Understand the past, empower the future: learning through teaching

By Venola Mason ‘01, Teach For America Grad ‘03, CEO of AchieveIt Educational Services

This February, students across the country celebrated Black History Month. They read books by black authors, wrote research papers on civil rights activists, memorized Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech or watched videos about the Underground Railroad. And if they’re taught honestly, as they learn about the struggle of the past, they’ll begin to recognize it in their own present—when a cashier squints suspiciously when they walk into a store, when they turn on the news and see another person who looks like them lose his life to senseless violence. These lessons are anything but history.

My former elementary students internalized many of these devastating lessons about people who look like them. One little boy in particular was one of my toughest. Though he was incredibly smart, he didn’t turn in homework, he acted up in class, and he started fights with other kids before and after school. So many people had given up on him that he assumed I’d do the same. Little did he know that I had other plans.

One day, a colleague brought him to me with his nose running and his heart pumping after he had been fighting with another student during recess.  I stood outside of my classroom and crouched down.  As he stared at the floor I explained my frustration — I wasn’t angry, I was disappointed.  I told him how talented he was and that he could be anything he wanted to be. I told him that the world was dying to see his greatness but it meant getting out of his own way.  I told him that I cared about him like he was my own son and that there was nothing he could do to make me give up on him.  He stood in the hallway, looking down at the floor, and began to cry. 

After that day, things changed drastically.  He would come into my classroom and put his completed homework in the basket.  During class time he stayed focused and worked with precision.  I soon realized that he was an excellent writer and engaged him with some very rigorous writing assignments.  By the end of the year he was passing my class with straight A’s, and I would only get the occasional call from another teacher asking me to come and get my son.

I will be forever touched by the memory of this student, one of my many sons.  Working with my kids as a Teach For America teacher helped me see that the work that I was doing was much bigger than my classroom. By helping children to see their true potential, I was reducing the number of high school dropouts, decreasing the rate of young men entering the prison system, increasing the number of college graduates, and training future world leaders. 

We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers—many who have experienced it first-hand, others who bear witness to it from further away. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.

As teachers, we can play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have, and that they always will.

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