DESOTO, TX – This weekend took me back to December 2015, when my former student, Quintonio LeGrier, was killed on his front porch by a Chicago Police Officer who stated he reacted out of fear. Q was the perfect student, quiet, and loved math and science. He was one of the students who inspired me to run the Chicago Marathon to raise money to purchase clean drinking water for kids in Africa. I miss him. I still think about him to this day.
Like many, I sat paralyzed watching the image of another dead Black American lay lifeless in the street. I’ve been alive long enough to see my share, yet I still feel all the feelings, compounded, as if each execution was happening again for the very first time.
For a moment, I lost hope in humanity and struggled to find the strength to say the name of the latest victim. I struggled with watching and saying the names of the recent ones.
I’m exhausted by the number of Black Americans who’ve been unjustly killed or jailed in this country. And, I’m tired of the systemic inequities that continue to exist in this country and in the educational system to which I’ve committed my life.
I’ve spoken at funerals and tried to comfort the parents of students who have unjustly died at the hands of rogue police officers who do not take their oaths seriously. I’ve prayed at the bedsides of Black students injured by gun violence. In fact, I am still traumatized by the gun violence that was inflicted on my own family. If the continued loss of Black American human life does not stir up in each of us the need to make personal and societal change in these United States of America, what will?
As this country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, it must also deal with the racial pandemic that has overtly and covertly affected Black Americans, like me, for hundreds of years.
This weekend, I’ve felt my share of sadness, frustration, and fear. Sadness because of the 8 minutes it took to dehumanize a fellow American, remove the God-given breath from his body and for his life to be strangled away, powerless, as a man’s knee stayed pressed upon his neck. I watched my childhood neighborhood destroyed, the school building that I led as a principal broken into, and the Chicago landmarks that played backdrop to my upbringing changed forever. Frustration because this isn’t the first, second, or third time Black life has been taken without cause. I know this probably won’t be the last time, either. Fear because I’m concerned about the long-term effects that the first six months of 2020 will have on Americans, particularly people of color, people who have experienced unemployment and extreme poverty, whose dreams have been deferred, and those who feel as if they just can’t get a break. And even more fear because the West side of Chicago, home to so many black and brown families, became an economic desert and never recovered after the 1968 riots which erupted in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’m afraid of history repeating itself across the country.
But even still, I’ve seen the power of collective impact and togetherness in our country when things get tough. Americans have the ability to band together across differences and social constructs when there is a threat to our collective humanity. And, racism and oppression are such threats. Each of us has a responsibility to make our country, cities, and communities better for all of us. Change really does start with the heart and mind.
It starts with you and me.
As an educator, I’ve seen our public education system fail at effectively ensuring that students not only learn core content at equitably rigorous levels, but also fail at helping students learn about the realities of race, class, privilege, and collective responsibility. I’ve seen educators and leaders shy away from addressing issues of race and equity because of fear, pride, or politics. When we fail to teach our children about the reality of their existence, we fail to prepare them for the reality of the worlds in which they live. As educators, we have a responsibility to help students learn the things that really matter the most.
Here’s what we should do.
Educators at all levels must not be silent.
No one gets a pass here. Those who have remained silent in the past no longer have the right to be silent now. We are each responsible for acknowledging and condemning all forms of racism, even the forms that inherently benefit some of us.
No longer can we sit on the sidelines and outsource our individual responsibility to take a stand to others. We must all stand for justice or we will all be responsible for our collective demise.
Schools and districts should prioritize learning and self-reflection on issues of race and equity.
We should bring our whole selves to the classroom and work with intention to increase our ability to see, build relationships and to educate each student. We can’t improve the racial inequities in our country if we are afraid to learn about and speak up against them. Schools and districts should create space and opportunity for the adults and students in the system to safely learn about issues of race and equity and partner with professional organizations that can facilitate learning that leads to tangible actions and outcomes.
Schools and districts should prioritize the social and emotional learning (SEL) and mental health needs of students and adults.
Most of us may feel ill-equipped to support the SEL and mental health needs of students, let alone our own, but this is a critical area that must be a priority. School districts should partner with psychologists, utilize school counselors, and create time and space within the daily learning experience to address the trauma students bring with them to school. As leaders, we must be aware that addressing issues of social and emotional learning requires educators to help students understand and manage their emotions, establish and maintain positive relationships, build empathy, set goals, and make appropriate decisions. A whole-child approach to public education requires us to consider more than just academic factors when serving students.
Schools and districts should prioritize creating opportunities that connect students to their interests, passions, and to new and diverse experiences.
Schools should be the place where students are inspired to dream, where they fall in love with learning and exploration, and where they are introduced to new experiences. In the absence of this type of learning, students quickly feel disconnected from school, struggle with finding a purpose for learning, and can easily be tempted to engage in disruptive behavior. Schools and districts should repurpose seat time and create opportunities within the school schedule for students to explore non-academic passions that also build relational connections between adults and students.
We need an American public education system designed to serve all children equitably.
The current model of public education in the United States was created to produce inequity. That system has thrived. Now is the time for educators to both question and reform aspects of our current educational system that are successful at producing perpetual inequities. Why are we so committed to grade levels, seat time, and age-based education when we know students thrive when learning is personalized based on their readiness, needs, and interests? Why do we hold kids back when their brains are ready for more rigorous and deeper learning? Why do we push kids forward when their brains and extenuating factors call for a slower pace with more expert support? Why are we so committed to a curricular model void of multiple perspectives, lacking relevant application, and void of a social curriculum that prepares children for the realities of this world’s humanity? Why are we so committed to a flawed grading system that rewards everything under the sun but true, long-term learning? Why are we so committed to a grading system that penalizes students for not achieving mastery of content and skills on our schedule? Why are we so averse to giving students full credit at the moment they truly learn, whenever that may be? Why are we still committed to punitive disciplinary models and policies when we all know that punitive consequences fail at changing long-term behavior? Why are we still committed to creating barriers that prevent all kids from accessing a rigorous curriculum? And why are we still amazed that our neediest students, schools, and districts keep losing the excellent teacher lottery at scale?
Although there are many examples of divergent teachers and leaders implementing many of these reforms in their classrooms, school buildings, and districts, our collective public education system still needs a revolution, primarily because it has failed people of color for generations with no clear end in sight.
A reimagined education system is our antiracist protest. It’s what we can do, right now, to give tangible action to our often hollow rhetoric. It’s what we did at Brooks College Prep in Chicago and it’s what we’re trying to do in DeSoto ISD.
Together, let’s reimagine a school system that promotes socially conscious and responsive education. Let’s create a system that values the needs of each student, and tailors their educational journeys to their uniqueness and interest. When kids are seen, heard, loved, and have their needs met, we develop the entirety of their lives and prepare them to lead courageously, consciously, and compassionately. If we create the right conditions, our students will bloom into whatever we have implanted inside them. As educators, we have the power, the audience, and daily ability to truly shape the change that we so desperately need in this world.
We have an opportunity to prevent the next George Floyd death, the next Amy Cooper 911 call, the next Ahmaud Arbery jog. Let’s use our positions of power to build bridges, not barriers; to build empathy, not apathy; to build awareness, not ignorance.
Let’s start today.
D’Andre Weaver, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools
DeSoto Independent School District