I recently received a text from a friend: “Watch this. Worth every minute. Eager to hear your thoughts.”
She had forwarded me Chris Emdin’s 2017 SXSWedu keynote address.
Emdin calls on educators to intervene upon the physical and cultural violence that is imparted by schools on to students of color. He refers to those who seek to profit off the education of children as “enemies,” those who understand the importance of student culture in education as “friends,” and those who have good intentions but have been co-opted as “frenemies.” I texted her my thoughts as I watched the video.
“I’m totally a frenemy.”
“I feel my blood pressure rising. I used to be ride or die and then left because I couldn’t handle it.”
“A Tribe Called Quest is the best theoretical framework ever.”
“Sucked in by a charismatic leader and getting co-opted. (Is there a mirror emoji?)”
I first entered the teaching profession in 2006, and I was lucky enough to teach in Oakland. Oakland Unified School District provided a great setting for learning the craft, but my brain quickly went into overload.
As a Latina teacher, I was interested in the intersection between my students’ home cultures and school, recognizing that there were differences—and often resistance—between the two, and I was eager to help to bridge some of those gaps.
I poured myself into anything I could find that could help me to bring students’ ethnic cultures into the classroom—both through content and pedagogy. This often teetered into the territory of essentializing. I had no guidance as I tried to bring culture into the classroom. If anything, I sometimes received pushback from administrators as I experimented with this.
Thankfully, kids are forgiving. Despite many missteps, I formed strong relationships with my students. Some activities and pedagogical experiments hit the mark; others failed spectacularly. By the end of two years, I was exhausted—not just by the work of teaching but also by the exhaustion of trying to push back against the system on behalf of my students.
So I left.
Looking Out From the Ivory Tower
I went to graduate school with the dream of creating culturally relevant math curricula that would speak to students like mine. I ended up focusing on how schools include or exclude low-income, African-American parents. (Hint: They mostly exclude.) Then I went to work at a state department of education followed by working on policy with an education advocacy organization. I believe that many of the policies that I’ve supported help to create an environment that could support better educational experiences for students, but my experiences have also taught me that they are insufficient.
For example, most charter schools perform just as well as traditional schools. In some areas, they outperform traditional schools, but traditional schools are so awful that the bar for what it takes to outperform them is really low. Research shows that Teach For America teachers tend to outperform the average teacher, which is great, but is that the bar that we want to set?
And for all of the important uses of standardized testing, when I think about the type of school that I want for my daughter, I’d take middling standardized test scores with a robust extracurricular program over a drill-and-kill standardized testing machine any day.
When I look out from my time in the ivory tower or at a bureaucrat’s desk or from the legislative committee room, I can’t help but notice that we’re barely moving the needle on the educational experiences of our youth. For all of the work that we’re doing and the amount of money poured into these efforts, I can’t help but wonder why.
Are We Working on the Right Policies?
I’ve tossed around a lot of ideas.
Maybe we haven’t been working on the right policies. Perhaps we’re ignoring the bigger picture—housing discrimination, oppressive policing, antiquated criminal justice policies, a non-living minimum wage, hate speech—which pushes in on the lives of our students. These aren’t excuses; they’re reality.
Any work that we do with students must recognize that they are first and foremost humans who have lives and loved ones outside of school that must be integrated into their learning.
Maybe it’s about changing hearts and minds. Perhaps we need to groom a new generation of educational leaders—superintendents, principals, or teachers—with a different mindset, one that doesn’t look at our students and their lives as problems to be solved, but as humans with personal and cultural strengths and beauty that can serve as a strong foundation for learning.
Maybe it’s all of it. Or maybe it’s something else altogether.
At the beginning of his speech, Emdin stated that education frenemies were the target audience for his speech, that he was hoping to convert frenemies into friends who stepped out of the regular educational “wars” and instead focused on what children and families have to say—not what we want for them to say, but what they really say—and to use that as an entry point to further develop their academic identities.
That work is hard. It’s harder than making assumptions about what they want. It’s harder than lobbying. It’s harder than sitting in my office writing policy briefs.
It’s harder, but I’m contemplating a conversion.