The next person I’ve asked to guest post is none other than James E. Ford, former North Carolina Teacher of the Year and someone who I’ve gotten to know on the Internets and in person as a thoughtful brother. Here, he offers his take on all things education, and who’s going to lead the next education revolution.
While speaking to a group of majority young black men at a local high school last year, I told them about the nuances of being a person of color. I talked about offsetting stereotypes and the necessity of adopting habits of success. I mentioned that for them it starts now, because they’re already under intense scrutiny. I spoke frankly and told them that across the nation they are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. After concluding, I dapped them all up and bid them adieu.
Before leaving though, a petite white lady who was in attendance flagged me down. She respectfully asked me why I felt the need to speak about discipline disparities and “pull the race card” in front of the students. I told her I’d be remiss to come into an urban setting with majority students of color and not talk directly about the harsh realities of our society. She went on to tell me that she doesn’t see color, tells her students they can be whatever they want if they work hard enough, and obviously isn’t racist because she works at a “school like this.” I assured her, I wasn’t passing judgment on her, but didn’t have the luxury of pretending our students won’t face significant obstacles in life purely on the basis of race and class. I concluded by telling her I had a solemn duty to prepare them for the world as it is, not as we hope.
I’ve said on several occasions that I believe teaching is a calling.
For many teachers like Jose and myself, it beckoned us out of other fields and drew us into a world we never knew we could love so much. It was and always will be about kids. It’s an extreme privilege standing before them and facilitating instruction. This is the heart of education, but it’s not all of it. We are in a different era, with unique circumstances and our students have diverse needs.
It’s going to take more than a good heart and the best intentions to be effective.
Particularly in urban classrooms, you better adopt a totally different worldview in order to serve our kids. The missionary mentality won’t fly and sound pedagogy will only get you so far. When you are dealing with the most vulnerable and historically disenfranchised populations, it requires a change in paradigm. At this point, education functions more as part of a greater personal outlook, and not some sort of charitable contribution. For urban educators, this is our reality. We teach in this situation, and it’s more that just some voyeuristic excursion where you earn your stripes by saying that you teach “those” kids. It’s a real life charge to defend the cause of people who through policy have been denied equal access to the American Dream.
As my people in the hood would say, it’s not a game!
There has been no shortage of reforms and turnaround efforts, however, all claiming to have the secret to fixing the most entrenched problems manifested by the ever-present opportunity gap. But nearly all of them are left wanting because they neglect something essential. The knowledge that education is but one institution is a system of several that collude in ways that place our kids at a cumulative disadvantage. The damage done can’t so easily be offset by educational fads and catch phrases, because there’s a greater system at work that reproduces inequalities. I feel more than ever, that what we need are educators who really recognize their utility in this particular space. We need people who aren’t just there to “make a difference” but are literally there to help their students break free from a destructive cycle, who not only are knowledgeable about the history of systems of inequality and the role schools play in their perpetuation, but seek to dismantle them from the inside-out.
At the risk of sounding like Bernie Sanders, what we need is an educational revolution — or what I’d call EDvolution — where teaching is a form of activism.
We need a movement that doesn’t seek to “reform” or “refashion” an antiquated system, but desires to radically change it. We need educators who are just as familiar with Paulo Freire as they are with John Dewey, whose educational philosophy is rooted in a real and authentic sociology. Educators need to be race- and class-conscious, and view their work as a response to prevailing social problems.
We have some of the greatest wealth inequality in the developed world. Our public schools are for the first time in history majority students of color and low wealth. Additionally, they are becoming more segregated. There’s a growing body of literature on the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Of course, those who’ve spent time in urban ed never needed anyone to tell us this. We have enough personal anecdotes to prove as much. We understand that education doesn’t exist in isolation from other social systems. There is a wedge between the healthcare, housing, child welfare, criminal justice and others that play a role in stratifying our society, locking many of our youth into a caste system.
It’s what motivates and inspires our work.
In this way, teachers cannot simply advocate for student’s educational rights and stay silent on their civil and human ones. It may work in other settings, but not in the spaces where I spent my career. If we are really about this teacher-life, we have to function as intentional agents of social change. Anything else will simply fall short. I’ve been encouraged to see teachers using their voices in movements like #BlackLivesMatter, drawing attention to deplorable conditions in Detroit Public Schools, calling for a stay of student deportations in Durham, NC, and even advocating for more education funding in Chicago. These are folks who clearly get it. They will go where their students cannot and be their advocates. But I just don’t think there are enough.
We need more…many more in fact.
At the end of the day, we can adopt whatever school models we like. We can pump millions of dollars into programs and resources, or even utilize celebrity names to promote our cause. But the most important school level factor in student’s achievement is STILL the teacher. That said, we do need a revolution…one lead by educators!