Farima Pour-Khorshid

Farima Pour-Khorshid

As someone involved in healing-centered engagement, what do you believe are the key components of fostering a healing-centered approach within educational environments?

I draw on and build from Shawn Ginwright’s healing-centered engagement framework and I think it’s crucial to understand that, in order to heal, we must first identify the harm. Harm can be identified through a multilayered lens like the four I’s of oppression: ideological oppression, internalized oppression, interpersonal oppression, and institutional oppression. 

Let me break that down. Ideologically, our society is shaped by a system of oppressive beliefs about the superiority of some groups and the inferiority of others, which is how these beliefs shape racism, classism, sexism, ableism, etc. These oppressive ideologies can also manifest as internalized oppression, where harmful stereotypes become ingrained in us as self-hatred, affecting our spiritual, emotional, physical, and psychological well-being. Interpersonal oppression plays out as horizontal violence; it affects our relationships with others, and rather than seeking to share power with others, interpersonal oppression is about struggling for power over others. For example, if you think about our classrooms or familial dynamics, interpersonal oppression might manifest as bullying or domestic violence. Lastly, institutional oppression refers to how institutions perpetuate and maintain oppression through the practices, policies, and values that privilege some and oppress others: this can range from zero-tolerance policies to curricular choices that negatively impact those most marginalized in the system. Ultimately we’re trying to heal from the trauma of oppression through a myriad of ways that address the root causes of harm and break the cycles that allow harm to continue.

When I think of the key components of fostering a healing-centered approach, I think of the CARMA principles from the framework; it's an acronym for Culture, Agency, Relationships, Meaning, and Aspirations. To break that down, let me explain each principle: Culture is about developing critical awareness of the dominant culture that shapes society while also deepening our understanding of the need for and beauty of diverse cultures that show up in our classrooms; Agency is about centering our individual and collective power to take action against the root causes of harm and create change in our lives and in the world more broadly; Relationships is about fostering healthy connections that extend beyond surface-level or transactional dynamics and toward transformative humanizing relationships that honor the value of one another’s humanity; Meaning is about about the discovery of who we are and where we’re going, which helps students and educators alike to center our “why”; Aspiration involves creating the space to explore possibilities beyond the present condition, to dream and envision what liberation could look and feel like across disciplines, space and time.

Ultimately, a politicized approach to healing and cycle-breaking requires questioning our conditions and evaluating if our conditions contribute to the healing or perpetuation of harm; it’s about equity and repair. In my courses, I’m fully aware that my students are teachers coming to evening classes after a full day of teaching in schools that are fast-paced, oftentimes chaotic, and activating to their nervous systems. One example of how I embody this in my courses is that I create rituals that provide grounding and a soft landing place for my student teachers the moment they walk through the door. For example, I integrate mindful breathing and body scans, mind/body/heart tracking, feelings and sensations reflections, and I ask them to reflect on what they need by using a list of universal needs as a scaffold. Creating space for students to check in with each other and as a whole group has been really important to honor their own humanity and to model humanizing ways to be in relation to ourselves, one another, and to our profession. Based on students’ individual and collective needs shared in class, we collectively adjust our agenda responsively. My hope is that this intention transfers to their own classroom practice as well.

One of the primary focuses of your work is on abolitionist teaching. For someone not familiar with your work, can you explain what abolition means within the context of education?

I think examples of abolitionist teaching can be found across disciplines and contexts. I was an organizer, editor, and contributing author of the book "Lessons in Liberation," an abolitionist toolkit for educators, this is great resource that offers snapshots of what abolitionist teaching can look like from the vantage point of educators and organizers trying to bridge prison abolition to K-16 education. First and foremost, abolitionist teaching is about dismantling the prison-industrial complex, and it seeks to disrupt carceral logics that are normalized as schooling. These logics mimic some of the mechanisms of incarceration like punishment, surveillance and exclusion, for example. Many teachers are aware of the school-to-prison pipeline but I think the term “pipeline” is not the right term to use because it can sound as though students get funneled from a seemingly neutral space like schools into an oppressive space like prisons. The problem is that schools serving poor Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are not neutral learning places because they are often over-surveilled, under-resourced, and disproportionately punish BIPOC populations in overt and covert ways. Some of my scholar-comrades like David Stovall, Erica Meiners, and Bettina Love talk about the school-prison nexus as a more accurate way to understand this dynamic because it acknowledges that schools and prisons are connected through a web of carcerality.

 Abolitionist teaching challenges the common belief that schooling is neutral or apolitical. It questions why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and how this reality intersects with K-12 schooling. For example, practices like detention, citations and school police officers on campus are just some ways that carcerality is normalized as an extension of student discipline. Another example is that there are 17 states in this country where corporal punishment is still legal, so teachers can physically hit students as a form of discipline. The American Civil Liberties Union released a report called Cops and No Counselors and highlights that 14 million students are in schools with cops but no counselors, no nurses, no school psychologists, and no social workers. When you look at the conditions of schooling, it's essential to understand how schools are often reproduction sites of the inequities we see in our society. These realities must require classroom educators to ask why they teach, what they teach, and how they teach toward a more just world. 

It’s also important to emphasize that abolitionist teaching is also very much about creating space for teachers and learners to engage the radical imagination through joy, creativity, healing and collective care. This teaching approach aims to create a society that can center accountability and safety outside of punitive frameworks. It's about fostering a world where everyone can exist with dignity, care, and resources, challenging the logics that perpetuate individualism, oppression, and disposability.

Can you share more about your experiences teaching at the elementary grade levels in your community and how that influenced your perspectives on education? How do you feel like that work has led you to USF?

Growing up, I never thought that I would ever attend college because I struggled so much in school. I started kindergarten right after my father was murdered, and that grief and trauma had significant behavioral, cognitive, and emotional impacts on me as a student. I accidentally became a teacher because there was a shortage of bilingual teachers in California when I was in high school so I was invited to apply to a teacher pipeline program geared toward first-generation bilingual students to become bilingual teachers. This allowed me to start at the local community college which paved the way for me to become a teacher. 

Upon graduating with my teaching credential, my first three years of classroom teaching were during the California budget crisis, leading to annual layoffs in large numbers. Each year, I had to pack up and move out of my classroom. I was so frustrated that I decided that I was not only going to leave teaching, I was going to leave the country as well. I wanted to get closer to my roots so I ended up living and teaching in Bluefields, Nicaragua, where my family is from. I think that’s when I realized that education looks so different in the U.S., and I started to question why that was. I returned to the U.S. after my brother died unexpectedly. 

I was struggling with profound trauma and grief while navigating a PhD program, teaching kindergarten in my community, and teaching undergraduate students as a Teaching Assistant to pay for my tuition. In my mind, I thought, how can I teach when I’m feeling so broken?  I think kindergarten teaching became a path to heal my own inner child. I think a lot about how we can honor the inner children of teachers in the same ways that we need to honor the children that they teach. There’s a common thread between my inner child and my inner teacher that seeks love, care, and attention.

I eventually brought some of my USF students to complete their student teaching fieldwork at the elementary school where I was teaching at. We were a team and planned together, organized together, and even attended protests together. The ways I tried to support my USF students embodied the kinds of support I needed as a new teacher. Adults need the same love and belonging that the young children they teach need as well. There is an assumption that many of us have about adulthood equating to this place of finishedness, but we’re always in a state of becoming. We’re always in a state of unlearning. We are always in a state of evolving.

How did your experience teaching elementary school inform your decision to pursue higher education? Do you see a unity of purpose between working with young children and working with the USF student body? 

I think my own healing is intertwined with the kinds of healing I hope to bring to teacher education at USF: healing my own inner child but also my inner teacher and my inner grad student. I think healing these different parts of me is also about healing the systems that caused me harm, so my commitment now looks like helping teachers to understand that the system is sick and that it needs healing. Schooling conditions are not healthy, I don’t want to gaslight teachers into thinking schooling is normal. And, of course, we know that schooling is different from education. I want teachers to be able to understand the distinction. A lot of people come into teaching with a sense of martyrdom and saviorism, knowingly or unknowingly. I think it’s important to help teachers understand that children are not broken and their families are not broken: they are doing their best to survive harmful systems. It’s our responsibility as educators to understand why and how the education system can cause harm as well as supporting them to engage possibilities for healing and repair as a humanizing praxis. By supporting educators to create healing-centered learning spaces for themselves, young people, and their families/caretakers, we can unify to resist systemic harm and collectivize to build toward education for liberation.

What are you up to these days in the teacher education department in USF’s School of Education? How does your work outside of USF impact your current work at USF?

I’m really excited about the recent launch of our healing-centered racial affinity group initiative in the Teacher Education Department. We partnered with our doctoral programs within the School of Education and we’re working with graduate students who are working in K-12 schools: they are our facilitators leading the racial affinity groups for our student teachers. Sarah Capitelli and I have been focused on supporting our facilitators, securing resources for this initiative, and collaborating on what it looks like to create humanizing learning spaces for racial healing and critical consciousness development for teachers.

Our initiative aims to address the differentiated learning needs of Black, Indigenous, people of color, mixed-race people and white people in each of the racial affinity groups of teachers. Our intention is also to build community through critical reflection, vulnerability, and collective care. When our student teachers have a container to critically reflect on their positionalities in relation to privilege and marginalization, they foster deeper connections with others as they share their own experiences and learn from others within their groups. This praxis ultimately makes them better educators for the diverse student populations that they will be teaching. 

We’ve created space for racial healing by engaging the arts, journaling, shared reflections, and even through play. I’ve really enjoyed working with our doctoral student facilitators; sometimes our planning meetings feel like healing sessions that prepare us for the kinds of healing that we want to facilitate in our racial affinity group sessions. I wasn’t anticipating how this level of (femme)torship would heal my inner doctoral student—I truly needed this kind of support when I was in my own doctoral program. I am also realizing through this experience that when I cultivate the healing spaces that I need as an educator, everyone that is invited into those spaces benefits, too. To me, that’s a beautiful thing because we are socialized as educators to do this work for others but we deserve to do this work for ourselves too–healing should be a reciprocal and mutual process and journey.

In terms of my work outside of USF, I serve as a board member for the Abolitionist Teaching Network, the Education for Liberation Network, and I also play a leadership role in the Teachers 4 Social Justice organization in the Bay Area. I’m really proud of the organizations that I’m part of. In each of these organizations we’re trying to make sense of what it means to embody our values in how, why, and what we organize for. It’s important to mention that the journey has been challenging, in fact, navigating conflict and harm has been deeply painful and transformative.  I’m still learning and growing a lot in this constant state of grief that happens through relational and organizational ruptures. I look to people with whom I can practice my values with to stay grounded when conflict and harm feel overwhelming. I think there’s something really humanizing about navigating the messiness of conflict with others who are willing to grow from it alongside you. I am committed to continuing to show up for the challenges, even when it’s hard. I think this is what collective liberation asks of us.