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.
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.
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.
Yet our teacher workforce remains predominantly female, white, middle class and monolingual English speakers. We also know there’s challenges around retention in urban and rural areas where this diversity is most concentrated.
So, universities and teacher preparation programs have recognized this, they’ve created diversity training programs which generally are categorized in three different categories.
First, it’s conservative, in which teachers are told that children should be assimilating into mainstream norms and removing any cultural differences. Liberal which tells teachers to tolerate difference; and third, and the least utilized is critical.
Critical requires teachers to investigate the influences of power, oppression, dominance and inequity that manifests in the classroom and extends into federal policies.
So who’s doing this? Who’s able to think about these large macroscopic issues and make them relatable and digestible to a lay audience?
Artist and museum educators, I argue that when we incorporate art, critical self-reflection, storytelling and peer dialogue into professional development, we prepare teachers to be better leaders as they reflect on their own biases that they bring into the classroom. That increases their engagement and strong relationships with their students and have higher academic achievement in the classroom.
So let’s take this image. I asked teachers, what do you see? Often times they say I see two black male figures, maybe two friends, maybe a father and son.
Then I say tell me a little bit about them, who are they? I get a myriad of stories but I always get something isn’t right here, something’s wrong, they’re up to something, they’re violent.
Then I say what do you see that makes you say that? And oftentimes they can’t put their finger on what exactly they see, what exactly evoke that emotion. As we go through this inquiry based process what those teachers tend to find, is that they have deep-seated stories about who these black boys are or aren’t?
In the same way they brought those stories to this painting, they bring those stories to those boys that show up in their classes.
Critically conscious museum educators are experts at having this inquiry-based interaction. They’re great at having this dialogue around images that have that encompass these large issues. They’re able to create engaging and participatory activities that make the complex simple, they can harness that learning power within museums and they can do it within an hour.
My colleague Kiana Hendrick and I, created a process called multicultural critical reflective practice, it’s an ongoing process that asks teachers to identify, analyze and challenge those cultural beliefs, values and assumptions that color their interactions with their students. It can’t be boxed, it’s a blend of different approaches, and we ask these teachers to confront their preconceived notions that guide their relationships with their students.
It’s an uncomfortable session. We bring up these emotions and these deep-seated stories that they didn’t realize they had. We evoke emotions or change, we believe when you feel it you can identify it; you have something to hold on to, something you can change.
So what happens? We incorporate the works of Emory Douglas or Kehinde Wiley or Mickalene Thomas or Titus Kaphar or Wangechi Mutu. What happens when we get these images to ask people, to ask our teachers, to dig into the deep recesses of their minds and harness those problematic concepts that they’ve been socialized and been told to internalize.
What we found that is working, as we’re doing this work across the country with educators, they’re better prepared to have conversations around race, sexuality, gender, cultural differences.
Professors are better equipped to teach their teachers that have these engaging and conscious interactions with it, with their students and K-12 teachers more conscious about the curriculum choices and their interactions with their students.
So what happens? We know we engage students, we lessen dropout rates, and we increase academic performance. When we have a more intellectual workforce we know that we have more productive citizens.
So what happens when we ask social workers, nonprofit leaders, police officers to do this critical self-reflection to ask them to critically think about the communities they’ve been charged to help, support and protect.
Maybe we get people like my second-grade teacher, Miss Whitehurst; I don’t know where you are right now but I thank you. I thank you for telling me to be my best and expecting nothing less. I thank you for seeing my humanists and complexity. I thank you for helping me see and believe in what you saw in me.