First Person

Five Steps to Launching a Schoolwide Social Justice Movement

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
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Last week, I sat in on a meeting about the reading intervention program in one of the several schools that I support through my work at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York City. We have more kids on our caseload than we can serve this semester. Many of those public school students, who “need” reading intervention, are brown or poor.

Our staff knows that literacy is not just a matter of meeting standards in a community like ours. For many of our students and their families, literacy is the difference between a full stomach or an empty one, employment or prison—even life or death.

But because of lack of funding and too many students, we were tasked with deciding which kids we would meet with in groups instead of meeting in pairs or in one-on-one settings.

Each change to our roster felt wrong, leading to another conversation with another black parent: "Here’s why I’m giving your kid less than what they deserve…"

I tried to think about how my own black parents would have responded to such a conversation about me. And I thought—not for the first time—about how I love teaching, but sometimes, I wonder if my profession loves me back.

We Need to Stop Being Patient

There is a very specific and enduring kind of trauma associated with being a black educator in a system that does not serve black and brown children and their communities equitably.

I’ve been an educator since 2001, and each year that I mature, I grow more ill at ease with the way things are. We speak of school segregation, literacy rates, inequitable funding, and school discipline as if these issues are natural law. They are not. These issues are a direct result of practices that we have inherited and of those that we perpetuate.

I’m finding it harder to mask my concern behind the pleasantries required to socialize one's way through a teaching day. My conversations have become uncomfortable because of the weight of all that I have seen and all that concerns me. I have been on a nonstop odyssey to learn what I need to know about inequity in order to address concerns of it.

Throughout my career, I’ve been so energized by the teachers who have made equity and justice integral parts of their classroom practice by changing their practices. I've learned from them. I've shared their stories so others can learn from them as well.

But the responsibility for change doesn’t lie with individual teachers alone. One teacher working toward equity makes a difference. Six teachers working toward that goal makes an even bigger one. But a whole school working together? That’s a revolution.

We Need to Address Inequity Together

I keep thinking about something Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter for The New York Times Magazine, says frequently: The system isn't broken. The system is operating exactly as designed: "to deliver separate, but not equal, educations to black students and white students."

It’s this kind of systemic inequity we need to dismantle.

When I name systemic racism, people often reply, "But, Cornelius, I'm an English teacher. I can’t do anything!" or "Cornelius, I’m white, and this work is uncomfortable for me!"

"These issues are a direct result of practices that we have inherited and of those that we perpetuate."

When we teachers feel powerless or uncomfortable about curriculum or classroom practices, we study. We read. We practice.

We already have tools and protocols in place that allow us to create powerful, schoolwide literacy practices like independent reading or small-group instruction. We already know how to brainstorm and test ideas. We already know how to collect data and use it to improve. Here are five ways we can use the same tools and approaches to create powerful schoolwide movements toward justice:

1. Name the problem and find the possibilities. The kind of systemic racism that permeates our schools does not wear a hood or hurl insults. Though it looks different in the context of each school, it most often resembles curricula and pedagogy that is not culturally relevant. School-based racism can also surface through discipline and suspension rates, gifted placement, tracking, hiring practices, resource allocation, access to services like counseling or conflict resolution, or the curricular denial that people of color even exist or have contributed to humanity. Sometimes the systemic problems we face appear “normal,” and it can be easy to overlook them. Social justice work is not just about seeing the problem, but about seeing the possibilities for solutions.

2. Educate yourself. The solutions that we seek can feel out of reach. Library cards are free, so let’s use them. Let’s read widely about how other groups of teachers have made change. Let’s discuss what we’re learning with each other. Let’s invite our students, their parents, and community members into the conversation and really listen to what they’re saying. After reading and talking, we can decide what equity looks like in the context of a classroom, a grade, a team, or a school.

3. Develop a plan of action. Start by taking inventory of staffing resources. Think about the best people to involve and in what capacity. We need leaders who will encourage and support this kind of get-your-hands-dirty innovation. How can we maximize our time and energy? What’s the best application of budget? How will we sustain the efforts across the school year?

4. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The best way to demonstrate commitment to social justice is to actually do something about it—over and over again. Don’t get derailed by missteps and mistakes. This will not be a one-size-fits-all approach.

5. Reflect and recommit. Celebrate successes, and take note of what worked. Turn what didn’t into opportunities for learning. Go back to other teachers and leaders and ask them to evaluate efforts. Repeat steps 2—5 as many times as it takes to eradicate the problem named in step 1. Equity is a goal we may never reach, but it’s one we should never stop aiming for.

The status quo narrative that systematically denies access and resources to black and brown children (while fooling their white peers to believe in their “right” to have what others have been denied) and then demonizes them for not achieving is one that we don't have to lament anymore. We are teachers, and though we did not build this system, we exist in it. As such, we are complicit.

Change can be more than platitudes, maxims, or social media posts. It can be real and sustainable. And it can start with us.

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