When Our Beliefs Become Compromised… (part 1)

When are the times in my own teaching that my belief in kids and communities is compromised? 

– Cornelius Minor (@MisterMinor)
Heinemann Teacher Tour, July 27, 2019

we got thisCornelius isn’t a math teacher. His background is middle school ELA, and and he authored the recent We Got This:  Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be (Heinemann, 2019). After hearing him speak at the annual Heinemann Teacher Tour in July, my head was swirling with thoughts about the math classroom.

I want to increase student engagement with deep mathematical ideas, and also one another. I want to increase student agency. I want students to have ownership over their ideas. I want students to engage with mathematics meaningfully and critically. I want students to feel like they belong in math class.

…and while I think my math-specific knowledge (content, pedagogical, PCK/content knowledge for teaching, etc.) is critical to this work, some of the work is the collective work of all educators. How do we make students feel like they belong? Like they are knowers and doers of our content area?

In order to help students belong, I have to understand a bit about their context: our communities. Our society.

“We have pledged our lives and careers to serving children, in the context of a society that believes that it’s okay to kidnap kids from parents and cage them… a society that believes not all kids deserve medical care… that believes that not all kids deserve an equitable education.”
– Cornelius Minor (@MisterMinor)
Heinemann Teacher Tour, July 27, 2019

Growing up, I believed wholeheartedly in the American dream. I assumed that my good fortunate in life was because I worked hard, and my parents worked hard, and that we were good people. Thus, we deserved to live out our beautiful lives in our beautiful house in a beautiful town in one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Our lives weren’t perfect, but they were unapologetically wonderful.

It’s hard to grow up and realize that aging into adulthood is mutually exclusive from cultivating wisdom. A crown of gray hair does not bestow magical powers of maturity on its wearer. It’s even harder to grow up and realize that the world is unfair, and that many people in the world suffer from oppression — not people in a history book, but people that lived near me growing up.

As an educator — a white educator — how do I take what I have learned about society and our cruel systems and turn this into a productive force?

“We’ve got our radically bright beliefs in children and in communities that run into stark contrasts with the reality of our social and political now. That’s a big tension for me.”
– Cornelius Minor (@MisterMinor)
Heinemann Teacher Tour, July 27, 2019

When I was in high school, I started volunteering in my youngest sibling’s elementary classroom, and teaching at the local theater camp. My mother had recently died, and children brought out something wonderful in me — a lightness. I like to think we made one another shine. I started to think about teaching as a career.

I studied education in college while simultaneously majoring in American Studies, an interdisciplinary field that contextualized literature, society, and culture in history. I was learning about Emmett Till and Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael. I took classes that analyzed America — its formation, its conditions, and its systems that help and hurt so many people. This learning spilled over into my experiences as an educator. Even though I wasn’t ready to talk about Emmett Till with suburban 4th graders, we had some hard conversations about Columbus and the Civil Rights movement and immigration policy. I viewed myself as progressive, breaking free from the conservative mold of the first school where I taught. I was a young radical.

…I was also a white 24 year old with plenty to learn. (I still have a lot to learn.)

There were times when I punished 10-year-old Nicole, even though she was doing the same annoying behaviors as her friend Haylee, because Nicole had annoyed me by talking through our entire literacy block — four hours earlier. There were times when I gave Bryant an easy worksheet on addition instead of the engaging, open ended task Richelle got to work on, because Bryant had “too many gaps” in his math understanding.

There were times when my belief that children can grow and flourish were compromised. How can students feel like they belong if my own belief that they belong has been compromised?

“When I think about wanting to serve kids well, I ask: how did we get here? Everyone I know is a passionate servant of children and of communities — so then how has society gotten to this place? One of the things I’ve had to internalize is that somehow I’m part of this. There is no us and them. There’s only us, and if part of us does not believe in kids, how do I help to move all of us to believing in kids?

I believe that any work we do has to start with ourselves.”

– Cornelius Minor (@MisterMinor)
Heinemann Teacher Tour, July 27, 2019

I wasn’t a bad teacher because I snapped at Nicole or because I underestimated Bryant. I had a lot to learn — just like I still have a lot to learn. I think one flaw is that I saw myself as the “other” teacher. I was the young one who pushed boundaries: I taught critical literacy, and we talked about race in my classroom. I saw all of the things I did differently from my colleagues. What I didn’t examine was the things that we do the same, the ways in which we undermine our own work.

Maybe snapping at Nicole did not matter much to her. Maybe Bryant felt like the worksheets were comfortable for him rather than ‘dumbing things down.’ Or maybe I unintentionally hurt them. Maybe Nicole felt like she couldn’t trust me because I came down harder on her than other kids, and maybe Bryant started to believe that he just wasn’t good at math. I am not going to beat myself up for every small, human action I take — and still I aspire to more.

Cornelius’ talk is available on the Heinemann blog. He’s a dynamic and charismatic speaker, but more importantly he’s thoughtful about these issues. He’s self-effacing and humble in a way that encourages introspection. (FYI that link also includes videos of talks from the equally brilliant Ilana Horn @ilanahorn and Ellin Keene @ellinkeene.)

At the end of the video, you’ll hear a question from my friend Tina (@crstn85) about how Cornelius makes the time to do this work. He suggests that the time to start doing it is now — e.g. the summer. We can be proactive, and we can rehearse without getting weighed down by the pressure of daily lesson plans and faculty meetings and teaching six blocks a day and omg why didn’t Adrian bring a pencil again. I hope to find some time to write about my reflections, too. What are my own bad habits that compromise my belief in kids and communities?

1 Comment

  1. This is my parent perspective (and I’m drawing on my experience with the sped system). I don’t expect every interaction/teaching decision is perfect. If there is a good relationship and I trust a teacher and believe he or she is reflecting and trying to do their best when issues come up, we move past them. My kids seem to be fairly tolerant as well.

    That is all to say its important to focus on improving and to analyze interactions for bias etc. But I don’t think you need to beat yourself up over snapping at a student one time or giving a particular worksheet out. I think if you focus on: do I have a good relationship with Nicole/Bryant and am I generally meeting their needs? individual moments are just that and its the totality of the classroom experience that will make the lasting impact.


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