My trajectory to being an educator who has social justice and equity as the primary lens by which I view education in my classroom and across the country has not been not been one that has followed the usual path. To say that my path to becoming a voice for social justice in the classroom was unlikely is an understatement. My first true experience with the culture of others was in walking into my classroom on the first day of my teaching career. I stood there as the only white face in the classroom. Until then, my experience with other cultures was very limited.
I grew up in a virtually all white community where hearing racism and bigotry show up was not uncommon. The words and views of others are something that begin to seep into your skin and taint your soul. Although the people who lived in the community were generally well-meaning, their lack of experience with the culture of others made it far easier to lose sight of the humanity of people and think of ‘those cultures’ in terms of only the negative stereotypes that had been perpetrated against them.
Across this country, there are teachers who have a similar background to my own, one that is disconnected from the background of the students that they serve. Although there is a real need for the recruitment of teachers of color, we must also recognize and begin to address the implicit bias of the white teachers that are already in our classrooms teaching students of color every day. The majority of these teachers are well-intentioned, but the failure to address race and culture as it shows up in classroom spaces has continued to lead to lower outcomes for students of color. Excavating the biases that we bring to the classroom is difficult work. It has a way of illuminating our failures and making us feel uncomfortable. My response: it is ok to be uncomfortable. While this discomfort may be a choice for you, many of our students do not have a choice in the matter— it’s something that they must deal with every day.
It is far easier to ignore the work of excavating teacher biases and not address the way that race, culture and a variety of other factors show up in our classrooms. It is easy to dance around the topic and put it off to be talked about another day. As we continue to put it off, students are failing to see themselves show up in the spaces in which they learn. Entire well-meaning institutions are sending the implicit message to students of color and others: “You don’t belong here.” Think about the feeling of belonging and the impact that it has had on your own learning and on your relationship to the places that you live and work. We all show our better selves in the spaces and places in which we feel that we belong— where we feel that our voice and identity matter.
As teachers, we need to stop the finger pointing and dig deep to do the work that is necessary to ensure that every students that we serve feels as though they their classrooms are places in which they belong— places where their brilliance can shine. I have grown tired of waiting for our institutions to address these topics to the degree that they deserve to be addressed. As President Obama recently spoke in his Farewell Address: “If something needs fixing, lace up your bootstraps and do some organizing.” That is exactly what we intend to do with our vision for Social Justice in Pittsburgh Education: A Workshop Series. In no way do I consider myself an expert in this area. I consider myself a learner and an organizer. We are not so naive to believe we can change the hearts and minds of educators overnight, but we must start somewhere.
This work is far too important to be put off any longer. The time to act is now. Our students deserve it.
Check out more about our #100days Project: Social Justice in Education: A Workshop Series
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