It may have been over 40 years ago, but it’s a moment that shaped me in ways that I could not have expected. After weeks of learning about the Presidents of the United States, my second grade teacher assigned the class to write a biography of a president and draw a picture to accompany it. The writing assignment was easy but I was no fan of art or drawing – being the overachiever that I am. I decided to put my all into it. I selected George Washington as my topic and once I completed my biography of him, I jumped on the drawing eager to be the first one finished. The response to my drawing from my teacher was, well, a reality check. She pointed to the nose of my rendition of George Washington and said emphatically, “This is NOT what he looked like! Now go back and fix this!” Just writing this takes me back to that moment. In my aim to please and achieve I was confronted with something I didn’t know, but definitely felt. I had a choice to make and this was on my terms.
I returned to my seat, erased the nose I drew, which looked like mine, distinctly African, but mine. I stared at my teacher, who was white, and drew a nose that resembled hers, stared at it, then erased it. It was at that moment I decided that I had a right to my perspective of me and how I saw the world, and more importantly, how I would walk in it. I returned the drawing to my teacher with out a word. She looked at the paper, looked at me, and went back to the group she was working with.
The choice I made to advocate for myself was not realized in that moment, but has been fostered well before that in my house, by my family and parents, who at this time were divorced raising two young boys. My ability to self-advocate was rooted in a sense of self with expectations to achieve, two concepts that would continue to be called upon throughout my educational and professional journey. It was then that I realized the difference between education and learning and I would come to know and understand it.
This scenario, to lesser and greater degrees, is one that we can presume plays out in our schools today, either innocently or intently. For over a half century, the effort to close the achievement gap has been a focus for school districts across the country. A recent study by professor Nicholas Papageorge of Johns Hopkins, Who Believes in Me? The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on Teacher Expectations, found that white teachers had significantly lower expectations of black students than black teachers. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, this study did not assign any specific reasons for the findings, nor am I. However, given the scope of the study and its findings, it provides a platform for reflection on how parents of minority students prepare children for the evolving school environment, as well as reflection for teachers and school leaders regarding the efficacy of expectations. This information comes at a time when our nation is undergoing one of the largest demographic changes in our schools systems to date. As minority students are becoming a majority population in schools across the country, teacher demographics remain overwhelmingly white.
No individual is free of bias in any form. The media plays a role in shaping our perceptions of how we see ourselves, and others. Black students are presented with positive media images of Black males as musicians, actors, and professional athletes and negative images that evoke fear and project their criminality. When parents of minority students send students to school to receive an “education”, they submit children to a system that may have a different view of not only who your child is, but also what their capacities are. By definition, a system is an orderly way of managing, controlling, organizing or doing something. Like any system, education has outputs, goals, and in today’s educational reform, movement. Those outputs are measured in test scores and charter expansion. To be “educated” is to become a part of a system, bound by its measures, its objectives and whatever it deems is appropriate to meet the needs as it defines it. When we examine the achievement gaps that the educational system purports to address, we see little significant change, yet the educational system survives and expands.
It was days after the “George Washington” incident that I began to realize what allowed me to move my mind quickly to address the bias I was confronted with. I was pleased with myself that I took control of my response by holding my “space”. A space which was created for me at home. That space informed me of what to expect, but more importantly focused not on what would happen, but how to respond, how to “be”. This is when I learned that going to school to get an “education” was far less rewarding than going to school to “learn”. I knew that I had the capacity to not only accomplish what was set at the table (my parents expected that), but how to see, hear and engage in an environment that was a resource to my destination beyond school. That encompassed everything that I might encounter that could impose its will on my identity, beliefs, and goals.
Over the last 50 years we have learned much about the disparities that exist in our educational system ranging from overrepresentation of minorities in disciplinary matters and special education. We see similar disparities in the underrepresentation of minorities in gifted programs and advanced placement courses. These disparities are weighed and measured by the system in terms of numbers, outputs. The response of the system is to repair structural parts to address the problem, not the human element that may be influencing them.
When we limit improvements in the educational system to it’s structural components such as curriculum, policies and procedures, we miss the true essence of the learning process, and that is the human element. If we are to close the achievement gap, we as parents should begin with teaching the concept of advocacy. Identifying and railing against the patterns we’ve seen over the years has not demonstrated any significant change in the structures or outcomes that benefit children of color collectively, but has elevated disparities and tensions. When we prepare children to “become” by reinforcing them as worthy, relevant, and capable, we prepare them to meet challenges with surety and confidence. The learner defines learning, particularly when they have a purpose beyond the goals of education. Young people may not know what they want to do or become, but they certainly will want to be prepared when they do. When the purpose of learning is left to the system, then students will acquire an “education”.
Decades after my experience in second grade, I earned my doctoral degree in educational leadership. I found it ironic that I earned it from an institution named after the subject of my second grade assignment, The George Washington University. It isn’t enough to tell children to “be good”, “follow directions”, or “listen to the teacher” in preparation for the learning environment. These are compliance expectations, not purposeful nor a component of self-advocacy. When expectations are forged in concepts of dignity, self-awareness, and self-respect, the opportunity to move children from solely interacting with an environment to using it to their benefit increases. Schools call it “engagement”. I call it, “becoming”. Whatever you call it, when you see it, it will become as clear as the nose on your face.