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  • Tonya Breland

How were you wounded by school?

One of my respected colleagues in this equity work asked this question of a group of leaders for equity, “How were you wounded by school?” Before reading further, I would like for you to think about this question. Take a moment and write it down. And feel free to pose this question to your colleagues. When my colleague asked the question, what followed was a room full of adults sharing memories of their schooling experiences that left lasting impressions on their lives.

I have since used this question in equity-focused trainings. What has been really powerful about asking this question of educators is the conversation that inevitably follows. Not surprisingly, educators respond with heartstring stories of sad experiences of being overlooked and ignored, mistreated, called names, told they were not good enough, or smart enough, or capable enough, not college material, intentionally excluded from opportunities extended to their peers, made to feel like they were othered, and the list goes on.

I am amazed at how drawing on these memories brought many middle and upper middle-aged adults to near tears recalling the wounding memories they experienced decades prior. They were carrying these wounds, some still visibly jarred by their unsettling memories. What about you? Were you able to recall an experience from your childhood that wounded you? How did it impact you as an adult? An educator? A leader? A parent? A professional?

One thing is clear: What we do to children has lifelong implications. A painful reality is that the stories of these educators and educational leaders parallel the stories of students enrolled in schools today across the country. For some, the wounds interrupted the plans they had for their lives or made some feel they could not pursue certain dreams. For others, they were fueled to change the narratives for their future students and made vows to never repeat those experiences. As a woman of color, I have my own story of experiencing racism as young as 7 years old in a second grade classroom where I was the only Black student in a classroom of a teacher who was mean to me and treated me differently from my peers. I never forgot how she made me feel as a student of color in her classroom over 4 decades ago. Mrs. L. (my White 2nd grade teacher) was not culturally responsive to my needs. Her maltreatment has been the fuel behind my work today.

No child deserves to feel “othered”. Yet, it happens every day in classrooms all across this country. And why is that? Because people do not check their privilege and/or bias and they do not know how to be culturally responsive. A reality is that in our country, there is a racial/cultural mismatch between teachers and their students. Less than 20% of teachers are teachers of color, while the country’s student populations are becoming more and more diverse. In New Jersey, we have more than 56% of our student population representing students of color. (NJ School Performance Reports, 2018-2019). This mismatch does not have to lead to experiences that wound students. There are ways for educators to work with all students, connect with them, help them feel they are valued learners, all while they address persistent gaps in achievement, opportunity, and access, leading to healthy schooling experiences. And while it would be great to think that all educators are trained to be culturally responsive, that is not necessarily the reality.

Before we dive into a conversation about cultural responsiveness, we have to acknowledge race and the role it plays in our lives, classrooms, schools, and any other institution in this country. And we have to acknowledge the race of the students that come into our schools and classrooms. To not see their race is color-blindness and sends a message to students that you don’t accept them based on how they identify, and you don’t see them. I know that my race/color is immutable and cannot be ignored when I walk into a room and the last thing I ever want to hear is that it is not seen. In other words, not seeing my race/color is you ignoring a very real and vibrant part of who I am.

For many the topic of race can be uncomfortable because of the history that race carries in our country. When I define race, I define it as a socially constructed hierarchy based upon skin pigmentation and ancestry. Scholar and researcher, Dr. Tyrone Howard says this of the significance of race, “Race matters because many people still attach hierarchical social value to people’s skin color and physical features…To be clear, it is not actually the skin color that matters; it is the baggage about skin color that we as humans carry that makes race so difficulty to address.” (All Students Must Thrive, 2019).

To begin the work of being culturally responsive as an educator, we have to be willing to confront issues of race and the deficit narratives and messages that are often associated with people of color. We need to be able to understand and be sensitive to the experiences students of color face in some classrooms where the teachers do not look like them.

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