How can we solve the problems the system presents our students of color?

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I am in San Diego this week attending the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators (CAAASA) Professional Development Summit, where I served as a panelist at a town hall meeting about the status of efforts to support young boys and men of color as well as young girls and women of color.

The standing room only Town Hall meeting was once again one of the most popular breakout sessions in recent years. It seems as if there are always more questions than answers when it comes to what students of color need. The educators in the room were sitting  on the edges of their seats hoping to gain  some insight into a policy, non-profit or initiative they had not already heard of that might offer some support or resources. The dialogue was lively and the panelists I had the pleasure of sitting next to were extremely passionate in their delivery of updates from their respective fields.

However, one question from the moderator that stumped all of us and came at the end of the panel discussion was "What challenges does the system that educates our young people of color present and what can we do to solve them?" Here’s what I said:  

Trauma

Trauma stunts developmental growth. One of the frequently overlooked forms of trauma is poverty. Poverty often presents students with a set of circumstances that no amount of instruction can cure. Some of our students leave hellish conditions and come to school each day eager for something better than what they will have to go home to in a few hours. They could not care less about the content; they just know that school e is better than where they live. As such, many of them have had to grow up too fast having skipped or failed key developmental milestones. With this in mind, instruction and discipline have to take into account what our students are facing. Educators have to be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma our youth often exhibit that go ignored or punished instead of treated.

Relationship

No significant learning takes place absent significant relationship. Of the many aspects school’s focus on, relationship-building has to an integral part of instruction. Whether it is the essential relationship between peers or the relationship between teacher and pupil, relationships are critical to learning.

Mandate vs. Mindset

We have to make the shift from teaching the mandate to teaching the mindset. As educators, we have to understand that learning is not taking place if it does not leave the room. We have to focus on pedagogy that frames instruction with this question in mind, “What do I want my students to leave my classroom thinking, knowing, believing about themselves and their abilities?” If we want our young people to be thoughtful, critical thinking, problem solvers that can demonstrate mastery of concepts in their own way, we must first make sure they believe they can be just that. Teaching to the mandate will never get them there - only a mindset pedagogy can.

Identity

Kids just want people to know and accept who they are. We have to remember that our children want the same things we do. They want to be seen, heard, valued and validated. Too often educators participate in well-meaning data review sessions and discuss better ways to move students to and beyond various benchmarks. The highest form of learning takes places when learning leaves the classroom and is embedded into the identity of our students and supports their sense of being: their cultural, religious, and chosen gender identities. In every way, school climates must demonstrate to students they are accepted and valid. They must be allowed to explore, experiment, be celebrated when they win and be supported in finding learning in failure.

We have to be honest about the fact our children are subjected to a system of education that was not built for them. It is not created to equip our children with the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to thrive while taking into account their needs and the realities they face once they venture out of the boundaries of school grounds. Our current system seeks to teach kids under the best of circumstances; this presupposition is neither healthy or realistic. We can do better, and it is imperative we give our students what they deserve, a systematic shift in education that seeks to educate the whole child and addresses the causes of the barriers to their growth.

I closed my remarks with this reminding the educators in the room with this quote, “A student who feels loved at home comes to school to learn. A student who does not feel loved at home comes to school to be loved.”

I reminded them we need to be able to recognize the difference and be ready and willing to take a systematic approach to supporting the needs of all types of students.