Discovering Equity in Action – Systemic Oppression & Coaching

When I began my website, I started writing posts that I was either too nervous to actually submit to the interwebs or that I was simply planning on saving for a rainy day. I found this gem from 5 years ago…

I recently had a meeting with a principal that left me quite upset. It was an initial meeting accompanied by my supervisor and my ELA colleague. The principal had been in the school for roughly a month and the poor guy was coming down with a cold (“It’s nice to meet you. [hand shake] Please wash your hands! I’d hate for you to catch my cold!”) This man’s reputation preceded him: he had done wonderful things in other schools. Perhaps we caught him in a moment of messiness because he seemed scattered, distracted, unfocused. They say the stages of group performance begin with Forming and then Storming… I couldn’t help but feel like I was caught in the middle of a dark storm, abandoned after shipwreck, turbulent waves made violent from the winds. Like the scene in Life of Pi, and this principal is the tiger (“Our VP left a week before school started. I didn’t hire a new one because I figured those funds were better used to get a resource teacher to pull intervention groups.”) I can’t imagine what it was like for him to realize the expanse of the waters he had embarked upon.

The school’s population is predominantly African-American, located across the street from projects. (“They are only just repeating the violence they see at home.”) About a decade ago the school worked to change the face of the school by naming it after a prominent mother who lived in the community (she just recently passed but many of her family are still deeply embedded in the school). The former name, Jedediah Smith, only served as an ironic reminder of the marginalization of the community. Along with the name change came a focus on Social Emotional needs. The administration fought hard to make students feel they were coming to safe school that would nurture their trauma. Unfortunately there was not equal emphasis placed on academics. A student needs to feel proud of their academic achievement, have autonomy over their performance, and know they have an impact on their own learning, no matter how “low” we may consider them. But if we tippy toe around their “inabilities” and send the message “it’s ok you can’t read, we love you” without also teaching them how to read, then we are doing them a disservice. We are doing society a disservice. We are perpetuating systemic oppression. Thus was the state of this school.

We are perpetuating systemic oppression.

I was distraught when I walked away. I stepped into my white SUV, plugged in my smart phone and fixed my pearl necklace. And then sobbed. I had successfully resisted the urge to walk out of the meeting to the line of students and smother them in my embrace. I wanted to call Jonathan Kozol on his red hotline phone (“You named these inequities and then did nothing to fix them!”). I wanted to call the National Equity Project and ask them where the hell they were (“You can’t just ignore a school! Get your ass here NOW!”). My anger at systemic oppression and the denial of its existence by people who look like me was palpable, my blood pulsing the need for action through my own system. Instead I called my husband and sobbed about the blaring inequity in our nation (“How can I get leveled books? We’re broke”), about people’s rants blaming this and that for our schools’ failures (I’m sure they’ve never set foot in a “black school”), and then I hung up and scheduled a meeting with my assistant superintendent.

Working with her was new to me but I knew she came from a good place and was good people. When I finally spoke with her I vented, told her my emotions, told her my reactions. I trusted that she would understand where I was coming from. I put myself out on the line. And she heard me. She let me have my feelings, and then she explained the context. She implored me to trust the new principal, to trust that something was being done. (“But what can be done about 7 decades of oppression!?”)

So this is where I was… excited to work in the schools who were excited to meet me, who were “ready” for the work, the schools where teachers had researched lesson study and were already observing each other. That is still so exciting. But the school that really needed me was the one that couldn’t have me in the same capacity (“Subs won’t come here”). This school needed a dedicated coach. And a VP. And a counselor. Or two or three. I would continue to learn more about the school over the next few years and how I could support. And in the meantime, I supported how I could. By listening to the teachers. By being present once a week for in-the-moment coaching opportunities. By staying positive and bringing tangible, actionable, practical strategies for increasing math engagement. By inviting teachers to PD outside of the work day. By paying them for the time they spent with me after school (when they would have been working on math planning anyway). By sharing with you.

…5 years later, I return to this post and reminisce… I am finishing my 2nd year at this site as their full time math coach. We also have an ELA coach. We have a VP. We have a part time counselor, and a nurse, and a social worker, and a community outreach coordinator, and so much more. And all of this is possible with a massive federal School Improvement Grant. Which will be gone in 2 years. What will happen to our Full Service Community School when the money is gone? We are successfully supporting students’ social emotional needs while challenging them academically. Our scores are improving, students’ mindsets are growing, and teacher’s secondary trauma is decreasing. My fear is that when the money disappears, so too will the academic success. We underfund our schools, we get angry that red-lined schools get additional funding, but we don’t walk the walk. Please… TRUST ME… we need to fund our neediest schools. We need all of these supports. I work with some of the hardest-working, most dedicated teachers who would do anything for their students. They deserve to have these supports in place.

I hope to read this post in another 5 years and know that all of the supports in place now still exist. That more than 11% of students are reading at grade level. That more than 6% of students are proficient in math. Even bigger, I hope that we wake up to the inequities, that we begin to listen that this exists, and that there is an actionable solution of which we are all accountable. at more than 6% of students are proficient in math. Even bigger, I hope that we wake up to the inequities, that we begin to listen that this exists, and that there is an actionable solution of which we are all accountable.

I hope that we begin to see how we are a part in this dysfunctional system that creates the haves and the have-nots. Now, that is really my dream.

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