The Schools We Need for the Children We Love
Editor's Note: This is the second of four installments that focuses on the shifts that need to happen before a school or school system can implement equitable practices.
"Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don't have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life." -Jim Collins
The first time I saw metal detectors and multiple armed police officers in a school was when I started working for the District of Columbia Public School system. It was a stark departure for me, as I grew up only a few miles away, matriculating through a school system that never had them. I then went on to teach in a district that had Security Resource Officers, but not metal detectors. I knew immediately that the expectations in this district were different. Expectations.
To be clear, I feel very safe in this building and many children enjoy great exchanges with the police officers and security guards who are here; they have proven to be extremely helpful in breaking up fights and more importantly establishing a positive relationship between inner-city youth and an institution that has a checkered history with their treatment of these same youth. They are a welcome presence in this school. However, what does this say about the state of schooling for inner-city black and brown children when metal detectors, security guards and armed police officers are as regularly a part of their day as cafeteria lines and class changes? Where have our expectations gone?
In my previous blog, I began to explore the shifts that need to take place before true equity principles can be practiced. The first shift was in ethics. The next shift is in expectations. How we expect black and brown children to behave, perform and persist through trauma has to change. Expectations are the skin that covers perception. The heart that beats beneath perception is bias and we are all biased in some way.
The heart beat of bias is experience. The day in and day out experience that begins even before we fully comprehend the difference between the races. In America, you are immediately born into a society that offers you two conflicting racial narratives: white is beautiful, benevolent, wealthy and proper; black is cool, hip, agressive and violent. This duality is inculcated by segregated media, churches and schools. And while this bias beats on. And on. And on—no one talks it out, they just live it out. It becomes the way that we perceive behavior and threats. It is what makes students who commit the same offenses, get color-coded disciplinary outcomes. This perception is what makes a student who commits a heinous crime mentally disturbed while a student of a different color would have been vilified. This type of unchecked perception aligned with credentials and positional power puts real limitations on student achievement.
Perception plus power creates low expectations.
If I enter a school building 180 (or more) times and have to be checked for weapons, what messages are sent to the adults about what I am capable of doing outside of school? When teachers clock-in and see this daily occurence, does it refute or concretize the unchecked perception that many of us have? When a black and brown boy (or girl) of considerable size and passion challenges us verbally, do we see the desire to learn or do we see the metal detector flashing? How readily do we turn push-back and advocacy from certain kids into disrespect and threats? Show me a teacher who is well-intentioned, loves kids, does not see color and wants to give our kids learning on 'their level' and I will show you a teacher whose expectations could not be lower and whose actions endanger the future lives of our kids in ways that even violence cannot muster.
So what do we do about it?
1. Avoid the tyranny of either/or. We can have a school safety conversation that acknowledges the positives of armed guards and metal detectors while discussing ways to reduce the need for both. We can have a conversation that values the safety of our children as well as the treatment of them once they enter our doors. We do not have to choose one over the other—let us choose both. Complex factors got us here and complex dialogue will get us out.
2. Check our expectations against our lesson plans. As teachers, we must verify that we believe all kids can learn by asking all of our children to learn at high levels. The ask is in the lesson plans. The ask is in the texts we put in front of kids and the tasks we expect them to complete without assistance. The ask is in how we push back against their own perceived apathy by first demonstrating passion, preparation and commitment in our intrstruction and then collaborating with students to get the same from them.
3. Go past the 'can't' until you find the 'why.' More often than not, black and brown students who cannot achieve at high levels have teachers and administrators who cannot help them get there. For every 's/he didn't,' there is a corresponding 'I can't' that exists in the mind and heart of his/her teacher. It is incumbent on parents, administrators, teacher leaders, coaches and mentors to find the 'I can't' that the teacher has, but then to get the teacher his/herself to reflect on the 'why' that supports that 'can't.'
4. Engage the community in deep and meaningful ways. What is your school's contract with the community? Not the one that is written or mandated by federal regulations and handed out on Back to School nights—what is the deal that a parent gets for sending their most precious creation to your school? The unspoken contract. The word on the street that informs property values and private school decisions. Does what you propose to give them in this written or unwritten contract actually provide the education they need to succeed in the world beyond school? If so, how are you tracking that along with their parents? Grandparents?
What parents should get in exchange for sending their children and taxes to each school should be an ongoing conversation that includes their support as well as our accountability to them. Instead, in too many relationships, kids get passed without the competency and teachers get tenure without the results. Both of these realities are a default on the social contract and promise that a school has with its community.
In order for the children we love to have the schools they need, we have to be the adults who are not afraid. We must be the adults who are not afraid to challenge the systems that protect our children. We must be the adults who are not afraid to explore any racial bias that we are perpetuating. We must be the adults who are not afraid to challenge a student to go deeper into difficult content.
We must be the adults who understand that high expectations is not sterness or an ability to keep black and brown students afraid, quiet and still—high expectations start with the adults and flow through love and respect to the students and communities that we serve.
We must be the adults who say that there will not be another disconnected or miseducated teen in our school.
We must be the adults who commit our hearts, hands, bodies, and minds to protecting our children today and set up systems of safety and support for the future.
Enough is enough.
Let's strive for greatness!
"For these are all our children. We will either profit by or pay for what they become." -James Baldwin