A Perspective from an Educator and Mom
I began thinking about the question, “What is education?” in a different light when I recently became a mother. Although my little girl is only 6 weeks old, I was already thinking about what this means for her and for me as a parent who is also an educator. Was it still relevant in education that she was a girl? Were there specific needs, opportunities and strategies that should be addressed because she is an African American girl?
– As a researcher,
– Culturally responsive educator and educational consultant,
– Former special education teacher and professor,
– Author of articles, a book on women doctoral students of color and blogs on the needs of diverse learners,
I knew the answer was a resounding yes!
However, as I ponder this topic now it is not from as much of a statistical point of view or abstract concept but from what in a practical and very personal perspective I want and see for my own child (like most parents and many teachers).
As culturally responsive teachers, we are called upon to see other people’s children as our own—to establish a relationship in which we are truly invested in the outcome of our students’ lives as we would be and are for our own children. This is the hope I hold for my daughter and standard I hold for her future teachers. I expect that when my daughter attends her first formal school her teachers will automatically understand this and act accordingly. But what if it is not automatic?
How will this impact her education?
Which brings me back to, what is education?
In order to be effective in the classroom, education requires inclusion at every level (from kindergarten to doctoral programs). Creating a welcoming climate, being sure every child’s voice is heard and honored, is non-negotiable. Students need to have positive images of themselves as well as others who may not look like them. They need to be encouraged to fulfill their dreams and provided with the means and tools of accomplishing them.
Effective education requires holding high expectations for all students and recognizing their intellect, talent and skills (this should be a given, but rather the classroom and educational system still perpetuates the deficit model and stereotypes and limits students of color). High expectations lead to empowerment and visibility and inspires creativity and imagination. How many examples do we need of what the latter does to children (and adults)?
When I was a graduate student, there was no discussion of Waking Up White, which is the Curry Common Read selection for the upcoming year, or the unpacking of racism and racial inequities in society or even the classroom. My experiences of being one of the only African American graduate students in my special education program at U.Va. helped to solidify my sense of responsibility and purpose in creating awareness and making these discussions mandatory for my undergraduate and graduate students in teacher training. As a result, I have always included these lessons in my own classroom (formal classroom and informal global world).
I have learned the critical importance of being visible for students of color as well as students from the dominant culture. It’s hard work, but getting out of one’s comfort zone (as students and teachers) is a necessity. Many of my college students from the dominant culture who often will work in schools (but have not lived in neighborhoods) with children of color came to understand their white privilege and lived experiences not through theory and research but by walking in the shoes of others.
My student were obligated to get out of their comfort zones and become situated in an activity or event in which they were required to be a racial, ethnic, religious, language, and/or ability “minority.” My students were required to have the experience of being the only one or the “other.” Previous to these activities, the majority of my students from the dominant culture had not been in situations where they were the minority—except when doing charity work or a supervisory position.
For example, my college students in my Introduction to Special Education class would take on this assignment as “ability minorities,” yet they almost always would try to approach the experience as the teacher, the authority, the “knower.” Rarely did they consider being the peer, let alone the learner (without my prompting or mandating). Requiring them to further address race and linguistics to unpack disparity and inequality in education, over-representation in special education and the needs of English language learners required much more prompting, discussions and lived experiences.
Maybe there is a need for us as humans to stay with what is familiar. Maybe there is a need for us to play it safe. But life requires so much more than that. How could we not require that of our students and ourselves?
So what is education? And what does it mean in our own lives? Asking ourselves what we would want for our own children (or sisters, brothers, nieces, etc.) is a good place to start the educational journey and from there, leading with knowledge, courage and heart.