of more meaningful relationships, greater depth of experience, and a broader, more compassionate view of oneself and the world. These practices are essential in order to serve our children and the future of humanity. Cassi has been in the Montessori field for 30 years as a teacher and school leader. She is currently an American Montessori Society School Accreditation Commissioner and is Association Montessori Internationale School Administrator. She has also completed the AMS Anti-bias, Antiracist Certificate Program. She consults with and provides advice to Montessori communities that are intent on generating positive and lasting change. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.