Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What can teachers learn from Ferguson?

As we embark upon another school year, my 22nd as a teacher, I am sitting with the usual excitement, anxiety and sense that there must still be something else to get done.  But I am also struck with a profound sadness with Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown dominating the news.  I spent 17 years teaching in Missouri, 14 of them teaching African-American Studies.  I have had dozens, if not hundreds of students that could have been Michael Brown.

I don't pretend to know what happened and I am not here to comment on the hundreds of issues this awful, devastating event raises. I am saddened by the loss of a family and community.  I am struck by my memories of so many students who may have been just like Michael.  

I read an article last week about Michael.  He was described as a good kid in the sense that he did little to bring attention to himself.  Apparently it took a lot of support to get him through school.  Parents had to really push at times.  But he stayed out of trouble.  How many students have we had that just blended in and avoided attention and were therefore defined as good kids?  How much potential went unrecognized?  How many of these kids were African-American boys?

I have had too many young, African-American men who fit this description.  The reasons are different for every kid.  Some dealt with poverty or a lack of role models.  Others came from homes struggling with abuse of all kinds.  Some came from homes with adults that didn’t value education because of their own negative experiences.  Some came from excellent homes with involved families that valued an education.  Some simply felt lost, excluded and ignored.  

However, they all had dreams, they were all capable, and they all had their own unique passions and interests.  

The results were just as varied.  Most of these young men have become successful in a myriad of ways – college students, good fathers and business and civic leaders.  Others have had different routes to and through adulthood.

But what I have seen over and over from these guys is an aching to be heard, respected and given a genuinely fair shot at being successful and safely being themselves.  Isn’t this what all of our kids want?  Why do we so often struggle giving this to our African-American boys?  

If we allow any of our students to feel disenfranchised, alienated, disrespected or hopeless we run the risk of ending up with angry, unhappy, hopeless adults – and we don’t need any more of that.

This year pledge to notice the students who blend in and avoid being noticed.  Find out what their dreams are.  Teach them something about being resilient in the face of a challenge.  Be the adult they can lean on and learn from.  Listen, respect, validate, support.
We’ve all heard the maxim about teaching them well because every student you have is somebody’s baby.  But what if you taught them not like they were somebody else’s baby, but like they might marry yours!