Apprehensive About Teaching

Apprehensive About Teaching

Adeola Tella-Williams

The attack on Critical Race Theory is creating controversy in education. For the first time in my professional career, I am apprehensive about teaching any subject having to do with race, religion, Blackness, Whiteness and all things cultural. Why? The simple answer lies in the attempted coup of education by some parents over their misunderstanding about Critical Race Theory and conflating it with Culturally Relevant Teaching. IT IS being used as a political ping-pong, mainly by the Republicans to erase parts of American history that mainly deals with the cruelties of slavery and mistreatment of people of color. While apprehensive, I remain true to history and will always teach as I have been doing for the past 20 plus years.

I have been an educator for 21 years. I began my teaching career in East New York, Brooklyn, as a middle school Social Studies teacher at one of the lowest performing schools in New York City. Regardless of the school’s low performance status, my students were some of the smartest and kindest I have ever taught. They were aware of the shortcomings of their reality. They knew the truth and were not afraid to voice their opinions, good, bad or indifferent. It was fun and challenging teaching them, but they took their agency, no one had to give it to them. After a year in Brooklyn, I left in 2000 to teach conversational English in Tokyo, Japan for a half year and returned to East New York for another year. The past two decades, I have been in the Uniondale School District. I took a sabbatical in 2016 to teach in the United Arab Emirates, where I taught Humanities to Arab, continental African, Canadian, South American, and Indian middle school scholars at American International School, Abu Dhabi. This year, I am teaching African and Latinx History to upperclassmen and Global History to 9th graders in Uniondale High School.

In my years as an educator, I have assisted and led many activities and events outside of the classroom; most notably, a student forum on police brutality in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting back in 2014. I also created a girls Rite of Passage program in 2004 at one of the two middle schools in Uniondale. When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I assisted the Uniondale High School in planning a “controversial” inauguration assembly in recognition of the first African American elected President of the United States. The program was considered “controversial” because a number of white teachers objected and boycotted the event.

I have also worked with Dr. Alan Singer, professor at Hofstra University, for many years. I asked him to lead a discussion on the complexities surrounding the Iraq war back in 2003 to my middle schoolers and he was the keynote speaker for a forum held between two racially segregated communities, Oceanside and Uniondale. We discussed police brutality and other racially charged issues on Long Island in 2015. The discussion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the absence of weapons of mass destructive also produced heated faculty blowback.

I have immersed myself in “controversial,” or as I would prefer to call them, “contemporary issues” my entire career. I am finding that in this day and age, the topics I chose to cover back then would be considered blasphemy today. For example, Bridges was created to foster empathy, and collaboration amongst White, Black and Hispanic students who live in neighboring communities, attend different schools, and have little contact with each other. It is the goal of the program to engage students in the evaluation of contemporary issues related to race, economics, and politics that will lead to well-rounded, active, and engaged citizens. In Bridges, difficult conversations are encouraged and the asking of challenging questions is nurtured. Divergent points of views are not shunned with the understanding that students can agree to disagree with civility. In this program we have discussed the January 6th insurrection, the legacy of segregation on Black and Brown communities, cross-cultural experiences of Black and White students, and other contemporary issues that would make those who dislike Critical Race Theory very uncomfortable.

Back in 2014, when I decided to do the forum about police brutality in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting with my Participation and Government scholars, I did not think of the backlash or its “controversial” nature. I thought about the hopelessness I saw in my students that September. They looked at me as just another teacher. It was as if they gave up on learning and embraced the Read, Answer Questions, Pass a Test and Repeat pedagogical style. But, little did they know, I was not that teacher, I have never been that teacher. Recognizing this hopelessness in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting prompted me to change the way I would teach this course. As it was my first time teaching the course, I wanted to make it real for the students. After all, it’s a “Participation” in Government class. I took that term “participation” literally and decided they would be active, as opposed to passively learning in this course. Therefore, learning through doing became one of the goals. Their hopelessness from my perspective was due to the way the year began, with the shooting coupled with normal senioritis and a genuine boredom for all things related to school. Therefore, empowering their voices became my mission, and so I challenged them to put on a forum on police brutality. After all, our early ancestors, who created great civilizations in Africa, Greece, Rome and the Americas, held forums to gauge the feelings of their subjects on controversial issues. Furthermore, forums give voice to the voiceless and empower citizens to take further action. To me this is how a democratic society prospers; it actively engages young people early on.

Gone are the days of sitting in the class and taking notes on how great democracy is when in reality my students were not having, or seeing, that same example in their day-to-day lives. In their world, fairness was a fairytale. To them education was boring and they were tired and ready to graduate and join the rest of humanity in the rat race called life. However, I refused to let them leave in this manner. I was, and am, still very idealistic and optimistic about education and what it can do for young people charged with taking over, ready or not. Nonetheless, I charged them with putting on a school-wide forum on police brutality. They were very reluctant at first, as they were not used to being placed in leadership positions. But I assured them that the worst that can happen is the principal says no and then they don’t have the forum, but they had to ask first. They asked and to their surprise, not mine, the principal agreed. My principal at the time, was very supportive of student engagement. Having a strong principal makes a world of difference for a teacher like me. She was not afraid to support any program or event that gave students a voice. Again, as their teacher, my concern was not the backlash. My goals were to help them love learning, give them agency and have them practice their voice.

In preparation for the forum, they researched about the Civil Rights Movement and the history of police brutality in America. I felt they needed to see the trend, be informed, and be armed with solid information when they spoke in front of their peers. I wanted them to be confident when they took to the stage. I wanted them to lead. Many scholars are not given the tools to be leaders in real world scenarios. It was important to me to have these non-AP scholars lead an academic forum in front of their peers who only saw them in non-academic settings. These were scholars that always got in trouble; they were not jocks or honor students, just “regular,” sometimes forgotten people. I wanted them to be heard and seen, as they have something to say and lots to give.

All of the above were also my goals in starting the Rite of Passage program. These were also my goals when I decided to be the first advisor of the Bridges High School program. I believe giving scholars the opportunity to lead and participate in real world scenarios makes education palatable – it makes it real. As with science and math, many scholars ask, “When will I need this in real life?” Some teachers are able to show the why and some aren’t. These days however, STEAM and STEM have become the norm. As a history teacher, Historical and Civic Literacy is just as important as STEAM and STEM to me. Making space for these contemporary issues gives students agency and time to hone their Social Studies skills of argumentation, observation, listening, speaking, analyzing, synthesizing and application.

When I started the Rite of Passage program some ten years ago in my district, it was to help girls of color, especially darker hue girls, accept themselves in a world that constantly ignores them. Another goal was to help girls get along better, to learn how to respect each other despite their difference in hair texture, complexion or whatever else distract girls from being their best. While I did not see this program as controversial, today it seems as though it is. With the Crown Act being passed in California and other states, African textured hair seems to be a problem in the workplace and in schools. Girls of color are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school, starting in pre-school. Programs like the Rite of Passage aim to reveal the controversial issues that plague Black girls. Many of the girls I had in the program have since graduated college and are well into their careers. I have received Facebook posts and text messages from them referencing our time together and how impactful those times had on them then and now.

Simply put, I am an educator who does not shy away from contemporary topics or historical controversies in and out of the classroom. My goal has always been to make sure scholars love learning and intrinsically love the art of learning about themselves, within the context of mirrors, windows, and glass sliding doors. I also aim to instill the love of learning in order to help them make their communities a place they are proud of and value. My upbringing in a Jamaican-Nigerian household has strongly shaped my approach as an educator. I also received these messages from my upbringing in my African American community after moving to the United States in 1987 from Nigeria.

Curriculum focused on Culturally Relevant Teaching is under attack and it is being interwoven in the debate about Critical Race Theory. While some elements of culture are in Critical Race Theory, the philosophy was not intended for K-12 education. When parents fail to understand the importance of creating safe spaces for scholars to speak about controversial issues or contemporary issues, it marginalizes young people of color. For instance, White teachers make up 79% of the teaching staff across America, and Black and Hispanic teachers make up less than 5% of the teaching staff in predominantly white schools. Where is the diversity of thought when scholars graduate from high school? How are students of color being taught, let alone having their issues addressed in forums or in the classroom? When does a white child meet or interact with a Black or Brown teacher? These are questions that need to be raised in education. But how can we discuss these and other topics when Critical Race Theory is being conflated with Culturally Relevant Teaching and anything having to do with race or culture is seen as divisive rather than an integral part of progress? School is the place to teach and grapple with controversial topics in a responsible way, of course. The attacks on Critical Race Theory and Culturally Relevant Teaching are making it harder to teach controversial topics in history as well as put on programs about contemporary issues as I have done in the past, creating a tense environment to discuss these topics freely and responsibly. I am afraid educators like me will continue to be apprehensive about teaching subjects having to do with race or spear head programs that raise contemporary issues. I am afraid that the attack on CRT will take over education and take us back to a time when teachers wrote notes on the board, students copied, memorized information, did not or could not ask questions, took a test, barely passed and moved on to the next grade anyway. This type of “teaching” has not been productive, especially in Black and Brown school districts. As a result of this style of pedagogy, if you can call it that, our Black and Brown scholars have been mislabeled, wrongly disciplined and have been marginalized from the curriculum. Really, they are just bored and uninterested in an education that fails to recognize them. As educators we have a responsibility to speak up and not allow the attack on Critical Race Theory to lead us back to the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s when schools did not address the academic needs of Black and Brown students, but instead disproportionately placed them in SPED classes and suspended them in droves, creating the school-to-prison pipeline that so many in education reference today. All students really need is a true education.

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