The Work of Back to School

‘Twas the week before school and all through the building the teachers were scurrying, checking to see if the floors had been waxed. The decorations were hung on the doors and walls with care, in preparation for the students who would soon be there. . .

It’s hard to believe the beginning of a new school year is two days away for me. I am always excited to see all of the posts on social media of my friends and colleagues working hard to paint walls, decorate doors, and ensure the tables are positioned just right. I also stand in awe of those who are blessed with design skills that I will likely never possess (HGTV won't be calling anytime soon). I wonder, though, if we work on ourselves as much as we work on our classrooms? I don’t mean do we sit through 10 hours of PD on reading instruction so that we can become better reading teachers, although that is necessary and important.

What I mean is how much time have we dedicated to doing the internal work required to become better educators? We can write the most brilliant syllabus ever, but if we see families as impediments, needing only to come when we call, not as partners, the syllabus won’t matter.  

If our paint scheme is more warm and welcoming than our attitude towards students, having flawless walls won’t matter.

Do we spend as much time thinking about our disciplinary practices as we do making behavior charts? Have we spent time working to mitigate our own biases so that we do not become active agents in the disproportionate discipline of black and brown students?  (Side note: I encourage you to do some research on the effectiveness of public behavior charts before you hang yours).

We plan activities to get to know our students in authentic ways, but do we have a plan to ensure they get to be their authentic selves in our classrooms?

We can spend hours unpacking the standards in our curriculum binders, but if we ignore the curriculum the world is handing us each day, we will have failed our students, regardless of if they pass the end-of-year standardized tests.

A paint scheme or flexible seating won’t change a student’s life, but a teacher who is committed to respect and creating an equitable environment will.

Know this: your classroom does not have to look like it's pulled from a Pinterest board to make you an effective teacher. You are enough. You don’t have to teach like a pirate, like a champion, or like your hair is on fire to be enough. You do have to commit to showing up for 180 days and doing the work—the work that is not always visible, the work you may never be recognized for doing, the work that is the foundation of all the other work.

Truth or Dare? -- NerdTalk 2017

The silence of the night is broken only by our whispers and the hum of tires against the highway. The street lights cast a flickering, orange glow across each of our faces—just a group of kids looking forward to a week of roller coasters and way too much cotton candy. There’s no other students that look like me, but that’s ok, right?

Then that moment came.

 Just breathe. Act normal.

     “Truth or Dare?”

I feel the knot that previously rested at the top of my stomach begin to inch its way up my esophagus, coming to rest in the back of my throat. I know what is coming, but knowledge alone is insufficient preparation for this. The muscles in my neck tighten.

     “I dare you to kiss Alex.”

They linger there in the darkness as she carefully places her lips against his cheek.

Crisis averted. Temporarily

A full round of innocent truths and dares pass, until. . .


     “I dare you to kiss Chad.”

I know there is no way this is going to happen and so does he. I have spent the better part of this honors trip in the gaze of her grandmother. The same gaze Emmet sat under. The same gaze Trayvon and Michael sat under. The same gaze students sit under each day in classrooms, our classrooms. The gaze that says stay in your place and there won’t be any problems here. I’m not sure if the gaze is naturally developed over time or if there is a talk when the gaze is taught, like the talk little black boys and girls receive on how to survive while living under the gaze.

Her eyes rise in the darkness--they never meet mine but I see it beginning to form in her eyes, in her heart: the gaze. I know how to handle this moment—put on the mask. The mask Brother Dunbar taught me about “. . . the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— / This debt we pay to human guile; / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/ And mouth with myriad subtleties. / Why should the world be over-wise,/ In counting all our tears and sighs?/ Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear the mask.”

I’ve worn this mask most of my life. It slims my broad nose, the same broad nose used as justification for taking Philando’s life. It lightens my brown skin and covers my woolen hair, the same hair their savior has, my savior, too, though they seem to forget this.

From generation to generation, we have passed down the gaze and the masks, but the time for seeing with loving eyes and revealing what exists beyond the masks is upon us. We owe it to our children and our children’s children. So let us be about the work to ensure that windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors are present not only on our shelves but in our personal lives as well, modeling for our students what it means to love our neighbors as we love ourselves--our neighbors both near and far. Our neighbors fleeing persecution and our neighbors that may not act like, think like, and vote like us. Because if our shelves are diverse but our lives are not, we have missed the mark.

We say that we are not sure if our students are ready to talk about the gaze and the masks that come about as a result, but I had mastered the art of wearing the mask by third grade. Floating at pool parties, careful never to get too close, because although they say color does not matter, I know they cannot handle the juxtaposition of brown skin and blue eyes.

Perhaps, what we mean is that we are not ready to talk about the gaze and the mask.

Let’s end by thinking about our own students, those that have been and those that are to come. What masks do they have to wear to exist in the spaces we have created? Little brown girls forced to wear masks that hide their full joy, lest they be labeled as loud or angry and little brown boys forced to wear masks that cover the passion in their eyes, lest they be seen as a threat. Or our students that are forced to wear masks that hide their sexuality or their faith.

It’s easy to say if I had been alive during (insert major world event here), I would have done (insert incredible act here), but we are dismissing the safety that silence provides. Let’s ask this instead: "What are we doing today to adjust our gaze toward students?"; "What are we doing to ensure that students can be their full selves, with no need for the masks?" Remember, history has no bystanders; inaction is action.  

Thank you.


Copyright ImagineLit 2015