A lot of memes have been floating around telling teachers that, through this pandemic, what we are doing is enough. Because what we are doing is hard and nowhere near as meaningful or fulfilling as being with our students. And I admit I have taken solace in hearing this even though I know it isn’t true because it never is. And I’m not trying to get down on us but we must see ourselves and our profession in what’s happening right now in the racism expressing itself across the country. On some level, we white teachers have tolerated and perpetuated the status quo. We have permitted injustices even as we gripe about them in the teacher’s lounge.
Like me, you might also take solace in thinking, “I’m not one of those white people.” You might have relatives who are Trump supporters who you either argue with you avoid. Even as an anti-racist educator, you and I will always benefit from the color of our skin.
We have to self-interrogate and act if we hope to move forward as a society.
As a teacher of immigrants who are African, Asian and Latino, my first priority is to validate, seek out and empower my students’ voices and give them unending opportunities to explore their identities: their languages, experiences, beliefs, questions and interests.
But there are days where I stand in front of the room and talk for too long, or correct a student’s behavior in a certain way that reinforces my white authority. Because the fact of the matter, even if I’m not seeing it as my white authority, it is. And I must make that knowledge visible so my students and I can take it apart and not let it fall into the acceptable subconscious.
Over the course of nearly 13 years, I have been working towards designing classes where students have practical experience as agents of their own learning. When I first began teaching, though, I didn’t realize how much I’d be going up against to teach that way.
I started out teaching elementary, and my goals and approach were vague and undeveloped and I didn’t know where to start except by listening to my students, their parents, and my colleagues of color or colleagues who are immigrants themselves. I frequently put myself in uncomfortable situations where I had to learn to unlearn some difficult truths about being white, like it or not.
I had good intentions. That’s not enough.
At my current high school, I have worked to dismantle and recreate the ELA classes so that they are able to give more time and opportunity for unplanned learning led by students. We supply resources or questions as starting points but once students understand they can explore topics they are interested in, we don’t need to. We stock our classes with books by authors of color, books that our students could see themselves in, as well as genres our students love.
It’s still not enough. When Latino immigrants make comments against their African peers, we call them out on it. When African students use “just kidding” nicknames for students who are darker skins, I talk to them about colorism. I ask Black and Latino teachers to lead the conversations with me or instead of me because I am not in a position to speak from a place of experience on this question.
Our writing classes now all go steps ahead of TCWRP by putting student interests, again, as the pivot points rather than units structured, selected and pre-planned entirely by teachers. Lessons expose students to elements of genre and then focus instruction around cross-genre techniques and processes; the units are open genre.
A student-driven curriculum requires teachers get to know their kids since they essentially determine the content and purpose of every lesson we will teach. It requires being flexible and responsive. It means listening. Really listening. It requires moving the teacher from the pedestal of expert and primary voice to facilitator.
Teaching this way worked to bring to the surface when teachers were only giving lip service to this kind of student-centered work and saying shit about our students in their teacher-lounge talk. Those teachers left our school (thanks, in large part, to the protest of students).
But it’s still not enough. It’s still too easy to go through the motions. It’s easy to avoid difficult conversations instead of finding ways to burst them open.
You might be an amazing teachers. We might give everything to our students. But until we are all in a place where whole schools, whole unions are actively working on dismantling the scaffolds of racism and bias that our schools exist on and frankly reinforce, then it will never be enough.
So, for one: I do want to challenge white teachers who teach Black students or students from marginalized/targeted groups to examine how to build not just student-centered classes, but student-driven. As you do that, the idea of dismantling the canon is a no-brainer, as is the need to increase restorative practices in schools, and should support other methods meant to empower our students through safer, trauma-informed practices.
But even if we achieve that, we cannot become content with existing in a happy, loving, feel-good bubble. Because that can just create more fodder for white educators to say with relief that we are “not like those white people” and distance ourselves, as if we don’t still benefit from this system of oppression.
And if you teach white kids and you fear losing your job or inciting the wrath of white parents by bringing “politics” into the classroom, do it anyway. Make white students and white parents uncomfortable. If you don’t, teaching is just a paycheck.
So, secondly: Take responsibility to listen and learn from colleagues of color and other educators who have dedicated themselves to this work. We must make anti-racism and anti-bias the goals we work toward in our curriculum and measure our successes by; otherwise, we will constantly miss the mark. We will create watered-down goals and be left with a false sense of satisfaction at getting our students to graduate or by making sure they get that internship, that scholarship, that job. Of course that all matters tremendously but, when it comes down to it, our children still have to exist in a society that will only see the color of their skin, and not their character. That diploma doesn’t prevent them from remaining in or falling into poverty. It doesn’t prevent them from being gunned down by police or white supremacists. We need to do better. We want our students to expect and demand better beyond our classrooms, but we must do that with them.
And, finally, third: We need to forget deficit-mindsets and anything that reinforces them, including pre-manufactured curricula and The Tests. Really and truly forget the tests. Forget teaching to them, forget teaching around them. I don’t just mean you as an individual teacher. Demand it from schools, mayors and governors. We didn’t need them during quarantine, we don’t need them at all. We must get rid of them once and for all as part of shifting the goals schools should be measured by — which is instilling democratic, anti-bias, anti-racist, pro-science, pro-critical thinking values.
Seek out the ways to create student-driven instruction so that students will see through practice that their voices and identities matter; that they are pivotal tools in their process of learning. Show them that we see their strengths and that it’s our jobs to learn them so that, together, their strengths grow and they discover knew ones. We talk too much about gaps and weaknesses but never apply that concept to students who hold onto racist, sexist, homophobic ideas.
Until then, I will constantly be inspired by believing that what I am doing is not yet enough.