Though I might receive a strongly worded text about this opening line, my mom was born two years before Brown v. The Board of Education, in Washington, D.C. She was plunged into the unjustly delayed effects of this landmark legislation when four years later her elementary school slowly started desegregating and certain white teachers refused to teach Black students and left her and her classmates alone in the classroom. She was the first in her family to go to college, first to get a graduate degree, and she promptly settled herself in a Virginia fourth grade classroom and went to work for 40 years. My mom didn’t necessarily protest, march, sit-in, or even call a politician. My mom taught.
My mom was a phenomenal teacher, but she was not easy. As a student in her school, my childhood was a mix of having my best friend just around the corner and having to fervently defend her honor on the playground when a schoolmate had lost one too many recesses. I spent my childhood helping my mom with her EZ grader, carrying bags of papers to grade, watching cartoons on her classroom television, and helping her type her report card comments every time the quarter wound to an end. My mom’s life was teaching; my mom’s protest was giving these children the best education they could have.
By the time I entered the teaching profession, it was a much different atmosphere than it had been in the ‘70s, when my mom started. I had just left Teachers College, Columbia University, armed with research, a passion for reform, and a heart for little ones just like me. I was progressive, headstrong and optimistic. My first lessons were community building; I wanted to make sure that my students left my classroom stronger humans. The entirety of my fifth-grade class was of African descent. Though they were my little ones, I knew the world wouldn’t see them that way. The school-to-prison pipeline taught me that even other teachers wouldn’t see them that way. So for one year they had me: someone who saw them for the people they were, not the marks they received. They were my little ones and for a year, we were a family.
My fifth graders and I went on a yearlong educational protest. We learned what a true apology meant. We had restorative circles where we affirmed each other and supported one another. We analyzed the historical innovations of the Indigenous populations in order to inspire unique inventions to combat global warming. We watched Black Panther and wrote persuasive essays arguing that our favorite character was the best representation of Black Liberation. We read The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and wrote raps. We read Brown Girl Dreaming and wrote our own stories in beautiful prose, playing with similes and metaphors to bring color to our black and white pages. We put on Sam Cooke and twisted the night away. We practiced temperance through arguments by holding onto our crowns. We loved, we learned and we grew.
I was new to teaching, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was optimistic about my impact and the space that I was in. I understood the racial and socio-economic biases present in standardized testing and saw my students as so much more than a number. At first, I didn’t realize I was still a part of the same system I was trying to protect them from. Educators nationwide were held to Common Core standards and spent the latter half of the year under unimaginable stress to ensure that their students were improving at the rate that was decided by our government. I thought I could shake it up; it instead shook me.
With a heart for true educational reform, I understood that a lot of the hardships that I endured were bigger than a school or district. They were put into place by racism, ableism, homophobia, and many more of the black marks on society that we are fighting still today. I focused my reform energy toward a more systemic approach and was excited to continue the fight. I did not know that a year after leaving the classroom, the shake-up I wanted was going to happen.
COVID-19 did enough to highlight the racial inequities in our current educational system, but with the continuation and intensification of the Black Lives Matter movement, all educators need to be asking themselves a fundamental question: Am I ready to give my students the educational experience they truly deserve, or will I allow their educational success to be dictated by a system designed to shunt them into poverty, prison, or worse? Most progressive educators believe in valuing the whole child. Still, when the inherently flawed system values a one-time score, many teachers feel forced to bend to a standard that doesn’t reflect or even accurately assess, the children they’ve spent months pouring into. With the tests off of the table this year, the spotlight is shining on the numerous additional inequities in our schools, many of them tied to socio-economic status and race. Our eyes have been opened to the truth in our nation’s schools, one that doesn’t come with an easy fix but with a systemic and personal dismantlement of any values that place our children’s production over their psychological and physical safety. Educators will eventually return to the classroom and they have a duty to do it differently.
The students that will enter in the fall will all have a new collective trauma. Many of them experienced additional hardships on top of the virus and civil unrest. Unemployment is high and child abuse reports have dropped significantly in NYC, causing worry that more harm is happening behind closed doors without intervention. If schools return the way we left them, it is a disservice to our children.
I won’t pretend to understand the unique issues that face each individual teacher or school leader, but I will say that our children need love and safety. They will be angry, they will be tired—so will you. I ask that you lead with love. I ask that you move in a way that gives the kids the support they need and not the scores you need. I ask that you show them that they matter. Not their grades, not their behavior; show them their very humanity matters. Fight for them, love them, laugh with them, and help them heal. Education is a balancing act. It requires flexibility, humility, and love. It requires seeing your students for who they are and where they are. The world doesn’t know what will happen when those doors open again, so prepare your hearts for love. We have been reared in a society built on racism and you do not grow up in this system without it leaving a mark, regardless of your skin color. Unpack your biases, challenge your internalized -isms. We all have work to do. Practice temperance, research restorative behavior practices. Find community. Teaching is an incredible profession. Never have I done anything that pushed my intellectual, emotional, and physical boundaries the way teaching did. Care for yourselves so you can care for your students.
Audre Lorde stated, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror, of the lives we are living. Social protest is to say that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, as we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will, within that feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, we can love deeply, we can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change.” We do not have to teach the way we have been taught to by a painfully broken system. It is not the only, or even necessarily correct, way. I ask those of you, on the frontlines with our nation’s future, teach in love. We do not have to distill education into word problems and decontextualized passages; we can balance the world we live in with the world we want. We can demand that education brings about joy for all students regardless of race, class, or identity. Teach as your protest. Radically love as your protest. Laugh with your students as your protest. Innovate as your protest. Express gratitude as your protest. Remember, “Joy is an act of resistance.” -Toi Dericotte. I hope you all continue to resist.
In gratitude and resilience,