Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

Bringing social justice to our schools

Without a nurturing eco-system in our schools that questions structural inequalities and recognises diversity, the foundation of our children’s lives will remain shaky

Schools should be places that nurture diversity. (Credit: Shelja Sen)

Dear Teachers,

Do you get the sense that schools that we send our children to seem like a theatre of the absurd and cruelty? Where from the time they are little they are constantly being measured against this illusionary yardstick of “normality” – their milestones, their grades, their social abilities, their likeability – everything is up for inspection? Where they have to learn to listen, speak (but not much), read, spell, write, comprehend, memorise, calculate, socialise, make friends, solve problems, excel in everything, and all this while sitting still, obediently and fast!? If this is not enough, they are being barraged with well-intentioned criticisms (“you are so messy”), not-so-well-intentioned ridicule (“what shoddy work! ”) and at times plain abuse (“you are a failure and can only bring shame to your family”).

My letter is in no way an attempt at fault-finding as we are all part of this theatre that obscures and, at times, legitimises the brutality against children. In fact, I am writing to you because I believe in the transformative power of teachers and the magical role they can play in children’s lives. I am sure each one of us can remember at least one teacher who completely changed our lives.

So how can we stay with the intention of building and sustaining schools that care?

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Trauma-informed schools –What is the big deal you might say? It is a big deal, in fact, it is the biggest deal. Social justice starts in schools where we question the structural inequalities that make the everyday experience so traumatic for children who are most vulnerable – the ones who live with a disability, neuro-divergence, who do not fit with society’s prescribed gender binaries, heteronormativity or struggle with financial hardships. These discriminations intersect and multiply to create marginalisation. Children can only learn when they feel safe, where they feel they belong and are acknowledged for who they are. Our children might leave the school buildings at the age of 18, but the memories stay in their hearts forever. Sometimes, these memories are warm but many times they are not. They are full of pain, and shame, stories of feeling unheard and being invisible leading to the burden of trauma that they haul for life.

Nurturing forests – Have you ever walked into a lush, thick forest and felt enchanted? It is like walking into a nourishing web of aliveness that settles something deep inside us and yet makes our spirits soar. Recently, there has been exciting research indicating that trees are “feeling beings”, communicating with each other through a fungal network that has been, through a play of words, called the wood-wide-web! This network protects the forest by sending warnings in the presence of danger, nursing the baby trees and even healing the ailing ones. What a powerful metaphor to bring to our classrooms and schools! That is what I see remarkable teachers do – building forests in their classrooms where they prioritise creating ecosystems that foster reciprocity and collaboration. Some children support others in academics, some bring in the element of fun, some add a dash of art and colour, while some infuse music and yet others gently help their classmates through rough phases. A self-sustaining diverse organism where each and every child is valued as an essential part of something larger.

Diversity-in-Action: Each child is wired and inspired differently.

The single most urgent and significant step that schools can take to build safer, trauma-informed schools is to implement diversity-in-action. Because as forester Peter Wohlleben put it (The Hidden Life of Trees, 2016), “A tree is as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” I will go one step forward and say — what makes a forest strong is the diversity in it.


It upholds dignity: First of all, let’s get rid of the myth of “every child is equal”. The intersectionality lens helps us understand the nuances of discriminations that can be completely invisibilised. Two children in the same class might face discrimination in different ways depending on where they stand in the social hierarchy. A boy with Dyslexia coming from privilege due to being born into a Hindu, high-income family will face very different challenges compared to his transgender classmate from a Muslim, low-income family who also struggles with Dyslexia. Teachers have to examine power and privilege and work extra hard at upholding the dignity of children who are more vulnerable.

It invites agency: Children are curious, and they want to learn and explore. We rob them of their agency when we tell them what to do and what to think, rather than ask them. I marvel at teachers who bring this vibrant curiosity into their classrooms – they make the children question, challenge, wonder, think, and experiment. Children become in charge of their learning – they understand what their struggles are, and with the right scaffolding, they move forward with sparkling enthusiasm.

It fosters solidarity: Have you entered a classroom ever where you can get a palpable energy of intense learning happening (remember the forest)? Chances are high that children are definitely not sitting quietly in their seats when this happens. It would be a buzzing hub of laughter, chatter, exchanges and movement. Learning rarely happens in isolation, and when there is no shame children are ready to learn and contribute to each other’s learning.


It builds richer stories: When we build trauma-informed schools that prioritise diversity-in-action, then we stand up against single stories for children. We do not allow children to be tagged as “lazy,” “nalayak,” “not-up-to-the-mark” but as carriers of multiple stories. Raghav might be struggling in math but we deeply appreciate his love for reading, and how he strings words together to write exquisite poetry. Rashi might struggle in paying attention in class but we celebrate her artistic skills in brightening up the class.

It advocates accountability: I know it is not easy, we all mess up all the time, but then we should get back on track and commit ourselves to do better. There is no point playing the blame game, we have to keep shouldering each other up. My letter to you is an appeal as I firmly believe that what you provide to humanity is the most significant contribution on this earth. Therefore, we have to do this now – if not now then when? If not you then who?

School is the foundation of children’s multi-storied lives (pun intended). They will carry the memories of these experiences forever. Your voice will contribute to what Amartya Sen calls ‘robustly pluralist identities”. Imagine them sitting with their children and talking about you. What words do you hope they will use to describe you? What will they say about what they cherished most about the relationship? What legacies would you want them to carry forward with them?

In solidarity

Shelja Sen is a narrative family therapist, writer, co-founder of Children First Institute of Child & Adolescent Mental Health. She is a TED speaker, an international faculty at Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, and Tutor at University of Melbourne. Email her at

First published on: 28-11-2022 at 10:00 IST
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