By Zee Finley, Age 13
Both of my parents have been educators for the past 20 years. I thought it would be a good idea to interview them on their perspective of Black children’s experience in the American public school system. How bias has affected the way Black children have been treated in school settings.
The system is not broken-- it’s working
America’s public school system values and caters to their white students, oftentimes neglecting the needs of their Black students or students of color.
Mom: How does American society communicate value? Money. If you go all the way back to Brown versus Board of Education and you talk about equal funding, we understand that the white schools are funded by tax dollars and therefore there are resources. The values of the teachers impact the students directly. In African-American segregated schools, the values of the black teacher reflected the community it served, but when we had integration that did not happen. We continue to have funding and dollars going towards a curriculum that was focused on the original population. Not much has changed, we continue to put forward white male authors as superior. We continue to buy and spend lots of money on a curriculum that is not representative of the complete population we serve. The system continues working as it was originally designed, so to me, that's why it’s not broken, it's working. Originally the system wasn't designed for black children. The system was designed for the population where the value was, and that's where the money was and it continues to this day.
Dad: So the educational system isn't broken, it's working, just means that it is doing what it was created to do. It was created to take groups of individuals and train them to a level in which they can enter and engage in society, but what they didn't do is create freethinkers. It just created a group of people that then became dependent upon a structure that would meet their basic needs, but would not liberate them mentally and spiritually. Education in the past was about enlightenment. It was about understanding your role and position in the universe beyond just your physical state. It was more about a holistic or universal view of yourself in your position. Education today doesn't even get close to doing that today, which is why you have a large majority of people coming out of educational systems and still remain in poverty or a state of mind that supports and reinforces the system that they have been acculturated to.
The “So-called racial achievement gap.”
Dad: The racial achievement gap for me was established to point out the disparities between groups of students. It’s not really a valid assessment of where students should be. In America, as long as white students were doing better than black students everything was okay. Then America started to compete internationally. To fix our status globally, I think we need to look beyond the gap and then begin to address the educational disparities that have created the gap in the first place.
Mom: Pointing out the disparity and the disproportionality is only useful if you're going to put your money where your mouth is. I'm finding that increasingly schools like to start the school year talking about the disparities, but don't provide answers or solutions. They don't examine the root causes. They don’t examine the culturally biased test that’s measuring the gap, or the culturally malnourished curriculum that is feeding the disengagement that leads to students not giving a rip about the tests or certain lessons. The group that has the advantage with prior knowledge of a subject will always appear to perform better.
Our educational school system currently isn't set up for the learning styles of black children, we are often active and verbal and those two things can be frightening to teachers who struggle with classroom management. I say, don’t talk about it, be about it. Put money behind family resources and mental health resources and culturally responsive professional development.
What I Look Like?
A new study by researchers at Yale found that pre-K teachers, white and black alike, spend more time watching black boys, expecting trouble.
Dad: Yale studied where teachers were looking for kids who could possibly cause problems or trouble in the classroom. The study showed that the highest percentage on the list was black boys, then white boys, white girls, and black girls. It was obvious that the teacher would look towards the black children, or black boys specifically, in terms of bad behavior. Which points to the bias that is innately in teachers that aren't of color. When they looked at the color of the teacher. When there was a black teacher they held black students to a higher level of accountability. This lands on the fact that when you have a black teacher, teaching black children there typically comes a higher expectation. I think that what needs to happen is teacher training to address this bias so that all students will have an equitable chance to achieve at the earliest age. Because, if we start the preparation and allow them to understand who's sitting before them (see, know W.I.L.L.) It has to do with teachers identifying who's in front of them, and engaging them at the highest level, with no real feeling for what they look like. It comes from the teacher and how they view the students, and also the students and how they view themselves. The teachers have to be equipped to recognize children in front of them to be able to address them where they are.
When They See Us
Mom: I remember in high school, always feeling like the teacher was singling out the black kids. One thing is, the black kids all sat together, but anytime the whole class was talking, the teacher's eyes always seemed to go to the black kids. One day, she said my name in front of everybody in the whole class. I replied, “Why are you saying my name? Why is it that you always look at the black kids when everyone in the whole class is talking? Wenot the only ones talking!”
I got sent to the guidance counselor, and almost didn't graduate because it was a required class, and she wanted me out of her class. She told all of her colleagues that I was “defiant,” and a “troublemaker.” Because of that, no one in her entire department would take me. As a teenager, going from teacher to teacher trying to convince them that I was worth taking the chance, was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I went back to the teacher and did what my guidance counselor told me to do, I “ate crow.” I never swallowed my truth to her about singling us out, but when I was accepted back into the class, I isolated myself from my Black friends, and never spoke another word for the rest of the year.
That was one of the reasons why I chose to become a teacher because situations like that happened to me often. When I wasn’t invisible to the teacher, my challenging questions, willful behavior, and criticisms were seen as a threat worthy of me being sent to the office- on the regular.
I do think teachers should be given the opportunity to process these actions in a safe to risk environment, we need to create more empathy for our students of color as well as empathy for ourselves when we stumble over our biases.
“My teacher doesn’t like me”
Mom: I usually hear, “my teacher don't like me” when I'm walking past kids who've been kicked out of class. Most of the time, I know them personally. I have a good relationship with them, and I’m sometimes surprised when I see them in trouble.
Generally speaking, Black students have a pretty keen sense of justice. We read body language. That is an indication of whether we are going to have a good relationship with that person. A lot of times our kids are reading vibes, and sometimes our kids are directly reading implicit bias. I do caution us to trust our instincts, yet sometimes, because racial trauma is real, we might be hyper-vigilant and perceive that because we are Black the teacher automatically might dislike us or think we are less worthy. The fact that the teacher may or may not be thinking what we are feeling, should be considered until they prove different with their words and actions. We are a very spiritual people, so often how people make us feel is just as important as the words that they say. So if a student says “my teacher doesn't like me” I don't immediately dismiss it because, sadly, racial trauma creates the trigger of sensitivity to the perception of white people and the distinct possibility that the interaction could be negative.
Dad: I remember having a conversation with a few of my students, and they were talking about my class and they were saying, if they didn't like me, they weren't going to do the work. That just makes me think about the connection before content. It is the teacher's job to recognize where they fall short in terms of their experiences, and the bias that they have. Students don't feel like the teachers cater to their needs or have something specifically against them because the teacher just doesn't understand that particular student’s learning style. I think it's really important for teachers to listen and hear what the students are saying and address what the students are feeling. Coming with the attitude that everything they're doing is correct and proper, and it's been done the correct way doesn’t help the student or teacher grow.
Propaganda and False Narratives Low Achieving and Behavior
Mom: I think it is important to consider whether or not the infractions that kids are being reported as committing are really equal. Let’s say a black boy taps a pencil, but because the teacher is already feeling anxious and nervous about the black boy being in the class, he might get kicked out just for the infraction, just to relieve that anxiety. We're just looking at the infraction-not looking at the severity of the infraction.
The second problem, and I think this does not get talked about often, is the inability of the administration to de-escalate black kids who are triggered. Black kids have racial trauma and personal trauma, so when we are having big emotions, staff immediately criminalize the child for having a big reaction versus having proper de-escalation techniques. This is connected to fear of Black rage. We see the same thing on the streets when a person who is mentally ill is having some kind of break, and how they are engaged by social services. How they're engaged by law enforcement is the same thing that happens on school campuses. It escalates to the highest deterrent. Simple conflicts, or big conflicts are all treated the same way.
When a black child has a big reaction rather than calling in somebody who could potentially calm them down, they will call security or will call the police. We have to look at that as adults. We also have to look at that as kids, as students learning how to de-escalate ourselves knowing that people may not have empathy for us when we’re triggered. Teachers must be trauma-informed so we're not criminalizing students.
Let’s learn how to de-escalate a triggered student. These are ways that we can better protect our students and keep them safe and feeling welcome on our campuses.
Jamillah ”Lila” Finley, Founder of BreakBox Thought Collective and Co-Founder of Ashe’ Magazine, has been an educator since 1995 and a public school teacher since 2000. Her experience as an educator includes forming and leading: Rising Up- A Multicultural Arts Summer Camp, The Talented Tenth: A MultiCultural Performing Arts Partnership Program, The Tenth: Performing Arts Traveling Troupe, Fresno Black Girl Magic Project: A Rites of Passage Program. She also served as the IRS Business Academy Director at Roosevelt High School for three years.
Chris “Khufu” Finley, Founder of Mehity Educational Services and the Do You Know WILL (What I Look Like) Initiative, has been an educator since 1986 public school teacher since 1996. His experience as an educator includes: NEA (National Education Association) Board of Directors, Fresno Teachers Association Executive Board, City of Fresno Transform Fresno Outreach and Oversight Committee and Restorative Justice educator and curriculum developer.
Helpful tips for Parents
Parents must see ourselves as advocates for their children while they're in school. You are the expert on your child.
Mom: If your child is disciplined and it results in them getting kicked out, ask them what level offense they were kicked out for. Asking was it a level one, level two, or level three. They should not be getting kicked out for level one offenses.
Find out what has been documented in your child's digital portfolio because teachers do read that and it can sometimes influence the reader. I’m talking specifically about the way incident documentation is worded. The next teacher may happen to read that or anybody else. Sometimes administrators will read the write-up on the child, the write up is written from the perspective of the teacher who may be angry at that moment. It is not going to be your child’s side of the story. If the child has a bunch of negative reports, some teachers will even refer to previous incidents to establish the character of your child. Know what people are saying. You know your child. If what is being written is true, you know where the family has to help the child grow, but if it sounds out of character- raise a red flag.
.Some people are able to be objective and neutral when reading these reports, but if a teacher reads this at the start of the year and thinks, “well this child had a history of this,” it might color future interactions or influence the severity of the consequences.
Dad: All parents need to advocate for their children. Getting to know their teacher on some basic level is key. If it's not Back to School night or something similar, make some time. Back to School Night can be taxing when you have multiple school aged children and you're trying to get to two or three different schools in the same week. There are a lot of pitfalls and obstacles for some parents in terms of going. At some point when you get in touch with your child's teacher, let them know that you are concerned about their education and you have high expectations in the home. This creates a team approach with regards to educating the child. This could help to alleviate problems that may come up in the classroom. Reaching out early is key.
From an academic point of view you want to advocate for your student if they seem to be struggling with the curriculum. A Student Study Team is the beginning of this process in terms of identifying any academic deficits or issues that your child might have. This may evolve into the creation of a 504 plan and this can evolve into a IEP (Individual Education Plan.) Some parents may be told that an IEP will take a student off of the graduation track. This is not always the case. Special services in grade school can also transfer to college. If there is test anxiety for example, this is something that they will accommodate. Colleges also have Student Services for accommodations after High School that address academic and social emotional needs.
Tips For Black Students
Students are the primary reason that school exist and they should feel valued and safe in the space
Students need to know that school should be a safe place. This feeling should be the foundational bases for everything concerning their environment, from one class to the next and anywhere else on the school ground. If they are not feeling safe they need to let an adult know. Especially in the classroom, if there are things that are happening related to how they're feeling about themselves and other students or between them and the teacher. Any concerns should be expressed one on one with that individual.
1.Be aware of your own self-care, know your limitations. Be forgiving of yourself when you miss deadlines.
2.When you're hungry keep snacks with you, or ask for a snack. The brain needs food.It will also help your mood.
3.When you're tired ask to go to the nurse (after shelter in place) Go there and sleep.
4.Ask for a break when you need to stand up and stretch.
5.Communicate with your teacher. When it's a bad day let your teacher know before the class begins.
6.Don't be embarrassed about communicating about your health. If you have anything specific about your physical or emotional well being that you don't think your teacher’s aware of, tell them privately so they can have empathy and be sensitive to your needs
7.Practice a few seconds of impulse control. Try to train yourself for short periods of time to resist certain impulses. Just practice feeling the urge to do something, and sit with that urge. Notice it. Try that each day.
8.If you have any fidget toys or if your teachers have fidget toys available ask for them. Try sitting on a bouncing ball if you are a hyperactive or an energetic person. Most teachers are willing to make those accommodations for you if you communicate that ahead of time.
9. If you feel like something is missing from the grade book, have that private conversation. Ask as many times as you need to until you get a response.
10.Learn what coping strategies are helpful to you. You know your body and you know your feelings. Encourage your parents to let you see a therapist. Ask about mental health resources or referrals. Get all the support that you need emotionally and mentally.
Students have a right to a safe environment when they're at school. This includes the resolution of all conflicts. Students need to learn how to respond appropriately, even if this means asking a teacher for restart or for time to process what the issue is. This may require stepping outside for a moment. This will be a step towards de escalating the situation that might otherwise turn into something big.
Remember everything about who you are matters. #Blackstudentlivesmatter