What Am I Doing Here?: Culturally Responsive Education as a Sign of Love
Today, I am tired.
It's no surprise. October and November are part of a notorious time of year for teachers. I could trot out the list of reasons why, as an educator, I am tired: late nights of unpaid grading and paperwork, intense discussions about standardized tests, not to mention a heated (though in some ways non-existent) political debate around education.
During my first few years in the classroom, this is the season when I also traditionally questioned my decision to become an educator. What am I doing here? I asked myself, I could be at another job with more money, or getting another degree, or doing anything that allows me to sleep in or leave my work at work.
Of course, as teachers know, the work supersedes any of those petty annoyances. Still, I left the classroom once. At the time, I cited a desire to have more autonomy, experience new things, make "more of a difference" in education (I regret that particular phrasing, as I see now how valuable staying in the classroom is).
Those reasons were valid. Recently, two colleagues presented great discussions around teacher shortages, especially for teachers of color. José Vilson wrote:
...Teachers of color are either dismissed or leave. They're dismissed largely because their schools are more likely to get shut down due to the major reasons we see out there: standardized test scores, restructuring plans, and lack of parental voice and real choice. They leave due to the lack of autonomy in teaching in ways that would more readily impact students of color.
It can be discouraging to teach students academic skills only to see them collapse in college when they face the deep racism present in most institutions of high education. It brings me back energized each day knowing that my students are not just learning to endure injustice; they are learning to destroy it.
Franzinger Barrett later points out:
[It is essential to] build strong induction programs targeting and effectively preparing candidates who are most likely to stay in our communities. ...We would also need to end "color blind" efforts to "raise the bar," which usually have a very narrow definition of quality and end up pushing teachers of color out of the profession.
After a few years, I came back. Delving into deeper conversations around education helped me realize that meaningful change needed to happen at the local, classroom level.
Even more importantly, however, is that I really missed kids. I missed learning about them and working with them. I am back in the classroom and, like Xian, seeing my students' joy and power keeps me coming back every day.
Yes, it's important for teachers to feel like they have autonomy and feel empowered in their practice. It's not because we are power-hungry control freaks, it is because it is difficult and draining to care about students and know we are not giving them our best. Many of us became teachers, stay teachers or return to the classroom because we want to love and empower our students completely, and it's frustrating when we see that we are either unable or unprepared to do that.
Looking back, I see now that was one of the reasons I left. As much as I tried, as amazing as my students were, I wasn't as prepared as I should have been to learn about, work with, and really love the students and community I served during my first two years in the classroom.
I did the best as I could, but I believe that truly loving a community includes truly knowing it. If I am only able to see my students and their community through the lens of data points and internalized oppression, how can I know them? If I fail to accept them as they are and see their full worth, I am not loving them as completely as I should. Lack for autonomy is only a compounding factor if teachers already don't have the skills and desire to become a trusted member of the community they teach in.
When we call for culturally-responsive education as part of teacher preparation, it's not because it will increase test scores or because it's what's trendy in education. It's because we know that being responsive to and inclusive of a student's culture is a sign of love for the students themselves.
This applies for pre-service teachers as well. If we only present teacher preparation that will invalidate or oppress the communities of color, I understand why many refuse to become complicit in that cycle. If I know I will not have what I need to really love and serve my students, why would I stay?
Finally, if I feel I will not be known or loved for my entire identity as an educator, why would I stay and potentially treat my students like that as well?
When we stop and ask these questions, the conversation shifts. Making teacher preparation, pedagogy, and classroom practice centered on creating an inclusive culture is not simply about providing a successful education. It is, at its core, about love.