It’s been a rough few months for America’s students. From kindergarten to high school, America’s diverse student population has had to deal with issues that very few ever imagined. I know that most people right now are likely thinking about COVID-19 and how a pandemic forced a dramatic disruption to our education system. But it goes much deeper than that.
Yes, we were pushed into emergency distance learning with no guarantee of having access to key distance learning tools like high-speed internet and a laptop. We also faced the reality of returning to outdated school sites that lacked proper ventilation and were not sure if any real protective health measures would be in place. While all of this is very true, and there are plenty of important stories that students can share about their experiences, what I am really talking about is the obscene amount of incidents where adults have demonstrated a complete and utter failure to understand the dramatic demographic changes in our schools. More importantly what those demographic changes mean and what actions must be taken to protect the humanity of students.
In 2018 the National Center for Education Statistics released data on the racial/ethnic enrollment in our nation’s public schools. The data demonstrated that from 2009 to 2018 the percentage of white students in our K-12 system fell from 54 to 47%. For the first time in the history of our nation’s public education system, we faced the reality that students of color were the new majority.
For most people, this should have raised the need for a much deeper discussion about education policy and ensuring equity for all students. Instead, what we have watched is that many American adults embrace the completely opposite point of view and double down on their fear of what those demographic changes mean for our future.
Generation Z members have watched, with both amusement and horror, as adults who have never ever cared about our public schools start to attend school board meetings demanding that their fears of change be accepted and forced on to students. From blatant lies about critical race theory to teaching opposite views on the holocaust to the sudden assault on school libraries and librarians for having books that many are now saying are “pornographic,” we have watched adults demonstrate their commitment to purposely fail current and future students.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get crazier for our collective education journey as a generation, we were pushed to new levels of shock and awe when a TikTok video was posted of a California math teacher Candice Reed wearing a fake Native American headdress and making a fool of herself dancing around her class in a supposed attempt to teach trigonometry. The video shows a teacher who has obviously never taken a moment to contemplate just what she is doing.
Then the more horrifying news came out later that Ms. Reed has been doing this for at least a decade when old yearbook photos showed her in a similar headdress.
What shocks us the most is the fact that, if not for the TikTok video and its over 6 million views, the Riverside Unified School District and staff at John W. North High School would have likely continued to ignore the actions of Ms. Reed. In fact, based on the older yearbook photos, the reality is it seems they were actually fine with her using a form of Blackface in her teaching methods.
So what does this mean for Generation Z?
For most of us, we are just now reaching the age of 18 and will now have the opportunity to register to vote and to vote in school board elections. At the same time, we are still a generation coming of age and we face the electoral reality regarding older generations not only having different values than us, but also taking those values with them when they vote. We shouldn’t let that deter us from fully participating in our democratic system of government, but we should not put our hopes for change all in the election basket.
To make change, we will have to approach this from multiple fronts.
The most personal change we can make is to continue our education and become the diverse teachers our schools so desperately need. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that approximately 20.1% of our nation’s teachers are people of color. Connect that to the rapidly changing demographics of our K-12 students, and it isn’t hard to see how we end up with schools full of Ms. Reed. Generation Z, and those that come after it, will have to consider a teaching career for at least part of their careers if we want to be a solution to the problem we have and continue to experience in our schools.
At the same time, Generation Z should make sure that teachers, administrators, and policymakers know that they can no longer hope and dream their way out of this problem. The current generations of American adults who lead our school systems have failed our children. Yes, I know no one wants to hear that. Yes, I know that most adults will try to explain away their failure to build an equitable school system on the mess they inherited from those who came before them. Yes, there is truth in that statement but the reality is that the current school leadership is timid at best and, honestly, quiet accomplices to what is happening today.
The reason this is true is that when you look at what is happening in our schools around our nation you have to ask: How did we get here? Ms. Reed has obviously been teaching through acts of racism for years. Did her peers at Riverside John W. North High School not know what she was doing? Did the administration in Riverside Unified School District not take a moment to look through a school yearbook and see what it represented? Why were they quiet? Why is no one asking the school administrators and teachers these questions?
When you look at what is happening in school districts like Southlake Carroll in Texas, you have to wonder just how much school administrators and teachers will tolerate before they take action. I tweeted these thoughts this week and called out teachers for not walking off the job in Southlake. I received a reply that if they did that they would lose their license and retirement.
While the concern is understandable, I feel that this excuse (and that is what it is) will be used by teachers to accept whatever form of authoritarian Nazism emerges in our education system. At what point do we stand up and say you are now part of the problem if you accept this attack on the humanity of your students? There are no two sides to the Holocaust. It is never appropriate to use the traditions and heritage of any group for horrific forms of modern Blackface to teach anything.
Honestly, we must ask teachers and the teachers’ unions across the nation where they stand on these attacks. It is not enough to simply issue a media release expressing your well-written statement of outrage but then return to an education system where students’ well-being is obviously not the primary focus. We don’t want to hear what you can’t do. If you are outraged then take action. If not, you are part of the problem.
As a young Black woman, I am well aware of my own history and herstory.
I know how my family, like so many others, took part in collective community actions where they joined their neighbors in facing bodily harm and even death to call out oppressive acts of racism by our nation.
I understand that my grandfather was murdered during the Rodney King Civil Unrest in Los Angeles in 1992.
I understand the intersectionality of my own life where being Black and a woman or girl means that you are often facing barriers in your education journey by those teachers and administrators who see you as a problem instead of a future global problem solver.
I also understand my experience is not unique and that far too many of my young Black Gen Z sisters and brothers have and continue to experience the same exact thing in 2022.
This problem is built on a foundation of acceptance by those who are entrusted to protect the humanity of students. While the focus of the media has been on the adults showing up at school board meetings and attacking our schools, we have ignored the adults who accept the attacks and continue to allow this system to work by showing up and implementing the new wave of hate that is being pushed on our schools.
The time has come to ask teachers, administrators, and school board members what side of history they will be on. The answer to that question will determine if we have the ability to move forward immediately or enter into a period of new struggle to address school equity issues once and for all.