In 2014 the majority population in our elementary and secondary schools shifted from white to minority. Yet, not surprisingly, this phenomenon is not equally dispersed across the country. So, of course, some educators are much more aware of the changing demographics than others.
White people can take for granted that there are models of successful adults to watch and learn from. They grew up looking to presidents, military leaders, movie stars and characters in literature and in all sorts of positions of leadership including in education were of white models. They learned their exceptionality was by ethnicity or religion.They are told stories about names being changed as they came through Ellis Island or lived through the first Catholic president controversy. They survived all that and found common ground in race and in the democracy we are. But, it seems that finding common ground, or even models, is harder without the racial commonality.
Where Are the Models?
It seems no matter how far along our inclusivity has come, the opportunities for black children to see models for themselves are fewer. There are civil rights heroes, athletes and yes, Barack Obama and his wife and children. Now, the ground has been broken and Black Panther movie has brought superheroes into the lives of black children. And, while many of us grew up aspiring to be one superhero or another, most do not achieve that dream. We can become heroes of a different sort.
We are committed to teach young children and we come to work each day dedicated to do our best. Our jobs are to help encourage, support, and believe in the littlest ones and in the most challenging of the bigger ones. Offering a spiraling complexity of information and helping them develop stronger capacities for learning, we also care for their well-being and safety. As schools recognize the need for a change in the teaching model they use, students are expected to respect each others feelings, learn to listen and collaborate, communicate, take risks, be creative, and think critically. Sometimes we forget or underestimate that there is always something else going on as well. Youngsters are learning from us how to be, how to be seen, how to get desired recognition and what we think of them matters more than we will ever know.Their senses are astute and they are constantly searching to know if we can be trusted, if we respect them, if they matter to us because of who they are and if we even know. For many children, a white teacher or school leader might be a black child’s first encounter with a white adult. The same can be true in reverse for teachers and other children.
What Is It Like To Feel Invisible?
Anna Deavere Smith is a playwright and actress, an author and an activist. Recently, she wrote “Notes from the Field” that can be found on HBO. It explores the school to prison pipeline and the role of schools and educators in sending so many black men and women to prison. But, it was her article in the NYT that provoked this blog post. In the article, entitled “The First Time a White Person Wrote ‘Love’ to Me” she wrote, “As much as my school day was preoccupied with watching and listening, I felt both visible and invisible. Visible because of my color. Invisible because of my color.”
How many students of color feel that way? How can we know? Perhaps there are those among us who felt both visible and invisible at different times in our lives. This articulate reflection on her experiences as a child are heart opening. She speaks of one of the schools she attended as toxic. She spoke of another school that made learning intoxicating. A big difference. It used to be that being ‘colorblind’ was a good thing. Now, we know we need to think again and newly. It is not a matter of not seeing color. The question reshapes itself. Can we learn how to “provide contours around which dividing lines melt”? Is this what the old melting pot did?
One person that mattered for Anna Deavere Smith was a woman, who happened to be black. She was a longtime teacher and, at that time, of Anna’s story she was a vice principal in the school. Because of her longevity in that school, she had taught Anna’s parents and recognized her and said so. That was her introduction to the school, being recognized, being seen. In this case, longevity truly mattered. This woman, Essie M. Hughes, was a respected, longtime educator in that school who also happened to be black. It mattered that she was there for a long enough time to be able to recognize family resemblance.
In The End
What do we know, what can we be sure of, and what do we need to learn about how it feels to be a child in our schools? There certainly have to be students who have left our schools feeling we were leading and teaching in toxic environments. We hope there are thousands, no millions, more who can recall a person like Essie Hughes. Think of your own childhood and school experience. Have you acknowledged and expressed gratitude to your own Essie Hughes? It is never too late. It is also never too late to think about a child you saw today. Did you take the moment to let them know? It makes a lifetime of difference.
Photo by Kassoum_Kone courtesy of Pixabay
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.