I recently had the pleasure of having brunch with a set of folks whose social justice work I love and respect, one of whom was eventually fired for teaching social justice. I normally start by just listening to folks before I turn up my volume. This time, since pancakes and eggs were on the menu, I figured I’d start by talking us into a comfortable space. At some point, the conversation turned to racism in education, and the case that brought us together. As they took turns talking about what happened on the ground, I sat there wanting to ask the questions that burned at me for months about her, about the board, about the police, about everything.
Then she broke out a video of her kids and I shut it all up.
I usually have a handful of hints I look for when anyone calls themselves activists / thought leaders / experts in education, but the one that always sticks out revolves the kids. How they speak of the children matters more than any other factor. It’s not the awards, the qualifications, the degrees, the conference keynotes, the years spent in the classroom (to a certain extent), or even political leanings. It’s about how they speak of the young people they serve.
Do they talk only about a couple of students or do they speak about all of their students warmly? Do they not speak of students at all or speak about them in absolute hypotheticals? Are they interested in how their children live or is the allotted time period enough? Are they ever hard on themselves, or at least reflective about the faults they embody as teachers? Do the students reflect love to these adults back?
What’s that energy like?
The short video of the kids yelling, excited that she’d come back for the brief moment she went to pick up her stuff, moved me in ways I didn’t admit at the time. Around the table, the educators had stories upon gruesome stories to share of the racial inequity our students, parents and conscious educators face from unconscious administrators, police officers, colleagues, parents, all of whom refuse to know better. Even though we each had our different elements to share, the root was racism, inescapable, ubiquitous, palpable in the work we do.
That’s why it’s so telling when people start an initiative and don’t mention students ever in their works, or they work with kids and never actually talk about them in a loving way. This is a sort of exclusion I can endorse: if students aren’t truly at the center of the work, then what exactly are these folks here for?