Teachers, We Need to Get Our Knees Off Our Students' Necks

Jul 22, 2020 12:05:00 PM

by Zachary Wright 

Debate is raging across the country on how to return to school in the fall.

The Trump administration, considering their abject disregard for the health of the American people during the pandemic, deserves absolutely zero trust or faith from parents, families or students.

But regardless of how or when schools reopen their doors, there is an uncomfortable, yet undeniable truth that all teachers must face.

While In Minneapolis, racial violence took the form of a police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, in schools, the truth is [pullquote]too many teachers have their knees on their students' necks each and every day.[/pullquote]

Every time a student of color or a student with disabilities is multiple times for likely to be restrained, suspended and expelled, we have our knees on our students’ necks.

Every time we call a dean or send a child out of the classroom without having first built relationships with those students, we have our knees on our students’ necks.

Every time we take away a child’s recess, we have our knees on our students’ necks.

Every time we choose to skim a student’s IEP or doubt a students’ accommodations, we have our knees on our students’ necks.

Every time we assume that our students who are poor can’t learn, we have our knees on our students’ necks. 

Every time our eyes focus on the off-task behaviors of our Black and brown students and overlook those of their white classmates, we have our knees our on students necks.

Every time we start our school year without investigating and reflecting on our own deeply entrenched biases and racisms, we have our knees on our students' necks

The educational status quo across the country has students of color and students with disabilities suffocating under the knee of the American education system.

Marching is easy. Yard signs are easy. Chanting is easy. Liking, sharing and re-tweeting are easy. 

But [pullquote]what will we do when the change that is needed cuts into the privileges of the powerful?[/pullquote]

Every teacher has the opportunity, the obligation, to inspect their own classroom as a microcosm of that now hallowed Minneapolis sidewalk. 

Here are some steps every teacher and school leader can take:

  • Build the Equity Literacy of teachers in your schools by utilizing the works of Paul Gorski, in particular, Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education. Each case study gets teachers to investigate true to life classroom scenarios, reflect on the inequities that are often overlooked and develop action plans to bring justice to these scenarios.
  • Every teacher, particularly white teachers, needs to use this summer to read and educate themselves. This list is by no means exhaustive, but teachers need to read "White Fragility" by Robin Diangelo, "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander, "How To Be An Anti-Racist" by Ibram X. Kendi and "We Want To Do More Than Survive" by Bettina L. Love. School leaders should assign these books for their teachers and begin the school year with guided discussions on key takeaways from these texts.
  • Teachers, grab a clipboard, and track what students you call on, redirect or straight up overlook. Who do your eyes see? Why? This audit can illuminate some uncomfortable truths. 

Teachers, now that the marches have largely ceased and social media timelines have returned to normal; now that it is no longer a fashionable necessity to post self-aggrandizing pics of righteous banner waving, what will we do?

Will our knees stay on our students’ necks, or will we stand up for justice?

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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