The Work I Must Do

For the past few months I’ve been following and participating in two conversations in education.  One conversation seems to be, “How do we most effectively teach content and literacy to students with evidence based pedagogy?” It’s a pedagogical and instructional discussion that’s forced me to question a lot of what I thought I knew about teaching and learning.  The other conversation I’ve been following seems to be, “We must abolish racist systems and racist individual behaviors in education.” It’s a conversation about race, power, abuse, and systems.  I’ve occasionally seen these conversations merge really nicely, sometimes they run parallel to each other, and other times they appear to clash, particularly online.  (There’s actually a third conversation I’ve been following – education and distance learning during this pandemic – but it won’t be a topic for this post). 

I recently listened to a conversation between Jasmine Lane (@MsJasmineMN) and Citizen Stewart (@citizenstewart) that got me thinking about how these two conversations come together. Their conversation is frank and probably a bit controversial (you can find it here).  A highlight moment was, “Having white teachers sit in a circle and read White Fragility is easier than admitting that many of them may not be equipped pedagogically to help our kids succeed.” 

Sit with that. 

When I first got into education, first as an AmeriCorps volunteer and then into graduate school and student teaching, I was way more interested in “We must abolish racist systems and racist individual behaviors in education” than “How do we most effectively teach content and literacy to students with evidence based pedagogy?” I was participating in racial justice training and activism, trying to push some of my white coworkers and fellow grad students, but wasn’t really thinking about how much pedagogical skill it takes to be a teacher that students really learn from.  Once I was alone in a classroom though (in a school with predominantly students of color), I realized that I didn’t really know how to teach.  Fortunately, I’d had a really good mentor teacher that I could at least try to mimic. Still, despite all my efforts to be… and some of you will cringe here…an ally, I wasn’t prepared to teach effectively. 

I’ve done a lot of thinking (sometimes on point, sometimes misguided) about really important topics like culturally responsive teaching, anti-racism, trauma-informed teaching, social emotional learning, and relationship building.  I’m glad I’ve put years of thought into these things.  But after half a decade of classroom teaching, I have to admit that I’ve sometimes put energy into these topics at the expense of learning and developing evidence and science based pedagogical knowledge and skills. I mean, I definitely try to teach kids. However, I don’t think I’m great at it, and I think I’ve fallen for some misguided pedagogical fads and theories, because I wasn’t confident enough in or even aware of evidence and science based pedagogy.  I think that’s partly on me, and partly on my grad program and the subsequent professional development I’ve received.  

So, after listening to Jasmine Lane and Citizen Stewart, I sketched this graphic (woefully under-utilizing the potential of Procreate and an Apple Pencil!): 

On the left is a teacher pathway that focuses on relationship building, antiracism, social-emotional learning, and trauma-informed and culturally responsive teaching at the expense of the fundamental work of teaching content and literacy in ways that students will actually learn. We can become so invested in these things, that we lose sight of what we’re meant to be doing in schools.  On the right, the same topics are being considered.  However, they’re in place to support the essential work: teaching content and literacy to kids effectively.  

I must remember that I’m in schools to teach kids language, reading, writing, and content about World History and Government.  For those of us (mainly white teachers) who care about social justice, schools cannot be places in which  we merely try to act out our social justice fantasies and projections. That won’t help students learn. 

We must continue to participate in these discussions, while remembering why they’re important to the work we’re paid (however inadequately) to do.  I build relationships with students so that they feel safe to take risks, hear my feedback, ask questions and stay after school for support.  I educate myself in antiracism so that I eliminate biases and prejudices that may make me have low expectations for my students, or discipline them in ways that force them out of school and disrupt their learning.  I educate myself on trauma so that I have more compassion and patience for students who seem to struggle with executive functioning and memory because I know toxic stress negatively impacts those parts of the brain. I learn about students’ language and culture so that I better understand schemas they come to school with, and use my knowledge of those schemas to teach new language and content.  And maybe I stop focusing quite so much on students’ social emotional skills (they are kids, after all) and focus as much if not more on my own social emotional skills so that I don’t burnout and give myself time to be a great teacher.

I do all of this so that I have a strong foundation from which to actively teach students content and literacy.  This summer, I’m going to continue doing the pedagogical research and honing the pedagogical skills to do just that. 

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