December 14, 2010
It has been some time since I left the school district, but you have been on my mind while I take classes at Syracuse University. I wanted to write a letter to you to let you know that you still impact my thoughts about education and what is just in our schools. It has been a while since I last saw you and by now I am sure you are dealing with all the trials and tribulations that high school brings. I had you in my seventh grade classroom during my second year of teaching. I was such an eager science teacher that year, ready to move past the stress of my first year teaching and really focus on students, building community in my classroom, and teaching science in a way that encouraged everyone to succeed. I still remember that before I even met you, I knew more about you than I wanted to. The Dean of Students came to me before the school year started and “told” me about you. She said that you were one to watch out for, could not be trusted, and were known for your “unruly” behavior. She also said your mother was “crazy” and to be aware she “always pulled the race card”. This distressed me, not because I feared the student that you “were”, but because I wondered why this information was necessary to provide before I had even met you.
I can still remember my outrage as I discussed this with friends before that school year started. Why was it necessary to be warned about this student, who happened to be one of five black students in the seventh grade? I hated that the dean was creating preconceived notions about you in the minds of teachers. I had assumed how you had been treated by teachers prior to me, particularly knowing that your story often preceded any teacher meeting you. I also heard from the sixth grade teachers the reinforcement of what the dean had told me about you. I heard from them that you frequently were kicked out of class, given detentions, and had even been suspended in the sixth grade. These teachers stated that you refused to do much of your class work in the sixth grade and were falling behind academically. My commitment to community building in the classroom and justice for all students regardless of race, class, or “past behaviors” shaped some of the choices I made about how to include you in my classroom community. Perhaps because of my ignorance as a new teacher, I thought that I could change the course of your academic career by myself. I know now that was perhaps a bit idealistic, but I do not regret the decisions I made that August.
I remember creating a power seat in my classroom. I put this seat in the front corner of the room, closest to the windows where I kept all my plants and insect collections. This was my favorite part of the classroom as lots of natural light came in and the plants that I had spread all over made the institutional feel the classroom melt away. I decided this “power” seat would be given to a student who was recognized to have leadership qualities to help in the classroom and assist me and other students when needed. I decided that you needed to have this seat right from the beginning. I could not think of any other way to counter the negative stereotypes that followed you from sixth grade to seventh grade. I had hoped that giving you a position of power in my classroom would help to counter the marginalization I sensed you had faced in the school district. I also had hoped that to recognize you positively from the beginning as a potential classroom leader would acknowledge that you have something to contribute to the class, rather than how you have been seen in the past as detracting from the “learning of others”.
I will never forget the joy you brought me as a teacher, when you came into my classroom. Joy because of course you were just like every other seventh grade boy, not the deviant child you had been made out to be. You were warm, funny, eager to please, and wanting to test the limits of your adolescence. You immediately took up the power seat as I had envisioned and our relationship was off to a great start. You and I seemed to form a trusting relationship and I was at a loss to understand how you could be matched to the descriptions that preceded meeting you. I remember calling your mom after the third week of the school year to tell her how excited I was to have you in my class and she was nearly speechless. She clearly had never received a phone call that shared positive information about you. From that conversation, I found out that she was actually your Aunt, and had raised you nearly all your life. When she came back to school night, she brought you with her and I remember how excited you were to show her your power seat. That night your mom told me I had a positive aura and she was thankful I was your teacher. I remember feeling like this was a victory that I had managed to create a space that welcomed you and your family rather than a space that created conflict. The rest of the school year proceeded in that fashion. Though the power seat was delegated to other students throughout the semester, you maintained a position of power in the classroom, exhibited leadership qualities, and participated in class. As I said, you brought me much joy, as I felt that somehow we were both helping each other learn ways to build community in the classroom and fight against the injustice of labels that often follow and marginalize minority students. I now know how naïve I was about my role as a teacher. I now question how much I really contributed to helping you realize that you indeed had the skills and abilities to be successful in the school environment and were not bound by the negative labels attached to you.
I think back and feel upset with myself that somehow I thought that I was helping you. It is now that I see I owe you an apology for not doing more to focus on the broader inequities that you and others in the school faced. In hindsight, I remember that the other teachers on the seventh grade Gold team would often complain about your behavior, send you to the office, and even accused you of stealing for which you were suspended. Reflecting back I often stood up for you in those meetings sharing the positive things that you brought to my classroom and how I had not once sent you out of the room. This seemed to have no impact on those around me. What I realize now is that I lacked the preparation and vocabulary to articulate what I felt about how you were treated. It is clear to me now that every conversation any school personnel had about you was steeped in the deficit model. Your behavior and low achievement was believed to be because some how you were lacking, deficient, or deprived because of your minority background and because your family did not value education, they just wanted to “use the race card”. Those in the school having these conversations, were quick to place this blame on you and your mom rather than understanding how to make you feel included or belong and to see yourself as a student in that school. I feel that there were very few chances for you to be recognized as successful in that environment.
I recognize now how inadequately I was prepared to deal with the deficit model that infested our school. I was not prepared to deal with issues of race and power in the classroom. In my naiveté I thought that our positive relationship as teacher/student was good enough to help you succeed. Yet I now know that I needed to do much more than that. Had I the background that I do now, I could have spoke to that deficit oriented discourse that was used to validate what others wanted to see in you. I could have worked to gather and form a community of teachers who would discuss issues of power and race in the classroom and analyze how this impacts which students are labeled as “behavior problems” and are determined to be unsuccessful at such a young age. I wished I had known what critical pedagogy was and brought these ideas to our teaching PLC’s to discuss. I know now that I could have done more to work with others to understand what knowledge and recourses you brought the classroom. I know that had I had the strength and knowledge to stand up and do this for you and other marginalized students in the school that it may have made more of a difference. Hazel Markus is a researcher who writes about these issues. She states “when teachers demonstrate knowledge, understanding, and respect for students’ contexts and backgrounds, and when they find ways to let students and others in their environment see them as students, learners, or achievers” that students’ achievement goes up and dropout rates do down (Markus, 2008, p. 85). I wish that I could have spoken up more to this notion to encourage all of us at the school to reflect on how we encourage all students to succeed.
In the end, I feel the apology I owe you is because at the time when you were in my classroom, I thought that I had done all that I could to be the best teacher and help you succeed. I realize now that I was too quick to pat myself on the back. I should have become more involved school wide in bringing these issues of equity and justice to the forefront of discussions to counter the deficit oriented discourse that dominated the school. It is small consolation to you, but as an aspiring teacher educator I make a pledge to you that I will help to prepare future teachers who are more knowledgeable than I was about the pervasiveness of the deficit model and empower them to work to counter this model. Hazel Markus (2008) states “equality of educational opportunity and ethnic and racial difference can coexist if public schools create the atmosphere that students belong and can identify as students” (p. 64). I will work to help aspiring teachers to develop the knowledge and skills to give all students the recognition necessary to identify as students.
After all these years you still bring a smile to my face. I am so thankful for the relationship you and I were able to forge in the classroom despite the series of negative relationships teachers have had with you in the past. I feel like in some small way, that maybe we proved some of them wrong with the trust that we developed in each other. I only wish I had spoken more clearly and loudly about this to others. I truly think you have leadership qualities and hope that someone else in the high school has put aside the labels that follow you to recognize this in you too. You have an amazing mom who would do anything to see you succeed because she knows you can. I hope that you have identified this in yourself as well. Good luck to you and realize that you Dominic after all these years have the power to positively influence others, me!
All my best,
Markus, H. R. (2008). Identity matters: Ethnicity, race, and the American dream. In M. Minnow, R. A. Shweder, & H. R. Markus (Eds.), Just schools: Pursuing equality in societies of difference (63-98). New York: Russell Sage.