By Irene Sanchez
No one wants to talk about it, but in order to work towards the inclusion and equity and all these nice things, all these “nice folks” in charge making decisions in education claim to want for marginalized students, we must do no harm. More than doing no harm though, one must truly walk the walk for social justice. Talk is cheap, but sometimes that seems as if it’s all we do at meetings and professional development. Many of us have sat in countless meetings from higher education’s ivory tower conference rooms to libraries full of staff at round circle tables in K-12 talking about the same issues from last year, a decade, or half a century ago.
Sounds simple right? Don’t just talk, walk the walk, especially if you’re claiming to be dedicated to social justice. Well if you’re an educator, you may have run into people who claim to want these things, yet create a hostile school environment for you as a teacher of color, be it an administrator or another teacher “colleague”. I know this well unfortunately since I began teaching high school Ethnic Studies (Latinx Studies). And when I think about how bad it is for me as a teacher and Xicana mother of a 4th grade boy, I think how much worse it may be for our students.
I know what it feels like to speak up as a teacher with degrees or a (formerly) single mama with them (including a Ph.D.) like during my first year (while untenured aka non-permanent for my higher Ed friends, it’s different in K-12). My students would come to me with stories of being disrespected and dehumanized as Latinx students from the words or actions of other teachers in the school year 2017-2018. My son also would come to me. I still remember the day he came home crying saying he was dumb. He was in kindergarten. I wonder for my students when was their first dehumanizing moment.
I remember the first year, and how I emailed one of the principals at one of the three high schools I work at, excuse me, there’s some issues here. He came to my room after school and simply told me, coming from me it’s not something he can do much about. He claimed to understand my frustration and seemed shocked as to what I reported to him, but ultimately it was up to the students to report this themselves. I asked about the power dynamic and how it was unlikely students may be believed to which he suggested to tell the students to get their parents involved or also “record” the incidents. Without it he says, there wasn’t much that could be done.
I was reminded of how a lot of us have heard of a colleague here or there doing something, saying something, be it inside or outside of school. Inside of school, I already knew since year 1, avoid the teacher lounges and during one difficult time, I caught myself stuck in one on a pupil free day. I was thankful for the teacher who invited me to her room to then tell me within that hour of the other teachers who were calling me a derogatory names after this article about my class ran. She told me how the colleague walked up to her and asked her “oh are you going to go and tell your comadre?”
I reminded an administrator recently of the hostility I encountered during these years teaching our district’s only Latinx Studies class and as I asked for support, but I was met with “shock” and the person acting as if they didn’t know before I was told nothing could be done about people’s attitudes and how they weren’t here to change people’s beliefs. I was instead simply reminded of my place as a “teacher”. Yes, being the only Ethnic Studies teacher can’t get you a seat at the table to discuss equity, inclusion, or the future of Ethnic Studies in your district even while the same administrator calls you an “expert”.
About a week after that conversation, I found myself sitting in a meeting at a school I had previously been stopped from going to meetings at during a previous pre-pandemic school year. Hesitant to go even now, I slowly wheeled my cart to the library and sat next to social studies teachers I had just met earlier this school year who stated four years after me being there “Oh you’re the Ethnic studies teacher?” “Yes, that’s me.”
At this particular meeting I walked out once due to the lack of masks. When I returned most people were wearing them. I then sat in silence as most of us did to listen to “veteran” teachers share their “wisdom”. One in particular got up and said how they didn’t care that there was a pandemic and how it was “tough”, but bad things have happened in every generation. I sat there appalled that this person didn’t know or rather didn’t care how disproportionately impacted the Latinx community has been during this pandemic. Our district is 92 percent Latinx students, surely that is obvious to anyone at just one school, and certainly a veteran teacher.
Just as I thought it couldn’t get worse, of course it did. The teacher continued on about how we shouldn’t be “enabling” the students or parents, then said twice throughout this talk that they weren’t going to say “Ayyy pobrecito” and we can’t “ayyy pobrecito” the students. I was shocked by what she said and how she said it and wanted to walk out. I saw a couple other teachers visibly uncomfortable. The administrators did and said nothing.
After the meeting I sat in my car hesitant to write an email to the principal, but I did, thinking of my students, and my son (who is a 4th grader in the district). Here is an excerpt from that email titled “Recent conversations”,
“A couple of things from the meeting reminded me of what I mentioned recently. I recall mentioning feeling unwelcome or not feeling fully apart of any school and the hostility I’ve dealt with directly or indirectly since being there or really overall teaching Latinx Studies at all three schools.
Since then I met with (an admin) last week and I realize me teaching at three schools as my job, it’ll be pretty difficult to ever feel as if I fit anywhere. I also got from that conversation my knowledge or contributions to the future of Ethnic Studies in this district aren’t welcomed at this time and it is unknown when I will be welcomed at the table for those conversations.
Today in the meeting I want you to know I walked out once to the restroom, but also because the first issue was the masks or lack thereof from people close to me…
Second time I wanted to walk out, but didn’t. It was when it felt like Latino families/students were being mocked with “ayyy pobrecito” comments and how we’re enabling the kids/parents comments. To hear that go unchecked along with saying the pandemic is just one of many challenging events that just happen in a lifetime isn’t right especially considering the Latinx community is the one disproportionately impacted due to being essential workers and the history that comes with that labor/unequal schools/educational opportunities. I found an article early last year in an archive from Azusa during the times of the Spanish flu pandemic when Mexican kids weren’t allowed back in their segregated school when things did reopen in 1919 because they needed to get to work picking Citrus while white students got to go back to school. Talk about learning loss. The Latinx community has had that for generations.
I think about all this while teaching this class and knowing our communities have the lowest educational attainment rates and highest poverty rates. How does this play out in terms of who gets to go to college? Who gets opportunities and who is funneled into certain occupations? I often think about how our kids are treated in school and how that makes a huge difference on how welcomed or connected they feel. I know this from raising my own son and experiencing for a time being that single Chicana mom trying her best, sometimes falling short and facing judgement and negative comments from teachers he used to have…I share this because it’s a major issue. The way my class has been welcomed or unwelcomed is reflected in this mentality I see where some really don’t seem to respect or recognize the students and families we are serving.
I leave you with this poster I have hanging from the beginning of the school year at all three schools. It is a compilation of contributions from all three high schools on how schools can make Latinx students feel connected. This came up after we discussed some research on how Latinx students won’t perform well if schools don’t make them feel as if they are connected to school. I think about this constantly and how I can do that everyday. It’s hard to do this when I myself don’t feel connected or as if I belong, so I can imagine, having been a student who didn’t do well in high school myself how a lot of our students may feel at times.
Thanks for reading. I know this will continue to be difficult, but I’ll just keep trying my best…”
Yes, this admin responded. Yes they visited my class the next day and said to me that others found what I brought up out of line too (including themselves), but yet it wasn’t checked (as far as I know).
This all came back to me last night as my sister in law (high school teacher) and best friend (high school teacher) sent me the now viral video of the teacher mocking indigenous peoples during a math lesson at John W. North high school in Riverside, CA (the city where I live/place I grew up). Apparently it wasn’t the only time this teacher had done this either as a yearbook photo from 2012 shows it was something that was documented.
None of this is ok. Mocking the cultures of our students, families, or communities is not ok. 63 percent of K-12 teachers are white, but the majority of our kids in K-12 are students of color. Administration not speaking up when they hear or witness these things is not ok. Teachers or professors shrugging their shoulders if colleagues do things out of line is not ok whether it’s in K-12 or higher ed.
I know that if things like what I experience as a teacher happen, I always wonder about what is going on with my students? What is happening to our kids in these schools? I wonder how many stories of disrespect and dehumanization our students/families continue to experience (like they’ve experienced for generations). While I’m happy for the passage of AB 101 (Medina), making Ethnic Studies a high school graduation requirement in California and how it was recently signed into law, I know things won’t change fully and we can’t move towards true equity and inclusion until our students can be in any classroom, in any school, and not have to worry about being disrespected, dehumanized, or having their culture degraded by the adults in positions of power. Things have to change and that means we must acknowledge what’s really going on.
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