Students Are 'Our Children.' Let's Give Them the Support They Deserve
"Let's not play these kids cheap; let's find out what they have. What do they have that is a strength? What do they have that you can approach and build a bridge upon?" -Ralph Ellison
So, how has the year gone for you? How have you made a black or brown child better by your presence, efforts and instruction? June is only two weeks away. It is my hope that a student of color can look back at this year and see memories of their greatest moments of learning and have you to thank for it. If not, there is an entire summer that awaits your reflection and planning. If we, who are the ones tasked with educating children, get it wrong—then where else can they go?
Throughout this school year, my third as an Instructional Coach at the Historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., the place where lots of students have gone has been my classroom. I share this classroom with the Math Instructional Coach, Mr. Hawkins. Our room is a train station for students on most days. They are either coming to borrow one of the four pencils that we leave each day on the ledge near the door. Or leaving to walk a girlfriend to class. Or coming to ask for a locker combination. Or leaving with us to talk about the NFL Draft. Or coming to challenge me to a 1-on-1 basketball game. Or leaving with snacks. Lots of snacks. So I pack oatmeal creme pies, Cheeze-Its, and apples. Mr. Hawkins buys boxes full of fruit snacks (for Adrian, who passed both the ELA and math PARCC last year). This whole school year has been about our children.
We had a principal who was removed, a chancellor who resigned, a deputy chancellor who was removed and even more that wasn't captured by the Washington Post. There were classroom battles that left one of my teachers drained. "I am just tired, Mr. Parker," she said through exasperated eyes. Yet, despite the difficulty, we all wake up and do it all over again for our kids. We play them in staff vs. faculty basketball games. We buy them lunch when they reveal their mother died in a long battle with cancer. We break up fights and then mend friendships back together again. This is what we do for our children.
Two weeks ago, I was rolling my laptop cart down the hallway when a child that rarely speaks to me took it upon herself to sprawl her lanky frame over the cart and take a ride. I just shook my head and smiled as she looked back and smiled. I then resumed my conversation with another student who wanted to discuss the probability of the Giants winning the Superbowl next year (about as good as the Buffalo Bills' chances are. Slim). This is life with our children. The children that too many people in society labels as lost causes. Or even call the police to disrupt naps, barbecues and Air BnB overnight stays. Our children. The students of systems that keep them safe, but must work harder to keep them highly educated. These are Our. Children. So now that a year has passed, what's next?
For too many of our classrooms, the summer will not bring much change. There will be professional developments about new curriculum, staff turnover, leadership team meetings that tout new initiatives, and the way-too-soon back to school sales pages from Target. And in some progressive districts there will be talk of equity. There will be plans for book studies and a call for (more) courageous conversations. Laudatory efforts, but efforts that are at best redundant and at worse, myopic. For our classrooms to improve, our systems have to engage in professional learning that is deep enough, wide enough, and aligned enough so that teachers leave feeling more prepared than ever to deal with the complexities that our children bring into the classroom. We have to have a classroom revolution that is accelerated by quality system-wide professional development.
In the space left in this last entry before the end of the school year, I would like to pose questions worth considering to ensure that our children experience equity in every class. Every day. These questions range from the system-wide level to the classroom-level and any relevant space in between. Hopefully, you can use these questions to begin to frame your professional development focus; because no matter your role in a school system, we need everyone on the same page to achieve significant outcomes for our children.
Are we preparing teachers to be care-takers or code-breakers?
A conversation about equity that is not connected to standards-based instruction is not a conversation about equity. It's about care. And we should care for the students that people our buildings. The ethic of care is what elevates this profession into one of the most sacred and pivotal positions in this nation. In this world. However, care for our children is most evident when we mix compassion and celebration with the courage to teach them well. In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's sermon, "A Tough Mind and Tender Heart," he spoke about the importance of having both savvy and empathy. Our equity becomes salvation when we connect it to improving the nuts and bolts of standards-based education. We must help accelerate teachers' understanding of institutuionalized racism as well as the vertical progressions of the Common Core State Standards if we want our students to break both codes. Awakening teachers to internal bias is powerful and necessary, but incomplete if it is not paired with a thorough understanding of what it means to teach those students affected by the same bias. I aplogize for spending so long on this point, but seriously - when do we get past awareness?
After we have helped teachers gain awareness, I want teachers to understand the pedagogy and systems that they themselves may employ that ultimately supress student outcomes. I call it the pedagogy of the privileged vs. the pedagogy of the disruptors. The privileged are able to implement a daily classroom praxis that helps them keep 'those students' at arm's length while requiring compliance to content that is neither relevant, grade-level or transformative. And the privileged are able to do that over and over again not just because of a lack of accountability, but due to impotent professional development. This is not so with the disruptors. The praxis of the disruptor is comprehensive, nuanced and focused. It takes into account where students are but is absolutely not satisfied until all students approach or master grade level content. The disruptor knows her/his content well enough to differentiate on the fly. The disruptor has presence and passion because they understand the height of the stakes and the limits of 45-minute class periods. They are whatever-it-takes teachers. Are you one of those teachers? Chances are you know one. Do you know what is most interesting?
The difference between the privileged teacher and the disruptor is quality professional development that engages the heart (equity) and the mind (teaching and learning strategies that work).
Okay, I think I am done with this point. For now.
Are teachers getting better at teaching or getting better at repeating what is required?
Teachers go through evaluations each year. Do those who provide professional development undergo evaluations as to the efficacy of their content? It should be mandatory. Here is the question you have to ask yourself before each session that you prepare - will teachers be better at teaching and learning as a result of the delivery of this session? If the answer is maybe or no, then shift the presentation. Shift the presentation to content that penetrates deep enough into the issues that teachers truly face. Deep enough to truly help teachers build content AND process expertise. Is there practice being built into the session itself? Are the ideas that are being presented tried and true? I do not have the magic bullet to solving persistent inequity amongst our school systems; many of the issues affecting our children exist outside of our control. Nonetheless, what is well within our control is being able to have PD that targets what we truly need to improve inside the four walls of our classrooms. One last thought before moving to the next question - if teachers are getting better at their work despite your professional development and not because of it, chances are the students in your district or school are learning the same way.
Are we taking the steps necessary to create a winning culture in our schools?
There are many students who succeed in spite of poor teaching and traumatic experiences, but there are likely many more students who succeed because of an engaging and productive educational environment. Teachers know this to be true and so do parents. Just this past weekend I was stopped by a parent in the mall. Her daughter and my daughter attended the same elementary school and were friends. She then expressed to me that she would likely have to move before her child attended middle school because the schools in a neighboring district were better. She did not want to risk it. When she speaks about 'better' schools, she means schools with winning cultures.
It is hard to establish a culture of excellence if the leader does not have a vision of excellence that extends from behavior and climate to classroom level instruction. So if you are a leader of a school, school system or central office - what is the standard of excellence that you hold yourself and your subordinates up to? How was it created? How does it improve the outcome of black and brown students as well as the commitment level and collegiality of the staff that get up every day to work for you?
The second aspect of a winning culture are the founding principles of the organization. These principles, usually outlined in a code of ethics, help govern behavior that is acceptable and actions that are discouraged. It also can help establish a 'hurt protocol.' A hurt protocol deals with the potential for abuse done by leaders and teachers upon each other and/or students. The protocol is the process by which harm is addressed and breaks are mended. The most common process that I have seen is the Restorative Justice Protocol.
If you have a culture without accountability, abuse is inevitable. Where abuse is inevitable but not corrected, you will get control. Where there is excessive control, there is depressed growth. This death cycle of culture is experienced by too many staff and students. This is the type of culture where losses are expected and wins are few and far in between. Lastly, a winning culture is built with professionals. The type of professionals that lead winning cultures are best described by Jim Collins as 'Level 5 leaders' . These type of leaders understand, recruit and develop good teachers into great teachers who consistently win for children. Whatever occurs in a school, both exceptional and damaging, is a function of the culture that is created by the leaders and maintained by the teachers.
What is the quality of the culture have you created?
What type of culture are you actively maintaining?
How will we hold ourselves accountable for significant growth for black and brown students?
Where there is no accountability - abuse is inevitable. Abuse of opportunity. Abuse of privilege. Abuse of the learning environment for our most school dependent children. Our children. So - if our jobs are based on student outcomes, how will we as a profession hold ourselves accountable for students who get promoted from grade to grade with unfinished learning? I submit to you that the safest place for black and brown students is in a building full of caring and committed adults who hold themselves responsible for students' outcomes.
When we decide to teach, or lead a school, we essentially sign a contract. This invisible contract with the community and the parents states that we will, to the best of our abilities, educate their children. When we default on that contract, there must be consequences. And mass firing is not a consequence, it is a reaction. We are already suffering the natural consequences of student underachievement in regards to the push on the economy as well as the overall quality of life and absence of justice for our marginalized brothers and sisters. Yet and still, teachers and administrators retain their positions without any adjustments or support to help them adequately perform very complex and demanding jobs well. If black and brown students consistently underperform in any area of a district over the course of decades, we cannot use demographic shifts as an excuse. There has to be a shift in the way we support the teachers and administrators in those areas. In the final equation, the failure of students is the failure of adults. The failure of adults, more often than not, is the function of the way we see ourselves as professionals and hold ourselves accountable for the outcomes of every child.
Above all, do we see the students in our classrooms as other people's children or our children?
There are (at least) two things that I am pretty strict about - my hats and my beliefs. I wear a Buffalo Bills hat (with a suit, bowtie and collared shirt) almost every day to school. I have a different Bills hat in most colors so that I can coordinate as best I can (don't judge me). I have worn this hat to many a church service, as I grew up in a conservative household. I have leaned on the spiritual principles in my upbringing as well as the unending hope of my beleagured franchise winning a Superbowl. Two events happened this year that challenged my hard-line stances.
First, one of my Journalism students seemed to always find the exact moment when my head was turned to slip through the seats in my room and slide my beautiful grey Bills hat on his head. I cannot tell you the mixture of confusion and anger I felt. At least at first. Now, I see it as a sign that he's trying to relate to me. To connect with me. Because he is not just a student, he is my child. He is our child. So try as I may to keep the hat from sitting atop his hopeful afro, at some point in the lesson he becomes a Bills fan too.
Secondly, my conservative notions were challenged when a student of mine revealed what she had been dressing up for months to hide she was pregnant. Now this may not be a shocking phenomenon to many of you who read this blog, but it was my first time. As I grappled with the inner strictures of religious ideas, I ultimately embraced the tenets of my faith that mattered most - faith, hope and love. So, when she gave birth and then returned just a few short weeks later ready to learn (and graduate), my heart leapt for joy. Like a proud father.
When the balance of our careers end, the height of our positional climb won't matter. The years of service won't matter. The amount of our certifications gained, degrees earned and presentations given won't matter. What will matter most is the condition we left our school systems in. The condition we left the teachers we supported in. The condition we left our communities in. And the quality of life that our children owe, in part, to us. Let's keep working.
"For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become." -James Baldwin
The education of your children is a shared responsibility and a direct reflection of the quality of the personal and professional development that you are willing to engage in.
Three Actions You Can Take Today (or Over the Next Few Weeks)
1. Register for a quality conference this summer. It is imperative that you invest in your own professional development. Unfortunately, this may mean that you have to go outside of your district to get the deep learning that you need. Here are at least five conferences that will elevate your practice: The Standards Institute by Unbound Ed, The National Teacher Leadership Conference, The 2018 ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence, The NCTE Literacies for All Summer Institute and The International Society for Technology in Education annual conference.
2. Establish the metrics that matter for your children. How do you know that your students have mastered grade level concepts? Of course you can start with their performance on grade level standards, but what about other measurements that support mastery such as reading stamina (how long are they able to read complex text uninterrupted) or how well they can take a concept from idea to explanation? There are supporting practices that every student must master first before they can achieve proficiency on increasingly complex grade level standards. Find these metrics, codify them in rubrics and make sure to adjust your teaching to inspire students to practice these skills.
3. Push the equity conversations in your district forward. Equity cannot live in isolation. It must be connected to uncovering the systems that actively work against the best interests of traditionally marginalized populations, the bias at work in us as well as the best practices for teaching and learning. Equity must be concerned with improving teaching and learning through discrete practices if it is going to be fully realized in a district. If you are in a PD around equity that does not tackle both, push back. And then push the conversation forward. If not you, then who?
Two Sources for Study
Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom by Dr. Lisa Delpit - https://www.amazon.com/Other-Peoples-Children-Cultural-Classroom/dp/1595580743
"Crush Lusher" - essay by Jamie Irish (starts on page 8) - https://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP_FishmanPrizeSeries_2012.pdf
Bonus Texts -
Advancing our students' language and literacy by Marilyn Jager Adams - http://www.literacyconnects.org/img/2013/03/Advancing-Our-Students-Language-and-Literacy.pdf
Equity Literacy for All by Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell - http://edchange.org/publications/Equity-Literacy-for-All.pdf
One Inspirational Video
Hey Black Child - poem recitation - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlQbhj1ZiJk