Achievement Gap

This Black Educator Has Plenty to Say, but Who's Listening?

In my 25 years as an educator, my most powerful experiences have been with students of color. I have taught at a range of different schools: those serving predominantly black students or white students, traditional public schools and a charter school. I have taught at the elementary, junior high and high school levels. Students of color remind me of why I am an educator. Their rough edges and boisterousness teach me patience and their struggles with subjects push me to dig deeper. This op-ed is a reminder that I don’t want to blame students for their circumstances and take credit only when they succeed. They teach me to look beyond who they appear to be and see who they can be. They teach me to celebrate their successes no matter how small. They teach me to walk in their shoes, because their shoes are the ones that matter most to this educator. They remind me of the reason I chose teaching in the first place—to make a difference. I don’t blame students for their circumstances. I understand. Children don’t come packaged nicely with a bow of compliance and the wrapping of “I only need you to teach me and nothing more.” I understand that some need me to love them beyond measure. I understand the realities of teaching these students that I love. Some of them will need me to value them until they see value in themselves. They may need to call me at home for help with their homework assistance. I understand that every tantrum or chair thrown or “I am gonna get my mama on you” may be a cry for attention. I may have to visit them in a shelter or meet them on the weekends to study. I understand that not everyone can sit still or be quiet. Their needs are more important than mine. I understand that I may have to be the most uncomfortable person in my room, so they won’t be. I understand that I may have to come in early and stay late. Part of my job is to pick up the slack from their homes. However, through all of my understanding, there are no excuses. There is no excuse for me not to do my job as an educator. There is no excuse for me not to be a better educator today than yesterday. As a black educator, I have experienced the bigotry of low expectations. I have seen my ability questioned. I have felt the isolation of being either the only one or one of a few teachers of color in a building or district. I have experienced the feeling of having to prove that I belong in this profession. At times, it seems my voice as a proud black educator is drowned out by the dominant narrative of educators who speak of my students in terms of their deficits. Frankly, I’ve had enough of that. When was the last time we’ve ever heard about deficits in white students? Never. Black and brown children deserve for us to be completely focused on their assets, and for that to be mark of our preparedness as educators. Thus, black educators deserve to be honored and heard as we discuss how to best teach black and brown students. My question is, “Who’s listening to us?”
Lee-Ann Stephens
Lee-Ann Stephens has been an educator for 25 years and was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2006. She currently serves as a teacher on special assignment with the St. Louis Park School District in Minnesota. She serves Latino and African American high school students who are enrolled in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and honors classes. She previously served as an adjunct ...

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