“I want to be a firefighter, but then I will have to work with the police…and what if they kill me on purpose?” said my son Asher, a second-grader.
Coming from an 8-year-old, these words should be shocking. What’s shocking is that they aren’t.
I fear that far too many educators and educational leaders are not prepared to respond to the heartache and expressions of despair that may come from our students of color, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing civil unrest. Asher wrote a paragraph for his teacher early this spring about his dream job as a firefighter. Since George Floyd’s murder in May, he sits with confusion, a heavy heart and fear while reconsidering what he might be when he grows up.
Our schools must require educators to learn how to engage effectively with people of different backgrounds. Without that preparation, our students will not feel their identities are valued and affirmed. We, as educators, may not have control over what happens on the world scene, but we can control what happens within the walls of our schools.
Teachers must learn to embrace diversity and recognize that cultural differences are assets, not barriers. If we want school culture and climate to be affirming for all, then we must have teachers who are caring, empathetic, culturally responsive adults available to guide, support and uplift our students.
There also must be leaders who will courageously enter into crucial conversations with other adults on campus whose behaviors are not reflective of the mission to support equity and access.
As an educator of color, I have experienced prejudice and discrimination at school sites. I have shielded my students from stereotyping and bias. I believe these negative experiences can be reduced and hopefully eliminated with training.
I have had the opportunity to work in a district that offered access to a professional learning community that focused on embracing diversity, that is, cultural proficiency. However, even though the district provided this choice and expressed its value by way of mission and vision statements, there were many who chose not to opt-in. They remain ill-equipped to handle students of diverse ethnicities, racial identities and cultures.
What I would share with the teachers who are uncertain about pursuing professional development in cultural proficiency is that the learning process truly ignites your “why.”
Building my capacity so that I could support the learning and identities of all of my students is the greatest reward. Furthermore, seeing the outcomes in student achievement is gratifying. Students are better able to take in knowledge and create new knowledge when they feel safe, valued and affirmed in their learning environment.
In my training, I learned that an educator unconsciously can create an environment that devalues the culture of some groups of students. I walked away from my cultural proficiency learning experience with a concrete understanding of the behaviors I needed to start and stop in my classroom in order to positively impact my class and school site. I was able to do exactly that for one of my fourth-grade students.
This particular student was placed in my class because he needed a chance to start over again. He told me that his last teacher did not like him and that he was always getting in trouble, even when it wasn’t his fault.
I listened to him and made sure he knew that I wanted him in my class. Over the next days and weeks, I realized he had a comedic personality. He liked to laugh, tell jokes and was excited about learning. He shouted out answers often and gave animation to everything he said and did.
While to me he was lively and zealous, his former teacher viewed him as disruptive, loud and obnoxious. The former teacher viewed his differences as a barrier to the culture she sought to maintain in her classroom. Through the mindset of cultural proficiency, I viewed his differences as gems.
I supported him in his self-expression and talked to him about his dreams and aspirations. He said he wanted to be an entertainer. He was one of my strongest readers and I asked him to be my student leader during language arts. His personality, comedic talents and dancing ability made our literature leap off the pages. He volunteered to read often and supported other students in reading with expression. I viewed everything about him as an asset and my perception became his reality.
All students deserve the opportunity to have an experience like this fourth-grader.
All students of color will need a teacher who is able to value and affirm them. They will need someone who can provide a timely and empowering response, such as the one I gave my son: “Asher, I understand what is happening around you may make you feel afraid. But please do not walk away from your dreams. Talk to me about your feelings. You can make a difference and touch the hearts of others. Let’s talk about this some more and maybe you could write a letter to our local leaders. You have a powerful concern and it should be heard.”
Tamra Simpson is a teacher on special assignment at San Jacinto Unified School District in Riverside County. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.
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