(This is Part I in my series, Call For Change. Check back soon for Call For Change Part II: Social Justice Changes You Can Make TODAY!)
I love fall, don’t you?
The season of pumpkin spice lattes, cardigans, and bouquets of sharpened pencils. The air is deliciously crisp, the colors are warm but vibrant, and everything is just . . . cozy. Fall makes me want to do things out of character, like listen to country music and bake pies.
Autumn is also a great season for reflection and change. I start thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up, where my life has been, where it is now, and where it’s headed. There’s something about fall that makes you look back with gratitude and look forward with hope. This fall, I’m ruminating on the things in education that I’m most thankful for, and the things that need a transformational change.
The thing I’m the most thankful for this fall is the life events that kept me in education every time I wanted to quit, because
I wasn’t supposed to be an elementary music teacher.
Twenty years ago, fall of my sophomore year in college. I lay under some oak trees that had changed to gold and red, smoking a cigarette, seriously questioning whether I wanted to enter the teaching profession. I listened to the rustle and shake of the colorful leaves. It sounded like a nature symphony wrapped around a watercolor painting of warm colors. The breeze gave me goosebumps, prickling the hair on my arm. I had dreamed of becoming a professional musician, or conductor, or pianist, or singer-songwriter. Instead, I found myself entering the music education program because it was wise to have a “backup plan” in case I couldn’t make it as a performer.
I didn’t anticipate what would happen next. The first time I observed an elementary music teacher, I fell in love. I fell in love with the kids, the songs, the simplistic way of teaching complicated concepts to children. I happily, if unexpectedly, took a job teaching kindergarten through sixth grade music at an elementary school when I graduated.
Everything went well, until it all fell apart.
Ten years ago, in October of 2009, I was divorced, depressed, suicidal, alcoholic, and done with teaching. I returned to my previous dreams of performing. I toured open mics and dedicated my free time to song-writing. I was convinced that teaching was a waste of time and I was meant to perform.
Thankfully, I didn’t quit teaching to become a street musician. I would have missed some of the most difficult but also the most wonderful years in my teaching career. You can read about that story here.
A year ago, I found myself at a similar crossroads, without the depressing stuff. Approaching my 40th birthday, I had a brand new master’s degree, two small children, and a growing question about what I was doing with my life. Disillusioned with teaching, sick and tired of directing music performances instead of performing them, I was ready for something different. I almost quit teaching again. I would have missed the beautiful and amazing job I have now, teaching primary music to 3-8-year-olds. The story of my transition is here.
So, two decades from pondering my role in education under the fall foliage, having nearly left teaching forever three times, the fall comes again and I start reflecting.
I realize that teaching is a calling, not a career.
I didn’t choose teaching, it chose me.
And now I have a responsibility. To those of us who have been chosen, we have a difficult calling to achieve. It’s not just to show up, deliver lesson plans, grade homework, and go home to watch Oprah.
Teaching is not a career – it’s a calling. I wasn’t supposed to be an elementary general music teacher. I wasn’t supposed to spend my days teaching “Ta-Ta-Ti-Ti-Ta” to six-year-olds. But I love it! I can’t imagine doing anything else. I was ‘supposed’ to be a famous writer or poet by now. I was supposed to have released my first solo album by now. I was supposed to be leading my own community orchestra. Any of those “professional performer” options. And yet . . .
I had a second grader ask me recently why I was always so happy. I laughed genuinely and told him because I get to play with children and they pay me for it! How can I be anything except happy?!
This fall, are you reflecting on what you could’ve/should’ve/would’ve done with your life? Are you wondering what you could/should/would do moving forward? If you’re wondering if the grass is greener on the other side, just remember that you’ve been called!
You’ve been chosen!
This doesn’t mean you can sit back and rest on your laurels. Dylan Fenton, in his blog Pencils Down says this about teachers and the “calling”:
“Passion, natural aptitude, inner drive, and all the other ideas wrapped up in the concept of a calling are surely helpful in the making of great teachers, but they’re not enough. One’s ability to teach well is derived not from any sort of supernormal intuition or zeal alone, but from an unfailing willingness to learn and adapt, to constantly question and create, and to always challenge oneself.“https://dylanfenton.com/2016/03/22/lets-stop-calling-teaching-a-calling/
Being “called to teach” means we have a lot to be grateful for, but it also means we have a responsibility to rise up and start changing things.
Government policy won’t change things. School institutions won’t change things. It’s up to us. We have to start education transformation from the bottom. Make some noise, break some barriers, start doing things differently than they’re been done for hundreds of years. Challenge the status quo, ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, why you’re teaching the way you’re teaching, and why students are acting the exact same way if what you’re doing is supposed to change the way they act.
The Color of Change
The leaves have changed colors. It’s time for us to change the way we see color. The leaves have fallen, died, and been buried in the snow to make way for next year’s growth. It’s time for us to put to death some ways of teaching and learning to make room for new growth.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said on her blog, “Lily’s Blackboard:
“Our history is clear: We have never in this country from the Mayflower to this very moment EVER achieved Racial Justice in Education. Never.“http://lilysblackboard.org/2019/03/we-need-to-be-disruptors-of-institutional-racism-in-our-schools/
Our entire education system is built upon a foundation of institutional racism. From the way that school funding is related to zip code to the way that we handle discipline. The solution is to dismantle, abolish the ways in which our structure supports and perpetuates racial injustices to our black and brown students.
(Click here for my blog post on dismantling education.)
Bettina Love, in her book We Want to do More Than Survive, discusses the importance of “abolitionist teaching” which is defined as
“. . . the practice of working in solidarity with communities of color while drawing on the imagination, creativity, refusal, remembering, visionary thinking, healing, rebellious spirit, boldness, determination, and subversiveness of abolitionists to eradicate injustice in and outside of schools.”We Want to do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, Love, 2019, pg 2
Abolitionist teaching, education for social and racial justice, cannot come from the “top.” Policy makers have a vested interest in keeping the status quo of structural racism within our education system. It is up to us, those who have been called to education, who are on the ground doing this work every day, to start challenging the deeply imbedded systems of institutional racism.
Bettina Love calls all of us to change when she says:
“We all thrive when everyday people resist, when everyday people find their voice, when everyday people demand schools that are students’ homeplaces, and when everyday people understand that loving darkness is our path to humanity.”Love, 2019, pg 68
I’m not an expert. I’m not a celebrity. I don’t have amazing political influence or power. I’m an everyday person. So are you. But as an everyday person, I’ve also chosen to respond to the call. The call not just to teach but to change teaching. As Bettina Love says, “we all thrive” when we stand up to racial injustice and inequities in education.
And as I am not an expert on racial justice in education, I’d like to refer you to some excellent people doing this work from whom you can discover your particular role in the fight. First, I recommend the authors cited in the links above – Bettina Love, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, Jackie Palochko, and Dylan Fenton. Second, browse through the links below for more people on the front lines of educational justice. In addition, I encourage you to check out Paul Gorski and Ibram Kendi for how we can fight the anti-racist fight on behalf of our black and brown children.
Racial Justice in Education Resources
NEA, the National Education Association, has put together a collection of videos, articles, and resources for educators interested in speaking up against racial injustice. Click here for NEA Members Talk About Racism
Teaching Tolerance website is an excellent place to find anything and everything related to education social and racial justice. Available resources include articles, lesson plans, professional development, and links to things you can do in your community to be an activist.
This article from Teaching Tolerance can change the way we think about including racial justice in our teaching. Teaching for Racial Justice by Lauren Porosoff can be found here.
Last, but not least, check out these authors and their articles to gain more information and perspective on racial inequities and the black experience in schools.
What Happened When Brooklyn Tried to Integrate by Laura Meckler
How Black Mothers Prepare Their Children for School by Dani McClain
Changing education requires the same kind of changes that our world is going through right now. We must change how we look at the color of our students’ skin. We must let old systems fall, die and be buried.
“We may be uncomfortable talking about race, but we can no longer afford to be silent. We have chosen a profession that—like parenting—requires us to put our comforts second to those of children.”TeachingTolerance.org
I’ve tried to point you to people doing this work, but I cannot include everyone. If you, or someone you know, is fighting this fight for our children of color, please leave the links in the comments. Answer the call and make a change!