I am a New York City public school Special Educator. I love the work that I do because it involves people, and people are my passion. My calling in life is to help other people develop into their best selves, and that currently involves working with middle schoolers in Brooklyn, New York. Earlier this year “normal” was upended. Teachers were asked to pivot – and this has not always been graceful. I think that during this time many are doing their best with what they have. I very much appreciate my administration because they trust me as a teacher to make the right choices for my students. They provide guidance and support.
I also recognize that I am fortunate to work at a school that had the foresight to quickly organize the giving out of resources our students would need; this included TI-84 graphing calculators, laptops, and relevant texts. I am part of an amazing team of dedicated and caring professionals. We may not always agree, but we are unified in our intent to help our students grow. Our current conversations revolve around student concerns, curriculums, as well as the challenges and changes brought about by COVID-19. When sharing notes with educators, the conversation will eventually turn to grading. COVID-19 has further revealed the high premium that has been placed on performance that is often asked to be proven through testing. I have been mulling over the question, "Are we grading for privilege and punishing poverty?" My question was influenced by a leadership webinar on equity led by Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins of The Leading Equity Center.
The tragedy of COVID-19 may impact us all, but the impact is highly uneven – much like our educational system. We are building our immunity and the cost is being charged to those who can least afford it. Inequity is real. There are systems, structures, and practices that ensure the advancement of some while discouraging growth among others. There exists a proliferation of policies that disenfranchise the people that look like me and my students. How do we as teachers safeguard and promote the values of a democracy that has made clear that education is a privilege as it is not guaranteed in the constitution? How do I as an educator maintain individual freedom and responsibility for my students when we are bound by a society that values those who have access to resources such as computers, laptops, cable, and internet subscriptions? We simultaneously value those with access while restricting, blocking, or eliminating opportunities to obtain the necessary resources.
Remote Learning is exposing the ways in which we are thinking about social justice. As a Special Educator, I believe that remote learning presents teachers, and schools across the United States, with an opportunity to do things differently, and work on the systems and processes that need to be changed in order to include all and recognize the value that is found in learning differences.
I keep hearing the refrain, “I can’t wait to get back to normal.” What “normal” is being referred to? Who is “normal” good for? The status quo usually benefits a privileged few. We must also consider, “Who is the voice for our vulnerable students,” a question posed in a meeting about mindsets in education. The government, administrators, teachers, parents, students, and stakeholders in our educational system must consider, “Where is the equity for those with extenuating circumstances?” I recently learned about a student who is working during the day to help out his family, and trying to do work at night! He’s in the 8th grade! This is an impossible situation, which reminds me of what a principal in another meeting I was able to attend said, “We cannot underestimate the magnitude of the impact.” We are underestimating the magnitude of the impact of closed buildings and closed off resources. Schools are not just edifices or institutions made of brick and mortar. They are living and active because of the people of which they are composed – students. We must not cease to recognize their humanity because we refuse to take off our life lenses and look through remote learning via their experiences. We need to look at remote learning through the personal realities of our students. These realities include: living at or below the poverty line, lack of access to the internet or a device, living in temporary housing or shelters, lost income, parents who are essential workers, and the lasting impact of race and racism.
Leadership is thinking about the metrics we use to measure accountability or to be accountable. We need to put our students faces on the debates raging around us right now so that we can act responsively and responsibly. Leadership is also considering what our teachers need. As an educator, I am constantly rethinking what it means to teach and how to do it well. Though I am no longer constricted by a bell, there are limitations that must be considered – my own, that of my students, and those of the systems and structures in which we work. The dynamics are different; therefore, I too, must shift. Leadership during this time is calling us to modify our ways by examining our assumptions and expectations, and providing students a great measure of belonging.
I am the children we teach. Stories of grit, perseverance, and resilience overemphasize the adult-like characteristics teachers like to point out in children of color. Teachers are not super heros. We are humans, doing what helpful human things, like recognizing the personhood of someone outside of ourselves.
What the corona virus is exposing it that issues of access and equity run deeper than we'd like to think or care to admit. Biases and privileges are continuously being brought to light. This virus is working to expose the challenges many would rather keep in the dark. The situation is overwhelming - but let's not forget it has been overwhelming for those living in and with economic uncertainty for a long, long time. What the virus has demonstrated is that no one is immune to its effects. You can run out of state, and there it will find you.
How can we expect homework completion if students were not given access to computers or classes where they learn how to type, learn about shortcuts, or how to create presentations? What we are setting up is a false dichotomy.
The other side of that coin is that when teachers assign playlists it's not our job to say, "Well, they don't need my help, they can get through it." I do not believe that is the point of asynchronous teaching. Students need guidance. No, I am not ascribing to the "banking-model of education," that Friere so eloquently describes; I am fighting for teachers as facilitators to recognize that most 13 year-olds don't like asking for help. And 13 year-olds who are in economically unstable situations, and are possibly embarrassed by the state of those affairs will not tell you that they need help. Compacted to that is the narrative found in many close-knit immigrant families, as mine was, "Keep your family's business, your family's business." For some, poverty is deeply shameful - especially in a society that lauds the gifts of capitalism.
I implore teachers to continue to build relationships with students during this time. Reach out and don't assume. Let's not call one another super heros - that's a variant of the savior mentality and/or complex.
…[The] major explanation for such school failure is that these students of color, especially those from a low-socioeconomic status (SES), are themselves the cause of their academic shortcomings. Also, the culture and families of these struggling students are often implicated in their school failure. The basis of this attribution lies in the construct of deficit thinking, an endogenous paradigm founded on race and class bias. Deficit thinking blames the victim for school failure, instead of examining structural factors, such as segregation and inequities in school financing, that prevent low-SES students of color from optimally learning (Valencia, as cited in Banks, 2012)
I’m fortunate to work with folks who believe in mutual accountability. Mutual accountability cannot exist without the development and support of open, caring and trusting relationships. This year I have come to the realization that there is power in being on an equity team with the teachers on my grade team because it allows us to face the reality of racism in action. Though we are actively involved in different subcommittees, the work at its core is developing a stance of antiracism. It is imperative that teachers work collectively and individually on building a framework on what it means to actively oppose racist pedagogy and the insidious ways in which it shows up in classrooms, hallways, gym classes, and the offices of administrators. Combatting deficit thinking is all of our work. It begins with shifting the language we use.
The complex becomes simple when the effects of societal systems, and infrastructure are pushed to the periphery due to the manner in which language is applied in schools. Students, more often than not, these are kids of color, operate within the competing dichotomy of “haves” and “have-nots”, “smart” versus “not smart” demonstrate the impact of deficit-based thinking and language versus strengths-based thinking and language model of education. The language of labels, or identifying students by particular traits, also perpetuates the practice of segregation; this engenders a culture of dehumanization. This deficit model of youth “shapes our vocabulary about the behaviors prototypic of young people results, then, in an orientation in America to discuss positive youth development as the absence of negative behaviors” (Lerner et al, 2013).
My call is for educators to examine the ways in which they view student behavior. I have drawn the conclusion that if student behavior is viewed through the lens and goal of mentorship, a strengths-based model will develop over time. What is a mentoring relationship? “The mentoring relationship is usually described as one in which there is an emotional connection and in which the mentor offers guidance and others forms of support to the young person” (Dubois and Kircher, 2014). Not all educators will be mentors, but all mentors can be educators, if and when they are operating within the framework that teaching is not exclusive of learning.
Therefore, I propose that educators become mentor-educators and as such critically reflect by asking, “Do I use words such as ‘troubled’ to define and limit a student’s humanity?” The word “troubled” is particularly contentious because it implies “a deliberate refusal to conform to behavioral expectations”, posing the problem: whose expectations are we asking students to meet (Klinger, 2006)? Why is it that the behavior of some students is not perceived as a result of things “beyond the child’s control” or “normal responses to adverse circumstances” (Klinger, 2006, p. 146)?
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” From The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903
Today, on Valentine’s Day, my heart broke just a little. Something happened where I witnessed a devaluation not only of black beauty but the comeliness found in color. I witnessed a situation that affirmed whiteness, and the denial of the beauty found in the rich shades of brown that saturated the classroom. I have the language for internalized racism but do my students?
Like the reader of a book, I read my students and their situations. My students are intricate and like a good book they force me to stop, cycle back, and ask questions about who they are, and consider their histories. I consider the history of being black, and being a girl, and how on days like Valentine’s their blackness may be the least likely to be appreciated, noticed, or affirmed. Recognizing this is relevant to teaching children of color, especially in a world that does not believe in their brilliance. Teachers must be active readers of situations, and understand how internalized racism and self-hate shows up in the classroom. Being literate in the lives of students of color requires that we monitor for meaning. It means rereading a situation. Our students are fluent in the language of their lives but may not have the terminology to express the feelings of discomfort, disapproval, and dissension that at times strive within their souls. It is my hope that as educators grow in critical consciousness that we help students translate and make intertextual connections in reading themselves and the world around them.
I am currently participating in a Racial Literacy Series being led by Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, an Associate Professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. My class is predominantly people of color. We choose to be in the space. In choosing to be in the space we are also aware that issues will arise that need to be confronted. In the class I’m thinking a lot about oppression: institutional, interpersonal, individual, and ideological. This has caused me to think deeply about the construction of my relationships, in particular those in my working space. In her 2019 book, “Black Appetite, White Food,” Jamila Lyiscott writes, “But before we can enter into conversation about what it means to broach the sociopolitical struggles of racism and white privilege, we must enter into a conversation about how you navigate struggle within yourself.”
The struggle within myself. In thinking about issues of race, racism, and justice I found myself being taken back to an experience that needed to be excavated. It was a meeting with the Deputy Director of Career Services at my graduate school. In examining the event I realized it was a root cause of my distrust of particular people in places of power. I kept thinking about how this event shaped the arch of my career and the ways in which I allowed one woman’s resistance, and what I now recognize as blatant racism, serve as a primary architect in the blueprint of my mind of who I was and am. I am finally disrupting that falsified image.
Barbara Applebaum’s 2016 work Needing Not to Know: Ignorance, Innocence, Denials, and Discourse quotes the work of Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack. Fellows and Razack use the word “innocence” to describe the complicity white women have in the act of racism. It is defined as “a deeply felt belief that each of us, as women, is not implicated in the subordination of other women” (p. 451).
In confronting and excavating the places of oppression in my life, I’m not finding myself saying as former first lady Michelle Obama did, “When they go low, we go high.” This is because the intent of racism is to always have to have a group of people be substandard. Winners need losers. I have found the words and actions of one individual in an institution can directly impact who I am and can be in spaces that privilege certain groups above others. I am at a place in my life where I am confronting the demons of racism. And let me tell you that they are dark lies disguising themselves as truths. Their manifold configurations have led to my conformation and confirmation that they must be true. But now as I step back I see that they are fraudulent fronts designed to diminish my value as a person of color. These lies can no longer be coddled or cradled; they must be dismantled and never be put together again.
I share this open letter to myself from where I now stand as a teacher and educator of America’s children, as someone who strives to live truth. This incident occurred after I had graduated into the first major recession that I can say I fully understood. The economic recession taught me a great life lesson: people can choose to help or hurt you. It may be why now whenever I have an opportunity to be giving towards someone, I try to help.
This event was a passive aggressive exchange, which I never told my family about, but did mention to one friend. That, too, is the insidious nature of enacted racism: it gets buried or tucked away. The normalization of racism is not something anyone should disregard. I scheduled a time to meet with this Deputy Director. Instead of understanding the seriousness of my joblessness she led me in a conversation that can best be described as distracted. Why? This was a conversation directed solely on my weight loss. In college, I was what many people would call fat. One of my professors told me that if I could lose weight it would make me acceptable in the job market. He told me, “I’m telling you the truth, people will accept you more.” When that happened I told two of my classmates, women I trusted and who would never repeat it. And they never did. This past year I struggled with my weight and I kept thinking, “Why is this so top of mind?” I went on a healthy weight loss journey after grad school because it was right for my health, not in an effort to prove to family, friends or the world which contains people like that adjunct professor and that Deputy Director of Career Services.
What that Deputy Director did not know was that that year I had suffered a major blow to my health. What she did not know was that I also had lost two close family members. What she did not know was that I was a first-generation college student who had believed in the American dream, and that it had shattered. What she did not know was that focusing on my body as my worth was to devalue me – or maybe she did know and just did not care. Her undermining comments about my body when I came to talk about my career were and are unacceptable. As a black woman, I have subscribed to the belief, “Keep your head down, work twice as hard, and keep moving forward.” But I am tired. I can no longer afford to continue to be polite about racism because it’s affecting my quality of life. It’s affecting the lives of the students I teach. Please do not misunderstand me, racism has always effected my socioeconomics and politics, but now the effects are daily impacting my inner being, and the cost of that is too high. The daily indignities, the microaggressions, the slight slants placed on truths which are the equivalent to a lie are too much for my soul to bear.
During that meeting, I woke up but stayed silent because I not only wanted a job, I desperately needed one. I never want that to happen to another person of color again. I never want another black woman to feel like she has to pimp her soul and silence herself in order to get help in getting or keeping a job. I’m not going to go into what first-generation students face economically, but suffice it to say there was more to me than met the eye. But what met that woman’s eye was black, black, black. And I now know there’s more to me than that.
Dear 8th Grade,
Thank you for trusting me this year. This year is not one that can be described as easy. As we know, some learning takes us through some pretty hard places – places of unbelief, inertia, and those dotted with expressions like, “I’ll never get this.” We certainly went through a few learning dips, and found ourselves whizzing along steeps slopes. (Haha, how do you like that I got both math and science references in this?!)
I would like to applaud you for all the beautiful soul things that you taught me and came to your own understanding of this year. Beautiful people, you truly you are empathetic, loving, self-aware, and forgiving – and I could not have asked for more.
Thank you for accepting me as your teacher on the days I did not deserve it. Thank you for overlooking my flaws. Thank you for the multitudes of kindness towards me. Thank you for baking me cupcakes! Thank you for the Christmas and birthday cards! Thank you for the hugs! Most of all thank you for bringing the laughs, and making me see kids differently.
Teachers teach because we think we have something to say, and we hope to impart or share our wisdom. I have a few hopes for this class:
Phenomenal people, you kept me on my toes during this dance we call 8th grade. Thank you for teaching me some new moves. I love you.
Ms. St. Jean
My mom tells the story of when my sister was little and they were out, and that my sister let out a most terrible yell out of no where. For the life of her my mom could not figure out what was wrong with my sister. She was not in need of changing. She was fed. All was good in baby world. When my mom got home she found a huge welt on my sister. My sister had been pinched by the young boy sitting next to my sister. The bruise had been buried beneath a layer of clothing, causing my mother to think that my sister’s indignant screams were a fluke.
There are days when I feel that is what life is like as a black woman. That you are bruised, and it is buried beneath beautiful clothing, and that no one notices because they do not know where or how to look. It is also a testament to the fact that bullies can be undercover. But we are not to sit around and be unaware of the schemes of an unassuming bully. For adults bullying can be as real as it is for children made to feel unsafe by the screaming, kicking, threatening kid on the playground. Adult bullies tend to use more sophisticated tactics.
Today, I faced a mico-agression that was not micro. I had a choice of how to react to the situation, using what Professor of Psychology and Education, Dr. Derald Wing Sue, terms the "politeness protocol." In his book, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence, he says that we adopt the politeness protocol in order to avoid potentially offensive and uncomfortable conversations. This is the way I was bought up, and sometimes it's hard to escape "good" training, that has been solidified as the "correct" way to handle situations which are imaginably explosive. But then there comes the day you get tired. And today, dear reader, I got tired. I chose to remain polite, but I did tell the person who made a statement that it was made to marginalize me a woman of color, and a special educator. When those two identities are placed in historical context, there is a deeper understanding about how narratives are used to exercise control - and I could no longer complacently stand by and let someone else define my identity as other, less than, or existing on the margins.
This year my teaching goal is not only to build relationships with my students, but to build one with myself. And I need to have a good relationship with the person I see in the mirror every day, even if that person is not accepted in all contexts, and contents.
Growing up my mom would tell my siblings and I that the right relationships bring freedom. I'd forgotten that. I took a class led by some folks from NYU's Metro Center, and it was said that relationships bring freedom. As I focus on building my relationship with myself, I pray that I find liberation from the ideas and ideals that I have internalized that are not true because I have not spoken up and out about them.
Dear 8th Grade,
Beautiful People, did I ever tell you about my childhood? Did I tell you that growing up that I really liked, actually loved, when people told me I was smart? I secretly basked in that title, which I now know is a pretty harmful way of labeling kids. Of course, as the child of two super strict Haitian immigrant parents, I could never show how much I loved that label, or I would have been labeled arogan or arrogant. And being called arrogant would not have been a good thing. So of course I hid my pride, and acted humble.
Then I got to AP Calculus, and CAPITAL F - FAILED. I MEAN MISERABLY. My teacher would look at me with a combination of great consternation and pity, saying things like, "I don't get why you you're not getting it, you're so smart." My teenage mind was thinking, "Well, you're a horrible teacher. I don't understand your methods." My parents were worried. They couldn't afford a tutor but they got me one. I literally did not understand what the guy was doing. He could have been speaking a foreign language. I asked my mom to please get rid of him. Thankfully, she did. I want to honor her by saying that is possibly one of the best things she ever did for me. She let me fail. My downfall was in my mind spectacular, but in reality it wasn't; it was something that I needed to happen.
My failure wasn't final, and thank goodness it was not fatal. I've failed many times since. I can't wait to tell you the story of my pre-college summer spent at NYU, and how I was mortified by my grades. I literally felt humiliated. Guess what? I survived. I'll tell you about my first job as a secretary. Also, remind me to tell you about my more recent failures. I have failed in so many ways, and hated the failing in the moment. But each failure has taught me a lesson: I have the opportunity to build capacity. I can grow. I can change. During the actual failing I may not recognize that, and my ego may be bruised, but it heals. I realize that my confidence shouldn't be placed in being viewed a certain way, but in being a person who works at getting better - personally and professionally.
That's my hope for you.
Shine on you beautiful diamonds. Shine on. Don't let anyone take your light and sparkle.
Ms. St. Jean
Dear 8th grade,
I’m wondering a lot about how we are growing and who we growing into. Did you know that Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States wrote a book called Becoming, about her journey to who she is? I haven’t read it yet, but I know in it she describes her journey from Chicago to the White House. Today, I ask you, I ask myself, “Who are we becoming?”
Are we becoming men and women of character, people who can be trusted? Are we people who are real, or do we strive to be just another image on Instagram? If we are only working towards the latter or second goal then something is wrong.
I think that today our involvement in and with social media is to our detriment or harm. We never want to take off the veneers of not who we really are but whom we think we should be. So we hide behind this mask, and maybe we’ve started to believe it. Then we meet people who push back and ask us to take off the fake and begin to tell the truth. They give us permission to confess that we are not who we say or even think we are, and our systems are shocked.
I’ve noticed this thing about middle school - almost everyone lies. The things that shock me are the straight faces, no hesitation, the no backing down attitude until confronted with another version of the truth. Some of the lies are simple, “So and so, did you finish the problem on the board?” “Yes, Ms. St. Jean,” is the reply. And then I walk over to where you are sitting and you have completed not one iota of work! Truly, I am in shock!
I can't fault you for lying. I think society needs to take some of the blame. There is a pressure to be perfect pushing this generation. You're young and don't know how to deal with it. I'm older but I can't say that the burden goes away; I just think that you learn to deal with it better. This type of stress should not be normalized so I refuse to make it that way. Here's what's what: let's keep working on achieving a mindset that says, "If I can't handle something, I am going to seek help. I'm not going to lie about it. I'm going to confront the stress with truth. If I tell the truth, maybe things will get better."
Beautiful people, let's walk towards truth.
Ms. St. Jean
Ms. St. Jean
Native New Yorker teaching and living the middle school life, using this site to keep it 100. My students are the embodiment of joy.