EDCI 2100: Power, Privilege, and Public Education
Sims in an elementary classroom in Willimantic, Connecticut, in June. When her UConn students land in classrooms like this, she wants them to have had honest training in equity and inclusion.
Who is the “public” in “public education”? Future teachers in this class tease apart that question, using history and current events to examine the inequities in our educational systems and to posit real-world fixes.
At just 4 years old, Violet Jiménez Sims ’02 (SFA), ’05 MA, ’11 6th Year told her mother she wanted to “be one of the little people that lived inside the television.” Today, she laughs and says she’s learned that no one lives inside a TV, and instead of being an actress, she spends most of her time in front of a different audience: college students.
“Good teachers have to be good actors,” Sims says. “You have to be entertaining enough to capture students’ attention and use improv skills sometimes when things don’t go right.”
Her path took a turn from fine arts to education during her senior year at UConn, when she was homecoming royalty representing the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center. “As part of that process I met a lot of people on campus,” she says. “One thing led to another, and there was an opportunity in the Dean of Students’ office.” Sims took the role and quickly knew she was on to something: She liked working with students. After earning her master’s, she taught Spanish and ESL (English as a Second Language) at Connecticut public high schools in New Britain and Manchester before becoming an administrator at a Montessori magnet school in Hartford.
“There was nothing else I had done before that seemed so impactful to individuals,” she says of teaching.
Now an assistant clinical professor in the Neag School of Education, Sims teaches “Power, Privilege, and Public Education” as a way to remedy an issue she saw frequently in public schools. “Equity work, diversity and inclusion — there were a lot of people in the field who just did not have any training connected to that,” Sims says.
Filling that gap when teachers are already leading a classroom is “almost a little too late,” she says, and that’s why she wants to help train students from the beginning.
“We talk about educational equity and justice — the historical, social, cultural, philosophical, and legal frameworks of education — and connect it to current events,” Sims says.
Categorized as both a general education and service learning course, it gives students an introduction into schooling in America while encouraging them to go out and experience it firsthand. By the end of the course, students pick an education topic to center an advocacy project around.
But first, students must understand the development and structure of education. As with most courses, there’s plenty of assigned readings, podcasts, and guest speakers. But many points are driven home through reflection exercises. One early assignment asks students to evaluate their own K-12 education in a five-page narrative. Students are often left surprised, Sims says. They’ll pinpoint things like dress codes, school demographics, and teachers, evaluating how those may have positively or negatively impacted their own education and how they see the world today. “This work is a journey, not a destination. If you’re into social justice work and you want to make sure that you’re having an impact, you are constantly learning about it,” she says. “And in order to actually be good at it, you have to be extremely reflective at all times.”
“Good teachers have to be good actors. You have to be entertaining enough to capture students’ attention and use improv skills on the spot sometimes when things don’t go right.”
Collaborative. Sims says she likes to shape the class with the students taking it each semester. And she’s intentional about it, from the projects she picks to how she addresses the class. Whether she’s listening to groups discussing a reading or reaching out via email, she often refers to students as friends.
“I want students to feel comfortable. I don’t see a hierarchy to their knowledge. I happen to have a longer amount of time on this earth than them, but my knowledge isn’t in any way superior to theirs.”
She’ll provide materials and facilitate a discussion but really lets the students decide how they let the information sink in. “I try to co-construct instruction with students,” Sims says.
She hopes to promote one of the most important values in her class: honesty. Sims knows it can be hard to dive deep and understand situations from other perspectives. But it all starts with open dialogue.
“I’ll have people share all sides of the spectrum, from students who have experienced discrimination in different ways to ones who grew up in very rural, conservative places. I want my students to speak up if perspectives are clashing for them or they just want to know more.”
Why We Want to Take It Ourselves:
Being prepared to get on the teaching stage means knowing your potential audience of students — and yourself.
That’s one of the main reasons, two years after taking it, Emily Gunzburg ’22 (ED) says it’s still her favorite class.
“Students who take this course learn who they are and how their identity impacts the way that school systems exist either inside the classroom as educators or outside of the classroom as taxpayers and potential future parents,” she says.
Gunzburg plans to become a teacher and sees how understanding her own privilege has already helped her engage students during her senior year teaching experience in Manchester, Connecticut, public schools. “Explaining privilege to fourth graders can be very difficult at times. But I think because I went through a semester of understanding it myself I was able to aid in some sort of recognition that I hope will help them down the line.”
And that’s one of Sims’ main goals through this class. “If we have reflective practitioners who understand how they enter a space and how to be responsive to everyone else in that space, I think they will be prepared for whatever changes.”
By Camila Vallejo ’19 (CLAS)
Photo by Peter Morenus