If you are a teacher with Black students in your district, you know how concerning their scores are on state-mandated tests and qualification measures. You are probably inundated with statistics showing you the immense achievement gap between your Black and white students.
You are told to fix it and fast. You are sent to conferences, you are given articles, you are placed into professional development. And, you feel like Sishyphus pushing that rock up the mountain. You feel like nothing you are doing will fix it.
And you are right.
If we truly want to see the test scores of our Black students reach the same levels as their white classmates, we need to first decolonize the classroom.
Ashley McCall, a Chicago Public School teacher, in a recent blog post, wondered, “What if the public school system liberated itself from the narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge?”
Her article solidified what I have been feeling for the past decade of my career: public schools are one of the most segregated places in our modern society. And they are that way by design.
23 years ago, I began my career as a high school English teacher at what is now considered the most diverse high school in the entire state of Michigan. 67 different languages are represented in the district. At lunch tables, if one listens, one can hear Vietnamese, Bosnian, Burmese, and Arabic being spoken.
When I started in the English department, catering to 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, the content was divided between British and American literature. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Byron held down the canon in one classroom, while Whitman, Thoreau, and Miller presided in the other. Dead, white men ruled. Though Harper Lee did squeak her voice in there.
After about five years, and once I no longer felt like a rookie, I addressed the fact that our canon did not reflect our clientele. But, inserting a more inclusive lineup of authors into our core classes was not up for debate. I was, however, able to create a new class titled Modern Multicultural Literature.
Being the young, eager teacher that I was, I went to work compiling poems, short stories, and plays. I also requested funding for classroom sets of two books that were high on the best-seller’s lists at the time: A Lesson Before Dying and The Color of Water.
I cringe a bit now when I see those titles.
I was trying to create a class where my students could see themselves represented in the literature. But my two main texts were Hollywood cliches. In A Lesson Before Dying, a man is sentenced to death in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit. Spoiler alert: they kill him. Though I had good intentions and wanted my students of color to be represented, I only represented their trauma.
The Color of Water focuses on a white mother raising 11 mixed-race kids in an all-Black neighborhood. Though it is a sweet story about the bond between mother and son, it does utilize that all too familiar trope of the white-savior in the form of the mother. More than a decade later, and with so many new, vibrant, diverse stories to be told, McBride’s book is still resting on the English room bookshelf in the high school.
After my first decade of teaching, I then transferred to the district’s freshman campus. It was at this grade level, one of the most important grade levels for determining a student’s success or failure in the future, that I truly realized how great were the odds stacked against Black students.
When I started my first year of Freshman English, I was assigned to what they called the “Basic English” students. These were students who struggled in English and were coming from middle school with failing grades in their ELA classes. Right away, I noticed two things. One, the canon consisted of more dead white men. (The three works of focus: Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, and The Most Dangerous Game.) And two, my remedial class was compiled of almost 100% Black and Brown faces.
Imagine being a young Black woman in that freshman English course. Studying a white man’s heroic journey across the sea. Watching as another white man marries and later prompts to suicide a white girl, (all so he could have sex with her.) Then reading about a wealthy white dude who makes a sport out of trapping and chasing captive humans around his island and shooting them for sport.
After about 3 years of teaching these students in isolation, and my frustrations building, I decided I could either complain about it or do something about it. So, with a few other teachers, I approached my administrator about the idea of creating a school-within-a-school for at-risk teens. That was the term I used back then: at-risk. (I now know how demeaning and non-representative that term is. Had I to do it again, I would instead use a term like under-represented, disenfranchised, or historically under-served.)
The idea was to catch the kids who fell through the cracks. 860-ish freshmen started in our district and only about 520-ish of them graduated as seniors. Our goal was to increase the number getting that diploma at the end of four years. From this idea came The Freshman Academy.
The premise was a simple one. Compile 100 students from our three middle schools that, based on the state’s definitions, would be considered at-risk for not graduating high school. We wanted kids who, with a little extra focus from caring adults, would thrive in a different setting. We hand-picked students, being sure to have a balance of male and female students. We also sought a more diverse balance of students. I often joked that my classroom felt like a meeting of the UN because we had such a plethora of cultures and languages represented in each class.
The Freshman Academy defined the hey-day of my teaching career. They were the years where I truly felt like I was making a palpable difference in the lives of my students. The program used state at-risk monies to bring in counselors, interventionists, artists, college instructors, nutritionists, yogis, and wellness-coaches. We brought the kids to art museums, fancy restaurants, college campuses, and Washington DC. We heaped them with attention, praise, and supplies in the form of interactive smart boards, laptops, books, and educational games. We lowered their class sizes and altered their bell-schedule to include more flexibility and built-in breaks. And they flourished.
Each year, during the end-of-the-year data-crunching sessions, we would see that our kids performed at the same standard as the rest of the school, sometimes even higher. And these were kids that were failing multiple middle school courses when we found them.
About five years into the program, however, something changed. What exactly it was is not known. (I certainly have my theories, but it changes nothing to delve into it here.) Regardless, the funding that was rolling in stopped. Slowly, interventionists were pulled, programs were suspended, and money that was once allocated for creativity and innovation started to be shifted toward standardization and evaluation.
As the supports were pulled, however, the students remained. Except, I started to notice that the practice of hand-picking our candidates for The Academy was taken over by administration. Slowly, teachers were reassigned as well. And over about a 3-year-period, I noticed an increasingly alarming pattern forming.
There were more students in my room than in the past. In The Academy days, my classes were topped at 20-25 students. Now, my room was packed, some classes with 32 kids. I was given one class that was considered a bit advanced, a class not assigned to a team of teachers. That class was overwhelmingly white. (In my last year, I had only 2 Black kids in my advanced class. My other four classes? Overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, with only a smattering of white kids.) The difference was so palpable that the kids mentioned it within the first few days. “Why are there so many of us Black kids in here, Ms. V? Where are the white kids? Why is so-and-so’s class across the hall full of white people?”
I was alarmed, so I did some digging.
And each year, without fail, the same trend presented itself. The school was split into five teams. And though the administration claimed that there was no such thing as The Academy anymore, or a remedial team of any sort, one team always seemed to have a large grouping of kids with low scores on state-mandated tests and on the Scholastic Reading Inventory. And that team was always overwhelmingly Black.
(I could go into the implicit bias in the SRI and state-mandated tests and how they are designed to give white kids an advantage, but I will have to save that for another blog.)
The team of teachers that were handpicked for The Academy were slowly assigned to other teams and new teachers were placed within my group. In my last years, and with the invention of the teacher-evaluation-system, I was able to deduce that the teachers assigned to my team were overwhelmingly low-scoring teachers on the state evaluation. In fact, the Biology, Math, and Spanish teacher for my students were all in the red-zone on the evaluation, their job in danger due to their low scores. The most concerning low score was based on how their students performed on end-of-the-year testing.
Let that sink in. Black students were given subpar teachers in the most essential subjects (math and science) during the most essential year of their entire educational career.
One of the teachers on my team was infamous for running out of usable absences each year. He was gone so often that kids reported not learning anything in their tenure with him. He was also infamous for saying and doing racist and sexist things that ended him up in HR time and again, year after year. (In my last year he was chastised for asking a room full of Black kids how to spell the N-word.) Though administration made it clear they wanted him gone, his strong union-ties kept him protected. Another one of the teachers was known for yelling and screaming at kids so often and so loudly that teachers across the hall would often have to intervene. She too had a folder with HR full of concerns and abuses. And another teacher was known to be so timid, and lacking in classroom management, that kids reported it impossible to concentrate on their education while in his classroom.
Because I had access to my students’ grades, and because I tracked them meticulously, I saw time and again that a student that had As in all of their classes, would end with a C in Biology or Spanish. Students that aced all of their exams overwhelmingly failed their Biology or Math exam. This wasn’t the fault of the students. They were given underperforming teachers. And not only were they given one under-performing teacher, but the students on my team were given the lowest-performing Biology teacher, the lowest-performing Math teacher, and the lowest-performing Spanish teacher in the entire building. They were given three under-performing teachers. Half of their education was mediocre at best.
This was by design.
Around my 20th year of teaching, I started to speak up about this.
I started collecting data. I was told to stop. I started raising the issue in department meetings. I was told to be quiet. I started to send emails. My emails were circumvented. I started challenging other teachers to speak up. I was labeled a problem. I started encouraging parents to ask questions. I was told to knock it off.
Several times, after a Black student came to me and asked to be switched to another team, I would attempt to make the switch and would be chastised for doing so. If I was caught, the student would be switched back. I remember an all-A student of mine saying, “Ms. V. I want to go to college. I have to be in classes with good teachers. Can you help me?” I asked the guidance counselor to switch her, but the principal found out. The student was told she had to stay where she was. Her mom found out and came to the school the next day. The counselor caved because she feared the mom more than she feared the principal. But, she had to hide the fact that she switched the schedule, that’s how much she feared repercussion.
This was by design.
One might ask why. Why would an administrator go to all of this trouble to stack the odds in this way? Two reasons. The first reason comes down to the age of many low-performing teachers. They were at the end of the road, nearing retirement. Though it wasn’t spoken, I am sure stacking a classroom with under-performing Black students was meant to be a punishment. An encouragement to retire and do so sooner rather than later, especially for a teacher well known for biased-thinking toward Black students.
Let me repeat that so that it really sinks in: Black students were used as a punishment.
The other reason the classes were designed this way was to appease and isolate white families.
My district, in the last ten years, has changed immensely. When I first started, it was overwhelmingly white, with a lot of upper-middle-class families making a home for themselves. Over the decades, however, Black families from the neighboring district saw a concerning rise in crime, drugs, and gun violence. So, they began to move. And as they moved, our district demographic switched to almost 50% Black.
You would never know that looking at some of our classrooms though. If you walked down the hall in my building you would notice the palpable difference. Some classes held just two or three Black students. Other classes had only 2 or 3 white students.
This was by design.
It all comes down to test scores. That is how a district is judged. I would argue that my district did not want to be known as under-performing (and they had gotten dangerously close in past years) so they took their high-performing kids and isolated them. They also didn’t want their wealthy white families leaving and taking their tax dollars with them. So, they designed the classes so that maybe it wasn’t so noticeable that the demographic was shifting.
I’m not sure if this practice was district- wide or just in my building. It very well could have been a phenomenon just at my campus. After all, my principal was known for three things: being competitive, being a bull-dozer, and getting results. She prided herself on having better scores than the other administrators. But along with those strong scores were some concerning statistics. In my last year, the Director of Curriculum approached our building with concerns that we were writing behavior referrals for Black students at four times the rate of other buildings in the district. He was also concerned about the high incidences of failure for our Black kids.
It was at this point that I decided to speak out at a higher level.
I had already approached my principal with my concerns. I was told to drop it. I went to the HR director at the time, and showed him the concerning statistics. Nothing happened. I waited until my prinicpal retired (and went on to a career teaching teachers at the college level) and approached my former assistant-principal who stepped into her position. I thought for sure that when he saw the concerning statistics he would jump into action to fix it. He didn’t.
Our new assistant principal was a Black woman, I was hopeful maybe she would affect change. But in our meeting the new principal did all the talking. The assistant principal listened silently without offering any input. I wonder if she too was told to be quiet and not make waves?
After the Director of Curriculum raised alarm about what was happening with our statistics at the Freshman Campus, I asked for a meeting with him. I shared all the data I compiled. Data showing that Black students were overwhelmingly funneled into one team. Data showing that Black students were given three under-performing teachers on that team. Data showing that Black students were not given the same access to a quality education as their peers. Data showing that Black students were given referrals at a greater rate than their peers. Data showing that students with low SRI scores were overwhelmingly grouped together into large groups.
Nothing happened with that information, but I did notice that the term Equity became a buzzword for the district soon after. Book studies were launched, speakers were brought in.
But that brings me back to my original point: if you want to affect real and lasting change, you must Decolonize the Classroom. All the speakers and book-talks in the world will not fix this.
You must not base your schedules on tests (created by multi-million dollar companies) striving to make money off of the categorization and separation of children. You must not allow an administrator, competing for the all important test-score, to be in charge of the schedule. You must not allow culturally insensitive teachers to remain in the classroom.
When I designed special classes with representative books for my Black and Brown students, I thought that was all there was to it, that that would help improve equity. I didn’t realize at the time that that was the tip of a very massive and overwhelming iceberg.
One might read this blog post and think, “Wow, this woman seems bitter.” And you would be right. I am bitter.
I am angry. I couldn’t do anything for them. And that troubled me. It troubled me to the point that one day I ended up in the ER with a blood-pressure of 225. It troubled me enough that my doctors diagnosed me with PTSD. It troubled me enough that I finally walked away from a job earning me $70,000 a year, leaving behind health care, and the pension that went with it. It troubled me enough that I left everything sitting in my classroom and never returned. I couldn’t do anything for them. And that drove me quite literally mad.
So, maybe writing this is catharsis. I thought I would just write it, but wouldn’t post it and make it public. I thought about the feelings of my colleagues, especially the low-performing teachers I referenced. I worried about the guidance counselors who might feel attacked. I thought about the former-principal who certainly would be irate if she stumbled across this post. I also worried the district would feel attacked when, in actuality, what I am describing here could probably happen in any district, anywhere in this country. And it probably is happening. (I am hoping that if you are reading this, you too will do some of your own digging into your district.)
I went year after year after year raising the alarm bells, and no one listened. I watched as my Black students came into my room with tears in their eyes after failing a test that they didn’t feel prepared for. I listened as my Black students recounted injustices and abuses by teachers. So you will excuse me if I push through the worry about my co-workers. Their fragile-white-feelings no longer matter to me.
I couldn’t do anything for my students then, but I can do something for them now. I can speak up. My resignation is official. My life as a teacher is over. Principals didn’t listen, upper administration didn’t listen, the HR director didn’t listen. But maybe they will listen now.
This blog post is for each and every Black and Brown student that was with me over those last years of my teaching career. I want you to know I’m sorry. I want you to know I tried. I want you to know that I am still fighting for you. You deserved better. I am sorry you were given mediocre when you deserved mountains.
I am at a loss for words. I would primarily like to say thank you. Thank you for seeing the issue and an even greater thank you for putting your hand on the plow and doing something. You will never know what it meant to have an instructor who heard us yelling “fire” and did not plug their ears. Who saw us waving flags, and did not avert their gaze. Thank you for being the one person to whom we felt we could go, and know that you would hold space for us to just be. In your classroom the fetters of race, and the projections and labels were momentarily suspended. For those 90 minutes, I was just a student. I don’t think you know how hard that feeling was to come by in those days.
I recognize unlike some of my counterparts, I came from a certain place of privilege, but nevertheless, I was not exempt from the system at large. Words cannot express how grateful I am that you were my teacher, and I consider myself doubly blessed to now call you friend. You have used your life to inspire and uplift, at great personal cost. Gandhi said be the change you wish to see in the world, and darling, you have done exactly that.
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My heart is full.