One of the aspects of my personality that I struggle with is that I’m rarely able to take risks on things that can’t be calculated, studied, or analyzed for some extended period of time. That’s why I spent five years — three of those five spent in college — considering, wondering, and doubting that I would ever be “good enough” to be a high school English teacher. I realize that sounds a little weird because, nowadays, educators are barely ever given the respect they deserve, and becoming a teacher is often viewed as a fallback option, not something people actually strive to become. But, for the majority of my youth, I was lucky enough to call school a safe space and wanted to create that for others. My fears and insecurities, however, made it hard for me to see how my knowledges, skills, and abilities would be beneficial to teenagers. When I finally decided to take the plunge and get my teaching certificate (a process that is way too easy in Florida, if I’m being honest), I started an education graduate program, looked for open teaching positions, and threw myself into learning all that I could about the current English/Literature curriculum models that exist in Florida and elsewhere. I researched for two months straight. I pulled curriculums from places as far away from Florida as Hawaii and Alaska, I looked at curriculums from alternative schools, and “experimental” schools, and schools started by “people with a different vision of how high school education should be.” And thanks to one amazing advisor, I was exposed to the works of Paulo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, and bell hooks’ writings on education. And then, I started to get angry.
Before I get into that, let me take a second to acknowledge and explain a few things. I’m white, and I come from an entirely white, Italian-American family. My immediate family is poor/working-class, so we didn’t have much in terms of finances, but I still fully acknowledge the privileges my whiteness gave and continues to give me. I’m also queer and DFAB gender non-conforming, though I do have the privilege(/burden) of “passing” as female/female-identifying. I had the privileges of having parents who instilled in me the importance of education, regardless of their many other faults, and of going to pretty decent schools. I went to a private college mostly for free because of my high GPA and my parents’ financial misfortune, and I was one of the most celebrated students in my academic department. This is all to say that while I know I’ve worked hard for what I’ve gotten, I also understand that I’ve been granted a great many things because of how different systems value my life over others. I’m engaged in the processes of interrogating my whiteness and my performances of whiteness and of decolonizing my beliefs and thoughts. I truly believe that this is an imperative all white people must be willing to undertake without expecting some kind of pat on the back.
Now back to the anger my research was awakening in me.
As I went over these curriculums, I noticed that many of them purported to be following a “multicultural” model (the state’s terminology, not mine), but that actually just meant that they included a couple of readings here and there from famous People of Color (Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, Li-Young Lee, and Sandra Cisneros, mostly). I don’t have a problem with these authors, but in these models, they were simply being used as props, as tools to fulfill a certain quota. Nowhere in these models did I see conversations on racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. Nowhere in these models did I see conversations on sexuality, gender, homophobia, and transphobia. Nowhere in these models did I see conversations on true economic disparity, classism, ableism, or xenophobia. All I saw in them was a half-assed attempt at inclusion that failed to address any of the issues and problems these authors were trying to expose, discuss, and solve. More and more research opened my eyes to how widespread this problem was and to how many states, how many schools, and how many teachers used models like these without considering how the kids perceive and feel about them.
When I began teaching in 2012, I realized that if I wanted to do something different, I was going to have to build my curriculum almost entirely from scratch. That first year, I didn’t have the experience or capabilities to take on something that huge, but I did my best to incorporate as many lessons on systemic injustice as possible. By the end of the school year, I felt a lot more comfortable in the classroom, I had over a year of graduate study under my belt, and I had an entire summer to plan my curriculum. The next year, I made sure my reading lists included the voices of People of Color, celebrated them and their contributions, and actually analyzed their messages and ideas. I adopted lessons and exercises from important educators that would illustrate to my students the insidiousness of systemic racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia and how those things often worked in tandem. I did everything in my power to help amplify their voices, make them feel heard, and to help them learn to critique popular culture, our government, and society-at-large. We had open and honest conversations on privilege, on cultural appropriation, on colonization, and on the process of “othering.” I allowed and invited them to question my motives and beliefs. I didn’t try to fix them, I didn’t push my own beliefs on them, I didn’t talk down to them, and I didn’t pretend that I could even begin to understand all of their struggles, or that I knew the best ways to handle them. Sometimes, my lessons failed big time. Sometimes, I let my own frustrations get in the way of keeping the classroom like this on a consistent basis. Sometimes, I failed to motivate my kids in ways that worked for them. Often, I didn’t accomplish everything I had set out to do. And other times, my students just didn’t want to deal with difficult conversations and tough emotional work. But we were there for each other, and we worked, failed, and succeeded as a team.
And in that process, I encountered many people who asked me, “Why are you doing this?” I’ve come up against (mostly white) parents and (mostly white) administrators who question the work I’m doing, challenge me, and as of this year, have threatened my job and advancement in my career. They tell me I’m “teaching with an agenda,” and my only possible response would confirm that, yes, I teach with intention. I teach with the hope that I can help my students feel more comfortable in their world. I teach with the hope that they’ll be able to make informed decisions about their own lives and the lives of those around them. I teach with the hope that they’ll never feel afraid to speak up, act out, and stand their ground against any injustices that come their way. I teach with the hope that they’ll help open the eyes of others and usher this big, terrible world into a new era of consciousness and understanding. I, and so many educators before me, have learned that the real problem is that our agenda doesn’t conform to the one they’ve chosen for kids.
From what I can tell, many educators and administrators are happy to tow the party line, put test scores above all actual educational opportunities, and follow the status quo. I’m not going to pretend that this is a simple issue. I know the education system is complicated and the forces behind it are so complex that these people find it hard to even consider alternatives. I know that teachers and administrators are overworked and extremely underpaid and that this situation overall is a lot more convoluted than what I could possibly get into here. But the other side is that I also see a lot of unwillingness. I see a lot of English teachers who think the classical canon is key to these students’ success. I see a lot of teachers and administrators who refuse to learn ways to connect with their students of color, with their poor students, with their queer students, with their trans students, with their neurodivergent and differently-abled students. I see a lot of teachers and administrators who won’t go against the grain, who are unwilling to question the traditional values of the teaching profession. And I see a lot of teachers and administrators who harbor racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, and xenophobic views of their own students and don’t have to check themselves because they’ve gotten away with it in the past.
I’m not going to pretend that I have the answers to these problems, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m close to solving them. It’s not going to be simple, or quick, or pain free. I, however, believe it starts with more educators, administrators, and community members speaking out against the current model. The education system, just like every other institution in this country, is rife with systemic injustices, and the people invested in keeping it that way aren’t going to back down easily.
My second year teaching, I implemented innovative changes to my curriculum and to my teaching practices. With the help of my students, my classroom turned into a radical space of knowledge sharing, intellectual inquiry, and emotional development. Overall, that second year helped instill in me a belief that this kind of model can be replicated at any time and in any place, and since then, I’ve met other educators who are also fighting for change.
We can’t expect the people affected by these injustices to fix the problems that we’ve created and that they are continually oppressed by. None of these systemic injustices will change unless we put in work. We can’t sit idly by as our marginalized students feel more and more marginalized by the school system, by administrators, and by teachers that claim to serve them, but never do.