A Tale of Two Teachers: Melissa Crum (Full Transcript)

Full text of education consultant Melissa Crum’s talk: A Tale of Two Teachers at TEDxColumbusWomen conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Dr. Melissa Crum – Artist, Education Consultant

I loved my second-grade teacher. One day it was picture day, and I completely forgot. She grabbed a comb and decided to attempt her, credits got pinkish, bouffant, comb back thing, this side swoop.

One day I was particularly honoring and she grabbed my wrist and said, “Melissa, you are not being your best.”

And I was angry, she grabbed my hand, I’m going to tell my mom. I was seething in my seat, she saw me, and she called me outside, gave me a cupcake and said I’m sorry for grabbing your wrist but you were not being your best. Sit out here, eat this cupcake and join us when you’re ready.

Fast-forward to 8th grade and I’m sitting in my math class, my teacher comes over and gently places her hand on my shoulder and she says to me: “You’re pretty smart for a black girl.” And I remember responding thank you.

I’m sure what to do with that comment and those emotions that came with it, I went to my principal who I had a rapport with and I told him what happened.

He sat back in his chair, he sighed and he said I’ll handle it.

A few days later I was in class and she came to me with this confused face and she said I’m sorry if I offended you with what I said. But I just wanted you to know that I think you’re smart.

And it was clear to me that she was completely unaware of how problematic her statement was, how it made me feel.

A few days later, I go to my English class where we had the results of a test that told us what reading level we were at, what grade we were reading. So, in eighth grade I was reading an 11th grade level. Jerry, a white boy who was sitting next to me, his test said he was reading at a 12th grade level.

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And I remember thinking that must be what she means.

Fast forward, my son is getting prepared to enter kindergarten and I have a lot of anxiety around it. I wondered how do I go about putting my son in a space to limit these types of biases, these types of interactions with teachers.

So, I worked with some parents to create a homeschool cooperative where we use the information and the knowledge of the group and the resources in the community to teach our children.

We started off with two African-American families, we blossomed to 7, then 14 children and more people continued to inquire about what we were doing and asking us how to be a part.

Then I began to wonder why do they want to be in a cooperative in the first place? What was the impetus that made them want to remove their children from traditional school?

So, I asked their parents, then I asked African-American families who are homeschooling across the nation, one thing remained consistent: every family who decided to homeschool their children either had a negative interaction with the teacher when they were students or negative interactions with the teacher from their children.

So what we find? Research tells us that teachers’ histories are important when it comes to the classroom; they bring those stories that guide how they choose curriculum, how they choose to teach and how they interact with their students.

What we also know is that we have to be careful about how we interact with our children and how we think about the work that we’re doing with them.

So, I began to wonder how do those microscopic interactions with teachers that have that underlying bias, how that might be replicated or manifest in macroscopic situations, how might these interactions be supported in state and federal policies that affect education?

So, we know that African-American children, particularly boys, are disproportionately disciplined, they’re giving more suspensions than their white counterparts for the same infractions.

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We know the African-American children are disproportionately placed in special education; they’re also disproportionately medicated in the school system.

We also know that states like Alabama, Virginia and my home state of Florida has race-based academic standards. Let that sit for a moment: race-based academic standards. So what that means is a white child may be required to pass at 80% where a black child is required to pass at 60%.

So what does that mean for our children? Who are we telling who can and can’t be intelligent? How are we preparing our children for the next grade for college?

I then began to look at teacher demographics and student demographics. So, I looked at how… who’s in this classroom, right? So we know that children of color have doubled in the last 30 years in the k-12 system. We know that 22% of children live in poverty and we know that 10% of students in the k-12 system are English language learners.

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