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When It Comes to Equity, Expertise Matters

Editor's Note: This is the third of four installments that focuses on the shifts that need to happen before a school or school system can implement equitable practices. 

"The purpose of education is to make good human beings with skill and expertise ... Enlightened human beings can be created by teachers." A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

I did not board a plane until I was 24 years old. Grateful to be traveling with the woman of my dreams to a honeymoon in Jamica, I gripped the edge of both of my arm rests tightly. Breathlessly and incredulously, I watched as the front of the plane gradually turned vertically towards the horizon. I could not believe that a machine this large, carrying this amount of people could speed quickly through the air. Beyond my faith, there was one person I had to have complete trust in to even stay in my seat. The pilot. I had to trust his expertise. 

***

I had to trust that his/her formal education in aviation was thorough enough to navigate a huge machine carrying an excited yet nervous newly minted husband (and calm, cool and collected wife) along with others at speeds exceeding 600 miles an hour towards a landing strip not tremendously larger than a few football fields. This trust in expertise is given to those who have significant responsibilities. Pilots, doctors and lawyers are made credible by their expertise. In most cases, deep content knowledge is also ascribed to teachers. However, if we take a sober look at the results from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we have to ask ourselves a very pressing question: When it comes to teaching black and brown students, does the public still trust our expertise?

"True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes." Daniel Kahneman

During my first couple of years of teaching, I had more passion than expertise. And it showed. I would implement engaging lessons and have students wanting to stay with me beyond the bell. However, when testing season came (March-May), their performance would reveal to me that I had been engaged in an elaborate performance instead of a collaborative learning experience. Maximum passion. Minimum results. 

That all changed after I read Dr. Alfred Tatum's book Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males, and through the continual feedback of my school-based mentor, department chair and school administration. The constant theme that cut through all of those voices and resources was the need to deepen my expertise in language arts and in the culture of the students I was serving. It was not enough to love reading and be able to understand books from Tolstoy to Hemmingway. I had to know the structures and features of the words in those books. I had to internalize the craft choices authors made and the patterns they use to create motifs and themes. I had to learn my content so well that I could stand in front of a group of 26 students at varying levels of proficiency and differentiate the process without watering down the content. It took time. I believe this is the heart of our work as teachers invested in equity—we must increase the depth of our expertise in the content of the curriculum, the standards of our state and the culture of our children so that we can give every child what he/she needs to produce complex and meaningful work. But we cannot achieve lift off, if we have not fueled our tank with deep content knowledge.

"Chess masters don't evaluate all the possible moves. They know how to discard 98 percent of the ones they could make and then focus on the best choice of the remaining lot. That's the way expertise works in other fields, too: Wise practitioners recognize familiar patterns and put their creativity, improvisation, and skill toward the marginal cases." John Dickerson

When I began my third year in the classroom, I was becoming very comfortable with the curriculum I was using, the content I was covering and the children I was serving. It was a banner year. That was the year that I began an all-boys weekly reading group where we read books like The Contender by Robert Lipsyte and had amazing conversations about what it meant to be young, gifted and black (which was also the name of the group). Now almost 10 years later, I can confidently say that every meaningful experience where I saw students increase their understanding and achievement since then, first began with an increase in my own understanding of content and craft. 

When equity is mentioned, there seems to be a philosophical and 'feel'-osophical approach to the work. As it relates to philosophy you have concepts of white privilege, institutionalized racism and internal bias. And then you have the emotional side of the work—the feelings. The pain of being underserved, the epidemic of isolation and marginilization, as well as the overall love we have for our children. Those two domains are critical to the contours of this conversation, but the third rail has to be expertise. Otherwise, we will grow a teaching force that is well-versed in empathy and bias but lacking in the knowledge required to move the students who we love into lives they can lead themselves. You really can love a child to death. 

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When the Jamican sunrise greeted us on the first full day of our honeymoon, I was as close to heaven as I have been at any time in my life (not counting of course literally being close to heaven and outer space on the flight over). We so thoroughly enjoyed our stay. And that is really the main point of this entry—there are quality experiences for students that are powered by the depth of our expertise. Just like a pilot's expertise helped get me to my destination, we cannot practice equity principles without first shifting our approach to building expertise in content, curricula, and children. Know your stuff cold. Master the standards. Learn your students well. Accept quality feedback. And then, try again. Let's get to work.  

"For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become." - James Baldwin

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