Promise Keepers: Honoring our Students and the Profession
Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of a speech that I gave two weeks ago at a symposium hosted by the NEA Foundation. I provide the link to the speech at the bottom of the transcript - please be advised that I do ad lib a little from the speech as written below. My next entry will return to my traditional blog outline.
Honor Your Commitment to the Profession and Bring Our Children Home
When I attended the NEA Awards in Excellence Gala a few years ago, one of my fellow awardees greeted me and introduced me to her father, who was a high school football coach. It took a few minutes for me to jog his memory about a young offensive lineman that he coached nearly 50 years before this moment. The coach remembered him very well and said that he was the kind of guy that 'once he got his hands on you, would never let you go.' The young, undersized 15 year old he was talking about was my father. It was an incredible moment to meet my father's high school football coach, but what he said about my father - Dennis Parker, Sr. - was not surprising.
It was this same tenacity that led him to leave Memphis and become the first and only member of his family to graduate from college. He was focused on giving us a solid educational foundation. Education was at the center of our experience and it is that promise that he made to a family he had yet to meet and my mother's example that fueled my passion to become an educator.
What I would like for each one of you to do for the rest of my speech is to think about one child. If you have to close your eyes, go ahead, but imagine a child. This child can be someone you taught, are related to, or it can even be yourself. There are only two stipulations I have - the child must be black or brown and they must be or have been age 10 or younger.
Now imagine a look of terror on that child's face. That was the look on my face when my seventh grade teacher grabbed me so hard that it almost left a bruise ring around my arm as he pulled me to the principal's office. I made a promise in my heart at that time to never treat kids like that when I became an adult.
Imagine that same child now with a look of joy on his/her face. That child would look like me in Ms. Dew's 10th grade classroom when she affirmed my ability to write. It was one of the first times that I can remember being perceived as an asset and not a threat. My soul made another promise right there - that I would live my life to make everyone feel like that.
I want to talk about your heart, your soul and your actions and how the promises we make and the actions we take connect or disintegrate all three. A promise is a declarative statement that you can make in your heart, scream in your soul or state through your actions. It is a message that leaves a mark in the mind and a standard in this world. As an educator, when I reflect on my career - I rejoice over many promises that I kept. I also regret the many promises that I broke.
Like the time that I angrily yelled at Racquel to 'close her mouth' because she would not stop talking in my class. Or the time when I thought I just needed to know enough language arts content to pass the praxis but not enough to teach the gifted and talented students that populated my middle school classroom. Or the countless times that I re-phrased a question about a text to a student at the first hint of confusion so that my class could run smoother. Or did all of the heavy thinking for my students instead of pushing them into productive struggle. These decisions to take all of the challenge out of the the work I gave kids for the sake of my comfort is a broken promise to them...I have broken promises. And if we are honest, we have broken promises too. Do you still have that child in your mind? Maybe you broke a promise to him. Maybe you failed to adequately serve her. The best way we can restore the promises we made does not include hashtags, blogs or school improvement plans. It has to be changed behavior.
We are the ones who can heal the broken futures that have been cracked by broken promises made to our black and brown students. It starts in our hearts. We must first commit to being anti-racist. Since the Brown vs. Board decision in 1954, we have said we are committed to integration. And now today, we say that we are about equity - but a commitment to being against racist ideas and practices is a promise that is made from the heart. So we have a choice - we can build our schools around what we are for or we can make the necessary adaptive changes of the heart to build classes that show what we are against - which are any practices that exclude, devalue and under-serve students of color. Committing to being anti-racist means providing access and supports for students of color to master grade level texts and tasks every class period. Every day. It means rejecting the notion that 'these kids can't' or 'these kids won't' and instead seeing to it that you learn from 'these kids' and make them our children. Because as James Baldwin wrote - "they are all our children, we will either profit by or pay for what they become." Then, we must anchor our soul in the commitment of reflection.
We must soberly reflect, not on our intentions as it relates to children of color, but how our daily practice has not produced the outcomes that all of them are capable of producing. We must reflect across racial lines and with the students we serve about the ways we are or are not meeting their needs. And we must accept their answers without defense. Additionally, our reflection must be strengthened by studying race and power dynamics within the classroom. We cannot rest on ignorance any longer. We must do our work! As teachers, we can't just not know anymore. We must know. And when we know better, we do better. Doing better is doing this work together. We must ask for help when we need it and even we do not think we need it. We cannot do this alone. Finally, we must re-commit in our actions to being the people we needed when we were children.
When we were young, what type of person did we need when we were hurting? When we were unsure of our ability to make it in this world, who did we need? Let's re-commit to being those people again in the time and care we put into our craft. Do you remember what you said you would do when you got your own classroom? Your own school? Your own foundation or agency? Maybe there have been many years that have passed since, but you can go back and recapture that passion again. Just do what you did before. But this time, do it better. Do it better. Recommit to act in the best interests of kids no matter what. No matter what.
Two years ago, my six year old son was in the ocean with his sister. There were many people on the beach and in the soft summer sun, I turned to admire the view. When I returned my eyes to my children, only one of them came back. My son was missing. And he didn't know how to swim. My wife and I ran frantically to find him while being paralyzed with dread. The next seven minutes of our lives felt like a month. When we finally found him with the lifeguard, we were all relieved. And shaking. Now, go back to that child. Your child. Perhaps even yourself. Imagine that child spending 12 years in public schools out at sea. Equipped with an education the equivalent of a life jacket, but little else. With adults who look the other way as they drift further and further away from standards. And from being able to create their own life choices, which Dr. Ibram Kendi says is true freedom. When we commit to being anti-racist in our hearts, to being reflective in our souls and to being in action who we needed when we were in schools, we do not just eventually find them safe with a lifeguard, we actually bring them home.
Link to speech (begins at minute 28 if it doesn't automatically start there): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNZisJtKUjU&t=28m10s