Updated: Apr 20
From Tennessee's House To Your Classroom
It is a part of the human condition to celebrate justice from afar. Distance provides us the convenience of celebration without the struggle for justice. We would instead clap our hands than use them in pursuit of justice.
In the wake of yet another school shooting that left six people dead, three Democratic lawmakers took to the floor of the Republican-controlled Tennessee House chamber in late March to rally for stricter gun control.
On April 6, Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson were ousted in votes that passed mainly along party lines. Taken from the playbook of America's educational system, Republicans moved to expel the three Democrats from the legislature. The third lawmaker, Representative Gloria Johnson, narrowly avoided expulsion by one vote.
Said another way, those in power rallied to ensure a Black voice was silenced, that Black access was denied, and that their message of suppression was heard by all who would seek to rise against it. This is the calling card of our educational institutions. 'Disruptive, defiant, disrespectful' - these labels are the probable cause for another Black student to be pushed into the school to prison Nexxus. In 2017-18, schools still suspended their Black students and students with disabilities at rates more than twice as high as, respectively, White and Hispanic students and students without disabilities.
There are Justin Pearsons and Justin Joneses in your classroom right now who are being silenced, labeled, classified, ignored, suspended, and even expelled for using their voice and being authentically who they are. Schools would instead police the messenger than listen to the message. Quiet as it's kept, many Black and Brown students are suspended simply because they haven't yet or refuse to be socialized into white ways of knowing and being. Many educators applauding the Tennessee Representatives' efforts would call security and have them removed from their classes. Celebrating disruption is easier when it doesn't inconvenience you, causing you to listen or reflect.
Educators, we can't waste this moment. We must do the work of introspection. Do we work for the justice we celebrate or sit on the sidelines clinging to our convenience? We must create the justice we celebrate. While not an exhaustive list, I believe what follows to be non-negotiable in our pursuit of justice.
Tip #1: Connect Your Classroom To The Community
We have all experienced being in the middle of the lesson and having a student ask, "When will I ever use this?" Failing is what we are doing if the work we do in classrooms is not helpful for our students after they leave. You don't teach standards. You teach students. That distinction makes a world of difference in our practice. Allow local and national news to inform your lesson in moments like these.
As a math educator, I would take moments like this to show the impact of institutional racism numerically. I'd open with questions like: who my students knew in politics, how many of those folks are Black or Brown, what impact they think that would have, etc. Then I'd constantly challenge them to prove it. This would launch us into proving mathematically (consider ratios, rates, percentages) the overwhelming disparity in Black and Brown representation in public office. My goal was to close the gap between the content and community.
You don't have to be the expert in the room. You have a choice. You could insulate yourself and play it safe. You could avoid these challenging topics. In my experience, educators avoid these topics because they've bought into perfectionism and the 'sage on the stage' model of instruction. This is an invitation to pull on the collective genius of the students who are the experts as it pertains to their community and experiences. Opting out of this might not affect your observation score, but it will undoubtedly impact the ones we silence the most - your students.
Tip #2: Check Yourself
Educator, your bias, left unchecked, will wreak havoc on the school you serve. In my work as a consultant, I've come across many horror stories. Stories of students who were removed from class for doing their hair, students who were written up for 'disrespect' for staring at a teacher in a "threatening manner," or students who were removed for showing up late.
Early in my career, I found myself expecting my Black boys to be 'defiant' and my Black girls to be 'disrespectful.' I believed the worst about my people because I was conditioned to. I responded with methods of high control, as found in a book I call, 'Teach Like A White Supremacist.' I had so much unlearning to do. The amount of melanin in your skin doesn't make you immune to the effects of prejudice and bias.
The key is to slow down. We rarely see our students for who they are because we are blinded by the snap judgments we are prone to make. Interrogate your beliefs. Ask yourself questions such as:
What core beliefs do I hold? How might these beliefs limit or enable my colleagues and I at work?
How do I react to people from different backgrounds? Do I hold stereotypes or assumptions about a particular social group?
As an educator, do I acknowledge and leverage differences in my class? grade level? school?
How would my team describe my teaching/ leadership style if they were sharing their experience of working with me with others?
Do my words and actions actually reflect my intentions?
Do I put myself in the other person's shoes and empathize with their situation, even if I don't relate?
Tip #3: Rinse, Wash, Repeat
Working for justice is an ongoing struggle. It is always present-progressive tense. You do not graduate beyond it; if you have a pulse, you shouldn't opt-out. You must commit to radical love and radical humility. Radical love will keep you grounded in justice work despite the difficulties. Radical humility will keep you learning and growing despite what you think you know. You'll hold things with an open hand and commit to unlearning and learning on the way to forging a better world.
Rep. Justin Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones were removed from a space they earned for 'breaking decorum' and participating in 'disorderly behavior.' They didn't show up in an acceptable manner to the status quo. Rather than listening and growing together, Tennessee Republicans engaged in the behavior present in too many classrooms. The unwritten rule in education (and in some places written) is: what disrupts our control must be removed. Educator, will you answer the call that rests on your shoulders? Will you forego control for compassion and choose disruption over compliance? Will you create the justice in your classroom that you celebrate in our world?