I grew up in a Black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. After graduating, I returned to the same neighborhood to teach. I did this for 15 years; I’ve experienced some of the best and worst times of my professional life simultaneously.
I had brilliant students, students with behavioral problems, students that had already encountered law enforcement on several occasions; students that sometimes yelled and cursed at me as well as their classmates out of sheer pain & frustration often. I never thought about cultural responsiveness or competency though. I didn’t have to. I was them. They were me. Period.
I understood why some of my Black girls were so “loud” and had an “attitude”. Why they often moved their heads when they talked, gestured frantically when they were trying to make a point and appeared confrontational to outsiders. It was one way, oftentimes the ONLY way they were heard.
I understood why “being disrespected” was such an affront to a Black Boy. I understood why seemingly frivolous things like Jordans and designer clothes carried so much weight. I understood why so many were attracted to a lifestyle that often leads to nothing but prison or worse.
My success as a teacher was part of what defined me and continues to do so. I never had to think about how much cultural competence was naturally a part of who I was. We discussed rap lyrics regularly in class, wrote songs about books we were reading and wrote argumentative essays about how to combat the various issues plaguing our neighborhoods. We produced short films and podcasts to express our ideas and share them with the world.
When I became a literacy coach, I stocked every single classroom including my own with books that featured Black Boys & Girls as main characters. I will never forget my students’ response to great novels such as Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. The Skin I’m In and Monster. There were tears, fights and celebrations around us. Our history, our culture, our present state of being as Black people was central to our learning community.
I was an excellent teacher & facilitator and then the epiphany. Fast forward 15 years after teaching in predominantly Black neighborhoods, I embarked on a new journey & took a teaching job in the Middle East. It was an exciting opportunity to teach in another country, be involved in educational reform and simply to grow and push myself.
This should’ve been a piece of cake right? Considering all of my years as a teacher, instructional coach and curriculum developer & I was pretty confident I could do this literally with my eyes closed. What happened was far from my expectations.
I found myself struggling for the first time since I was a new teacher with basic things like classroom management and instructional techniques. It would have been quite easy to blame my early difficulties on the fact that my new class of 7th grade girls were all second language learners. In fact, I was pretty comfortable with blaming my stress on not being prepared to teach English to my Arabic Students.
However, if I am being honest, this was not the issue. I’m not sure when it hit me.
All I remember clearly was struggling one day to get through a short story about Muhammad Ali and “Bam”. The light bulb moment. My girls were thrilled to talk and write endlessly about their knowledge of Arabic Culture and traditions. What they knew about Muhammad Ali and his accomplishments drove our unit. They even brought in cultural artifacts from home, created books and posters and were delighted to present to the class- something that had never happened before.
How could I have missed this? I was struggling because I had not put their experiences, their culture, at the center of our community. I supposed it had come so naturally in the past that being intentional about it never crossed my mind. Never. This one fact, had eluded me and colored my teaching experience in such a way that I now found teaching, something I once loved, extremely taxing. It was a chore and a painful one some days.
It occurred to me that this is how it must feel to be for example, A white, suburban-educated teacher attempting to teach in a community that is completely unfamiliar to you. I remember running across so many young teachers like this in my early years. They spent days crying, screaming and many of them failed to make it to the end of the year. I wonder, what a difference it would make if they had been coached or mentored by someone who helped them to see the value of cultural relevance in the classroom. It’s easy enough to overlook this. I did it as an experienced educator. I can’t imagine how they felt in retrospect.
Going forward, I’m happy to see chats in #Educolor and #HipHopEd where people as taking on this issues. Hashtags and discussions aren’t enough though. What can we do? What will you do? What will I do to take this beyond discussion?