Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies: a Four Part Series

By Tracy Castro-Gill

Re-blogged from The Teacher Activist

I don’t think there would be much opposition to the following statement:

Social hierarchies of any kind result in oppression. Period.

When I teach my sixth graders about ancient history, one of the first concepts I introduce them to is that of the social hierarchy compared to the ideas of tribalism and egalitarianism. Haters will say, “But, wait! Ancient tribal societies were not egalitarian!” Yes, I know this, that’s why I said, “tribalism and egalitarianism.” While I know that many tribal structures include some type of a hierarchy, it is much less rigid than the hierarchies created by larger civilizations.


Francis Fukiyama, in his book The Origins of Political Order; From prehuman times to the French Revolution, does a great job of breaking down the differences between tribal and state governments. He does this mostly by describing the different ways in which personal property was valued, regulated, and shared. In tribal societies, personal property, mostly in the form of land holdings, was strategically traded between tribes, usually through marriage arrangements. Using this method required a sense of community and trust between different tribal governments. Yes, there were gender hierarchies and class hierarchies, but there was still a sense of family and community because of the cooperation between tribes. The leaders were in community and were familiar with the community, if not liked or loved by them. Leaders who lost the trust of the community lost power.

Fukiyama compares three ancient cultures and outlines when and why they went from tribal governments to state governments. All three, China, India, and Europe, started with tribal governments. The shift to state government came in waves in China because the tribal organization was so deep and the geography so wide. India remained largely tribal until it was invaded and occupied by European nation-states. Interestingly, Fukiyama points out that Europe’s transformation was the swiftest and strongest because of Christianity. Individualism, as discussed in the last blog post, and adherence to law are two important tenets of Christianity, especially after Reformation, and since early monarchies and Church leadership were virtually inseparable, Church law was law. This created a shift in how personal property was defined. It became more of an individual ownership and not something that is shared within community or to build alliances between communities. It laid the foundations for capitalism and individual gain over the common good. It also set the leaders apart from the people. Power was transferred to wealth instead of community agreements.

Through invasion, occupation, and colonization, other cultures eventually took on similar state governments creating the social hierarchies we are familiar with today: capitalist oligarchies, totalitarian dictatorships, constitutional monarchies, democratic socialism, etc. Those are just the state hierarchies. There are still the gender and class hierarchies, and we’ve added racial hierarchies. There are institutional hierarchies as well. I want to address the last few here, but as you can see… it’s going to take a while, which is why I’ve split this topic into a four part series.


“I am asking you to actively work to dismantle racial, class, gender, and institutional hierarchies in the classroom, in your school building, and in your school district.”

In part one of this series, I want to begin to argue that decolonizing our schools can’t happen unless we actively work to dismantle these hierarchies. No, I’m not asking you to dismantle capitalist oligarchies (though I believe if we do what I am suggesting, that will be a natural consequence). I am asking you to actively work to dismantle racial, class, gender, and institutional hierarchies in the classroom, in your school building, and in your school district. Until we do, we are still colonizing our students and each other. I will start with the classroom. Part two will address school and district-wide hierarchies, part three will address higher education, specifically in school administration preparation programs, and part four will be a reflection on how I’ve worked to dismantle hierarchies in my classroom.

Paolo Freire tells us that liberation requires a “praxis.” This can be defined as “theory in practice.” Recently, I learned from the leaders of the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson that the Aztec word for this is Huitzilopochtli, which translates to “hummingbird on the left.” It is taken to mean acting from the heart. Freire writes at length about what it takes to be a revolutionary leader. He says, “… but leaders who deny praxis to the oppressed thereby invalidate their own praxis… Revolutionary praxis is a unity, and the leaders cannot treat the oppressed as their possession.” How can leaders act from the heart if they are not only detached completely from the people they are trying to lead, but also feel they know better than the people? I, and Freire, argue that it’s impossible. That’s not leadership. That’s oppression, and the only way to avoid it is to dismantle the barriers created by hierarchies.

“Box checking educators are responsible for the rise of fascism in the United States.”

In the classroom, we are the leaders. We can further oppress our students, or lead them to praxis through education. I recognize that there are many of us in the profession who are box checkers. We show up, we check off the boxes for the standards we covered, and check off the boxes in our scope and sequence map, we collect a paycheck, and take our summer vacations. This is my official call to action: if you are this educator immediately cease and desist this practice! If you work with educators like this immediately organize educators who believe this is immoral and push those educators to immediately cease and desist their practice! Box checking educators are funneling our children into prisons, poverty, drugs, streets, and police brutality. Box checking educators are responsible for the rise of fascism in the United States. Box checking educators are killing public education.

We need to return to tribal values of community and cooperation through praxis and egalitarianism in our own practice. We must recognize that our students, regardless of age or ability, come into our classroom with an astounding wealth of knowledge, and for most of their lives, they have been told that their knowledge is not valid or not valuable simply because of their age. I am saying that this is a hierarchy; an institutional hierarchy, yes, because a classroom is part of a larger institution, but also an hierarchy based on age and perceived knowledge. I’ll go deeper into the perceived knowledge hierarchy in part three.


One of the first messages I give my students is that I see them. I see their lived experiences, and I value them as educators. I explain that I am at the front of the room only because I have the privileges of age and formal education, and that in no way makes me or my knowledge superior to theirs. I also share how much I love to learn with and from my students.

Dismantling hierarchies in the classroom requires a complete shift on the definition of knowledge. The human brain is wired to perceive the world and process knowledge through culture. From the moment we are born, how we interpret our experiences is painted by the culture we’re born into. Unfortunately, when we go to school to learn, we are expected to check those cultural perceptions at the door and allow teachers to fill our heads with the perceptions of white American cultural “knowledge.” Our brains become colonized.

I think it’s impossible for every educator to learn the culture of every student that is in front of us, and the beautiful consequence of dismantling age and knowledge hierarchies is that we don’t have to! Our students have what Dr. Anita Fernández refers to as “cultural wealth.” They bring with them all of the cultural knowledge and experiences of their communities. Learn from them! Don’t invalidate their knowledge! Utilize it! Value it! Teach your students the value of having diverse perspectives when solving problems and analyzing their world. You are there to give them resources and guide them. You’re not giving them wisdom, knowledge, or even a lens through which to see the world. They came to you already equipped with those things, but part of our own education has told us that they are ill equipped if it’s not the white way of doing things, and that children aren’t sophisticated enough to already have skills that we deem valuable.


One thing I do think all educators have the responsibility to do is love their students. I love my students. I love who they are when they come to me. I love what they teach me and the joy they bring to my life. I love when they’re challenging and they push me to be a better human being. In order to fully dismantle hierarchies in the classroom we must love our students unconditionally. I have literally been laughed at in the past for suggesting this. It goes against what we’re taught – to be objective. Here’s another call to action: if you can’t love your students, get another job! If you know educators that don’t love their students, counsel them out of the profession!

If we don’t love and value our students, they won’t trust us as leaders. This is where we lose our kids. This is how we are funneling them into prisons or worse. Love your students! Be a valuable member of the classroom community. Don’t be a figurehead lecturing from behind a desk. Be with them. Learn with them. Commune with them. It’s not some hippy bullshit. It’s how we are meant to engage as human beings. Teaching and learning are part of the human experience, not some sterile, objective process.

Through unconditional love we can fully value the cultural wealth that our students bring to us and each other. When we love our students we see and build on their humanity, which is my goal as an educator. I’m not here to check boxes or prepare students for “college and beyond.” My goal is to grow human beings who value their humanity and the humanity of others. We’ve lost sight of that in education for a lot of reasons, mostly corporate ed reform, but that’s a blog post for another time.

“Dismantling classroom hierarchies through loving and valuing our students means empowering them to be change makers now, not after it’s too late.”

By practicing unconditional love and valuing the humanity of our students we are modeling the kind of human beings we want them to be – not become! Emphasis on now. Part of dismantling the hierarchy is showing students that their cultural wealth can be put to use now, not when they graduate or turn eighteen. They can change their world now. In kindergarten? Change how they treat one another. In 6th grade? Change school policies. In 11th grade? Change laws and perceptions in their community. Dismantling classroom hierarchies through loving and valuing our students means empowering them to be change makers now, not after it’s too late.

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