As an educator of color who grew up in the Bronx and attended public schools from Kindergarten to Grade 12, I have long been committed to ensuring that students have educational experiences that meet their needs, value who they are and empower them and their families. As a child, I hoped to rectify the educational inequalities I saw by becoming a teacher in the New York public school system.
Since the schools in New York City closed in March 2020, I have continued to work tirelessly to ensure my students receive the best possible education, the kind of education that many of my peers and I never had the opportunity to. to live fully as students. This is the education students deserve – not the “back to normal” that the authorities keep calling for, but a school system that is truly built for all students, including our most marginalized.
I persevered, despite the many challenges. But the 2020-21 school year was my last in the New York Department of Education and my last as a teacher.
The COVID era has provided a boost of epic proportions in the world of education. At the start of the pandemic, parents struggled with distance learning and realized that a teacher’s job was so much more difficult than it seemed. They saluted us for our efforts to light up a dime and teach in a whole new way. The positive attention felt like a reprieve. Finally, my colleagues and I were appreciated for our hard work and service.
Although the 2019-2020 and 2020-21 school years were extremely difficult, I felt the tide was turning when it comes to educational justice. In New York, long-standing systemic issues have come to the fore. Bias and historically inaccurate programs and materials, the digital divide, collapsing infrastructure and racial disparities in health were now mainstream. These were conversations that had been repeatedly interrupted during the last generation of bipartisan education reform in favor of data, high-stakes testing and accountability. I felt new hope for a more equitable post-COVID world.
But nearly two years after the start of the pandemic, the dominant representation of public school teachers is as far removed from the hero’s narrative as it gets. Teachers are being ignored as we continue to advocate for COVID security protocols. Many are also exhausted, demoralized, and worried about being targeted for simply teaching in a historically accurate and culturally appropriate way.
What has changed since COVID first closed schools?
Nationally, schools have come under siege, thanks to an attack on state laws that prevent educators from teaching about race, gender or oppression in a historically accurate way. Policies targeting critical race theory are actually an attempt to attack truth, civic engagement, and fairness in public schools. (The same goes for the ban on masks and vaccines in schools.)
To make matters worse, many education officials appear determined to return to the status quo regardless of how many people are still struggling in the midst of a pandemic. Even in a “progressive” city like New York, educators can feel helpless, isolated, and fearful of reprisal from administrators or supporters of traditional educational approaches. I know I have.
Granted, this problem predates the pandemic, but it is only now, after years of hostility and resistance, that I am ready to seek changes outside the system.
Ten years ago, when I started teaching third grade to a class of all black and brown students in the South Bronx, many of them first and second generation immigrants, I saw how my students reacted. to a program and an education that valued and recognized them. their shine. The founding principal of our school at the time – a powerful black educator – hired me to support the culturally appropriate and sustainable culture she envisioned for the school. She commissioned me to help write a curriculum; she also asked me to lead an academically rigorous pedagogical framework, to affirm the diverse identities of the students and to put the marginalized experiences to the fore.
The work she was doing was based on the community control efforts of the 1960s in New York City. By this time, many black and Latin educators were working hard to take control of their community schools, which they believed the city had long ignored in favor of white and wealthy neighborhood schools. They were inspired and led by many civil rights activists, anti-war movements and black power.
It seemed like a long time ago when I started teaching. After all, I entered the classroom at the height of bipartisan reform movements like Race to the Top and, before that, No Child Left Behind. I used to have teachers looked at with a certain level of scrutiny and suspicion as they were held to account for high stakes tests. Inequalities in education and the importance of culturally appropriate practices were poorly recognized.
Today, many teachers not only accept the failures of recent reform movements that got us nowhere, but try to correct them. While I had hoped the past two years would have been a wake-up call, the data and accountability framework persists. And it fuels current accounts of “learning loss”, “achievement gaps” and all the ways of thinking about deficits about how children, especially black and brown children, learn today.
Teachers who still attempt to transform schools with sweeping efforts may face a swift and concerted reaction. It is untenable.
I have been dealing with such a backlash for years. In the middle of my career, after my school principal retired and the new administration changed the organization’s north star to reflect the dominant reform rhetoric, some of my colleagues called me extremely keen to introduce ideas that they believe could harm students and make my white colleagues feel bad for being white. They challenged the same everyday practices that now face immense political and cultural backlash, such as critical discussions of race or gender, and the selection of texts centered on marginalized stories or perspectives.
At the end of the term, I moved to a well-known progressive school, hoping to find a community that embraces anti-racist education and a culturally appropriate curriculum. Over the next six years, I assumed greater roles and responsibilities, but never felt fully supported in my efforts for fairness, justice and true transformation.
The school I taught most recently seemed more committed to offering lip service or cosmetic changes, rather than implementing anti-racist practices and making sure teachers had the support they needed to guarantee the success of such measures. And as I continued to use my leadership position at school to advocate for change, especially when we returned in person, I encountered growing hostility. My advocacy put my job at risk.
As a child of color, I never felt like I belonged to the public school system; as an adult within the same system, I don’t feel fully accepted or expected to thrive. So after 10 years as a teacher in a public school in New York City, I look forward to continuing my work as an educator, in a new space – a space that fully embraces my humanity and that of the children, while working for transformative change.
Selena A. Carrion (@SelenaCarrion) is an experienced educator, librarian, writer and activist working in New York City. Along with her experience in New York Public Schools as a teacher, she worked at Columbia University Teachers College, NYSED, NewSchools, and PBS. His writings have been published in Chalkbeat, NCTE, Edutopia, and ACSD, among other publications. Carrión bases his work on critical pedagogies, anti-racist teaching and the equitable transformation of our schools.