How to See the Possibilities of Teachers Who Look Like Me
This post is by LaShundra Richmond, Resident Leader, High Tech Middle North County, and New School Creation Fellow, High Tech High Graduate School of Education
"It doesn't mean all the people in their lives have to do that mirroring, but they should have some. And we know that in the teaching profession, there really are not enough mirrors."
I recently had the humbling privilege of reading "Where Are All the Teachers of Color?" by Josh Moss. This quote caught my attention enough to want to expound on it. As I maneuvered through the entirety of the reading, I kept this one line in my head, but it later made its way to my heart. As I've went along conducting empathy interviews this past week, which is a central part of my current graduate study, I kept this quote close. As I walked through the hallways of my own current assigned school, this quote resonated. As I reflected upon my own K-12 schooling, I thought about the faces that had greeted me at doors.
Not enough mirrors....Not enough seeing the possibilities, opportunities, or even an adequate representation of a majority of those that looked just like me. Many years later, here we are, having to face this reality that there are still not enough mirrors. Where the population of the minority has now become the majority, still no mirrors. One can only wonder if the intentionality will ever be there.
We continue to talk about the initiatives to attract teachers of color to the classroom and even with these initiatives, the data is still startling. What about this system doesn't appeal to people of color? I actually can answer that question by sharing my own perspective and truth. I made a personal and later public vow (after I resigned from teaching) that I would never (willingly) be a part of the problem. I wouldn't lie to students via final grades reflecting their allegedly learned skills and competencies, and then pass them on. For students who couldn't read, I wouldn't simply excuse it. I would move beyond calling it out, and help that student learn to do what others sometimes seem to brush easily past. I will not look into the eyes of innocent faces and not try my best to properly equip them for futures that await them. So for this particular teacher of color, no amount of money and/or incentive could ever get me back into a classroom to pass on those lies and inequitable practices that I had to witness daily, and I still sadly observe and witness in schools across this country.
Because of this and many more reasons, the numbers will continue to be what they are, and I will not pass any blame. I empathize with their stance, as it's indeed mine. There is another mirror that one is forced to see; that is the one that looks back at you. At the end of it all, the journey, after the bell rings and school years comes to an end, one has to look back at oneself in the mirror of truth and own everything he or she has done morally or immorally. Maybe teachers of color can't bear what comes with the harsh realities of that mirror. I am not sure there will ever be enough mirrors.
What makes me qualified to write such a piece and then dare offer my advice? Great question. I've sat in the seats where current students of color sit. I've looked into the faces of teachers where some looked like me, some did not. Some cared, some didn't. I've sat amongst peers who I knew would possibly struggle for the rest of their life because of the inadequate education we both were receiving. Unlike some of them, my home environment would make up the difference that was clearly evident in learning spaces. When there were no mirrors, I knew I would get plenty of reflections of success at home, at church, and other spaces besides and beyond school. As I later matriculated, I found myself standing in the front of the class, now better understanding the frustrations of my mom, a retired educator. The conversations she and my now deceased father used to have around the dinner table centered around the shortcomings of our then-educational system, and my many educator colleagues pressed me before entering the school doors as a licensed practitioner, "is this really what you wanna do?"
Yes! I can admit that my initial interest in educational organizations dedicated to the work of educational reform was first sparked during my tenure as a classroom teacher. A spark that would be somewhat tainted and dulled after coming face to face with the reality that whether I desired to be a mirror or not, there was not adequate space on the wall for such a mirror, unless I was willing to hold it up for just my kids that flanked into my classroom period after period. Would that be enough? I slowly gave up that fight and allowed the spark to die which later was reignited when I realized I could pull the mirror out in spaces not as counterfeit and scripted. That's exactly what I have shared and will share with other colleagues just like me who are attempting to find space on an already crowded wall of curriculum standards, state performance indicators, scripted lessons: Simply hang a mirror for kids to see beyond the biases and unfairness of tests, and more tests, other subjective means of assessing students, social promotion, and culturally incompetent learning environments, and simply see success is possible beyond all of those realities and challenges.
After submitting these thoughts and my reflections from the empathy interview, one of my Caucasian colleagues shared these thoughts followed by a question; "I also found the image of the mirror to be very moving and profound. I very much appreciate hearing your story of why you've stepped out of teaching. My question is, what can we do in our process of designing our schools to create systems and environments that makes educators reflections less harsh at the end of the day?"
In what I hope to be a continual discussion, this is how I responded: "I think it starts with morale and buy-in. And just as we're attempting to create/design schools with, and not for, the community, we do the same intentionally with staff and more specifically teachers or we continue to do what we've seen done: creating schools for and not with the community, staff, and, more specifically, teachers."
My advice is quite simple for my fellow teachers. If you can toughen it out, go for it. If you can't, don't. And don't feel guilty about it. Find your spark again in a space that's welcoming and that allows you to be a mirror to an even larger group of students than those assigned to your classroom. I realized at some point I wanted to make an impact in the broader scheme of the educational system. In realizing that, I took my mirror with me. And to date, I still carry the mirror. Students also now know the reflections of the mirror can be viewed way beyond just the classroom. Look further, students. Mirrors are still present. Look beyond the classroom.