The heart filling and heartache of equity work in our schools

This week was the start of my fourth week in my new position. I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of engaging in work that is mentally challenging for me but still is centered in equity and opportunities afforded to Black and Brown students in K-12 schools.

Although I’ve been engaged in equity and anti-racist work in a variety of school environments for well over a decade, nothing will ever fully prepare you for the emotional toil and mental resolve this work requires of you daily.

The glaring inequities often times will punch you in the throat every time you walk into a building. Black and Brown students treated as burdens rather than with promise and potential. Black and Brown students provided low-level human or financial capital revealing they aren’t important nor worth the effort, time, and money. Black and Brown students instead of being treated like scholars are over policed, degraded, and herded around buildings like they’re not human. Black and Brown students who aren’t trusted with anything and say with shock and awe “you trust me with this?” when I provide them with computing equipment.

As I’ve engaged more in actual CS teaching the past few days, the story in the classrooms I’m working with doesn’t mimic the narratives many often expect or believe to be true of schools with majority Black and Brown students. You hear excitement, you see engagement, you see smiles, you see motivation, you will even hear occasional shade being thrown to a classmate about a new hair cut, out of jest and love. Although learning AP computer science can be a daunting task so far all of the students are willing to engage. Why?

For multiple reasons, but first and foremost, our space is humanizing. I address students as sir and ma’am. I am patient. I encourage. I show respect. I provide snacks. I listen. I greet them at the beginning of class. I help nudge them in the direction of answers to their questions. I smile. I say good-bye at the end of class. I compliment. I have high expectations. I treat them as human beings worthy of receiving the best environment and learning experience I can possibly provide.

Now don’t think this is pie in the sky thinking or an idealistic classroom. It is not grossly overly optimistic or reeking of toxic positivity. We have had our rough days, where distractions abound, students are sleeping, are on their phones, or score poorly on an assessment. This morning was one of those days where I provided free time to study and work to prepare for our first major assessments in two of my classes. Most of the class was actually off task to start, but I never raised my voice, never spotlighted good or bad choices in the room, but instead just provided space for students to do what was best for them in that moment. Eventually, most of the students started reviewing for the test and finishing up final projects for the unit. Multiple times, multiple students raised their hands asking for my help or requested clarification on unit terms they were required to know, demonstrating their personal desire to perform well. Ultimately, I know students will engage and desire to perform at their best when they feel humanized in a classroom space because they know our respect, care, expectations and commitment to their success will not wavier despite a few off task or distracted moments at any point during class.

After class ended, I was conversing with the school assigned teacher for the AP CS class outside in the hall. She was excited, commented on a few students, and overall felt the day went well. We briefly discussed plans for the rest of the week and preparing for upcoming progress reports. As I finished my last sentence, I felt a rush of wind on my arm. Two police officers swiftly walked past us towards a student down the hall. My heart sank. The teacher shook her head and said 'not again.’ Water started to build in my eyes. I realized I was about to witness the school to prison pipeline in front of my face. I gasped for air as the officers forced the Black boy’s hands behind his back into handcuffs in the middle of the hallway during class change. How dehumanizing for this student and for his school mates to experience? How do you rationalize treating a child in this manner, I thought to myself. Since I’m not an employee of the high school, I’m prohibited from stepping into any school matter. I turned and began walking to the front door. I cried when I got to my car and struggled to gather full breath in my lungs.

Today I was provided a traumatic and visual reminder that computer science nor any other subject for that matter, will fully humanize Black and Brown kids. Equity work in computer science is meaningful but doesn’t matter if Black and Brown kids are seen as not worthy or in many cases less than in our schools. That is a very hard pill to swallow and part of the toil an educator who truly engages in equity and anti-racist work will face time and time again. Although many educators proclaim all kids are important, some actually demonstrate the opposite. They deem kids' value and worth as evidenced by their decisions and words based on convenience, biases, and/or maintaining the status quo heavily driven by whiteness. Those of us in the work are all putting individual, pinky-sized Band-Aids on a gushing wound. We are making daily pebble-sized deposits on a scale pan whose balance beam is severely tilted not in our favor. Until we have more workers committed and actionable about to this work, the equity needle won’t drastically move where it needs to be.

Understand and hear me clearly: this will not stop or deter me from continuing to do this work. Today was tough. Solidarity and love to those who engage in this work with me. Hard days will happen for us, but we will win. I believe Black and Brown students in our schools will always be worth it and then some. Do you believe it too?

Educator. Equity advocate. CS supporter. Race justice seeker. Purposefully disrupting the status quo in K12 education daily.