I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
Chances are you are humming the iconic Michael Jackson song in your head after reading the opening lyrics. (If you need to just play it - here you go. I wonder if playing that song underneath images of the best and brightest black and brown children in your school would be a good way to kick off the new year). This legendary anthem is not just a call to action, but a call to reflection. And that is where I want to start as this blog enters into its second school year. Equity in the classroom is only possible when we take the time to focus on ourselves. Let us take out the mirror.
This mirror we use cannot be clouded by our best intentions or the goals we set for our classrooms and schools. It cannot be covered with effective observations or even the praises (and critiques) of our colleagues and friends. This mirror has to be cleaned by the realities that you and I see everyday in schools that educate black and brown children. The reality is that too many of them are failing - at no fault to themselves - but in large part to the lack of quality instruction that they endure. Semester after painstaking semester. And year after frustratingly long year. Summer provides teachers with a break, but also provides too many of our students with relief. We must reflect with data. Not just data that represents achievement gaps that have been steady for almost 30 years. Thirty. Years. Not just data that tells a story of black and brown students being pushed out of schools and pushed into special education at disproportionate rates. The data has not changed and is not new. Our mirror has to be cleared with a more intimate set of data points.
A clear mirror for all of us starts when we look no further than our own school system, our own schoolhouse and our own classroom. It is there that we find the data we need and the clarity we seek to make a real change. Think back to last year. Do you remember the heads that were down when you read aloud to the class (again)? What about when the bell rang and students spent about three real minutes on the exit ticket? Do you remember the feeling of being exhausted? Frustrated? Fearful? Put back in your mind reading student responses. Or going on instructional rounds to colleague’s classrooms.
Let us go a little deeper.
Do you remember thinking that there was no solution to helping students that were so far behind? Or remember saying to other teachers - ‘they just don’t care’ or ‘they are just so low?’ Reflect back on what you did to perpetuate those outcomes or reverse them. Was your preparation on-point (slang for effective)? Were you so thoroughly embedded in the content that you read through the text BEFORE the children, answered the questions BEFORE the students and did the math problems BEFORE the students completed them?
Furthermore, if you did not prepare well enough for your lessons or take the time to hold high standards while providing support for black and brown students - what beliefs about them do you think lie at the root? Take a look in the mirror. What do you see?
We as educators must check our biases and contributions to the consistent underperformance of black and brown children throughout the country. We built that gap. And fortify it with reflections that end with statements like ‘we made progress,’ or ‘at least we...’ (fill in the blank). If we do not own our role, we cannot create the change.
My dad used to tell me when I got a ‘C’ in school that all “I did was go to school and look out ‘da window.” Looking out of the window sounded like giving up when my dad said it years ago to me. Looking out of the window now may be the salvation of our students. By window, I am referring to the lenses through which we see the world that is affecting our black and brown students and our closeness towards it. It is the way we define the relationship between the out-of-school experiences of our black and brown students and our in-school expectations of their actions. In many of his talks, author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson talks about ‘getting proximate’ to the realities that black and brown people face everyday. That reality exists out of the windows of classrooms, central office meetings, curriculum workshops and professional development sessions. Those realities take place during Saturday night scrimmages at the recreation center, Sunday morning praise breaks at church or even Monday after-school scenes where you may witness a student writhing in pain after getting shot in the leg as I witnessed last year. Are you looking beyond your classroom and connecting with the joys and pains of the black boys and girls in your classroom?
And once you see what is happening and how textured, beautiful and breathtaking the black and brown experience is, to what then do you attribute their failure to? There is no achievement gap at birth and according to Dr. Lisa Delpit, it actually reverses when children reach school. Black fathers (if you believe that home life determines school achievement) are more involved in their childrens’ lives than the fathers of any other race. And when you ask students what they want to be, you will find that they are quite interested in learning and in learning from caring teachers who present them with rigorous tasks. What about within the classroom? Well, when you control for text complexity, students of all races can pretty much answer to the same level, comprehension questions of all types. But the differences happen when complex texts are introduced.
And now the window leads us back to the mirror.
How many times have you put truly complex texts in front of black and brown children but have not provided the appropriate scaffolds for them and attributed their failure to their own innate inferiority? How many times have we made modifications of middle and high-school level work through questioning and tasks that have actually downgraded the rigor to elementary levels? And more importantly, why do we do it in the first place? Please take some time to think about this.
We must stop blaming black and brown students for their own lack of achievement. It has not gotten us anywhere in nearly 30 years and will not get us anywhere in the next 30. We cannot look at the behavior of a people outside of a context through which they have been subjected to. And we can’t look at their children that way either. Obviously we have to help children understand appropriate actions and decisions within a schoolhouse. Of course they bear responsibility for their schoolwork. But, I have been guilty of over-emphaszing their responsibility and marginalizing my contribution to their underwhelming results too often in the ealier part of my teaching career. I suspect I am not alone. The point is that we cannot attribute a lack of desire to learn nor attach a lack of the CAPACITY to learn to these precious and sometimes difficult students. “For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become.” Do you believe that?
If we are to truly achieve daily equity in the classroom, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortably reflective. And then make a change. And then another change. As many changes as it takes. We have to make the logical conclusion that poor preparation and instruction of black and brown children - when done exclusively and repeatedly over decades without remedy - is not just bad teaching. It’s racism. Let’s get to work.
“The only thing wrong with black and brown [students] is that we actually think something is wrong with black and brown [students].” -Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
The opinions expressed in Everyday Equity in the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.