A group of educators from around the state discuss what progress would look like in a breakout group at Lewiston's Tree Streets Youth center. The teachers were part of a group of 50 educators around the state who met for the inaugural meeting of Maine Collective of Radical Educators, or MaineCORE. Credit: Courtesy of Iris Eichenlaub

LEWISTON, Maine — Maine teachers are taking a significant step toward addressing what they’ve identified as a system of racial bias embedded in their classrooms.

Roughly 50 teachers, school social workers, librarians and other educators in the inaugural Maine Collective of Radical Educators, or MaineCORE, have teamed up to promote equity, anti-discrimination and restorative justice.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re doing this work in a silo of your own classroom, school or social work office,” said Julia Hazel, a grade-school teacher at Rowe Elementary in Portland, who organized the group with fellow educator Rose Gruszecki of the Washington County-based migrant education group Mano e Mano.

Relying on principles they learned firsthand from the New York Collective of Radical Educators, the goal is to discuss ways to eliminate bias, uncover the limitations of conventions such as standardized testing and close achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students.

Over an afternoon potluck, the network of teachers got to know each other, compared notes and set goals.

Hazel said the term “radical” implies getting to the root of the issue, and that the New York CORE educators helped her understand “the bigger-picture structures of how public education works.” The educators are at ground zero for how to implement anti-oppression and justice principles that benefit society as a whole.

Credit: Courtesy of Iris Eichenlaub

At Lewiston’s Tree Streets Youth center, the collective separated into multiple large breakout groups. One discussed “white fragility,” borrowing the term from the 2018 book by educator Robin DiAngelo that explores common reasons white people have difficulty talking about structural racism, and the stereotypes and defense mechanisms they can use to sidestep those conversations. Some of those defense mechanisms include checking out, dominating the discussion or dismissing talk about racism with excuses such as, “I already get this.”

“One of the questions we’re dealing with is how to work with colleagues who don’t recognize their own white fragility and not to put them on the defense,” said Deanna Ehrhardt, a digital media teacher at Lewiston Public Schools who moved to the area from Chicago two years ago.

Ehrhardt credited Jake Langlais, Lewiston’s high school principal, with embracing multiculturalism that marries the city’s Franco-American cultural history with its racial diversity.

But the school’s dynamic raises a question: when one-third of students are black and faculty are disproportionately white, what tools do educators have for detecting whether unconscious bias is built into the structure?

In another breakout group, educators discussed grading for equity, a system of re-evaluating how teachers weigh their academic assessments to preparing teachers for how to teach multilingual students and students with childhood trauma and understanding how to teach Wabanaki studies.

Teachers emerged from the discussions with takeaways that defied conventions, particularly on the role of discipline in schools.

Sarah Greaney, an ed tech at Lewiston Public Schools, sat in on the workshop about teaching students with childhood trauma. She learned that some young people have experienced trauma and adverse health experiences that affect their development. It puts them in a state of survival mode, and in some cases, can make their need to establish connection and trust with a teacher manifest in rebellion.

“A childhood emotional state needs connection,” Greaney said. “I see a lot of backtalk, sass and yelling addressed with fire instead of something to help extinguish that fire.”

Teachers from parts of the state with less racial diversity say other dynamics can lead to divisions.

“The diversity we have here in our community is socioeconomic,” said Iris Eichenlaub, a librarian at Camden Hills Regional High School, which is 97 percent white.

Eichenlaub said she builds on that to drive conversations about unconscious bias, which can bridge a deeper understanding of what structural racism looks like. Getting connected with MaineCORE can help influence her purchasing decisions for the school’s library, where books might be the only access to different perspectives and experiences for students.

“Some of my early learning started with Scene on Radio’s ‘Seeing White’ podcast series, Debby Irving’s ‘Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race in America’ and Ijeoma Oluo’s ‘So You Want To Talk About Race,’” Eichenlaub said. “As educators, this work is important as we think about preparing our students for their futures.”

The restorative justice principles embraced by MaineCORE are often directly contrasted with the growing movement to increase police presence and surveillance inside schools, in Maine and nationwide, which can have adverse effects on students of color and bring young people into contact with the justice system for often minor offenses.

“We wanna be able to break through those barriers,” said Ehrstadt, who said that she’s seen an increased focus this year on developing relationships with students.

In practice, that often means they’ll take time during the school day to share stories, a dramatic shift from the old-school teacher techniques of haggling them about finishing their lessons.

“Really, our kids are dying for us to get to know them. All the discipline in the world isn’t going to teach us who they are,” Ehrstadt said.