First Person

First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery

Rousseau Mieze teaches history at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school in Brooklyn, which serves students who are almost all black or Hispanic. Mieze is also himself a graduate of an early charter school that primarily served low-income students of color, the Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston. After two shooting deaths of black men by police last week, Mieze spent Friday writing. With school out of session, many teachers have shared their thoughts with colleagues and students in public letters and essays. Here is what Mieze wrote:

If school were in session, the first thing I would tell kids is that they are valued. I would say, “Your life is important; your dreams and aspirations are the life’s blood of our nation. Your dreams are what we celebrate the Fourth of July for.”

I would tell them that I love them and then I would ask them to tell me how they felt. I would monitor for hate and I would aim to purge fear.

Fear is that one emotion that does not come from God. Doubt comes from God — that’s why he uses it to help build tremendous faith. Anger comes from God — he gives it to us so that we can understand how injustice stirs him. Fear doesn’t come from God. Fear blinds us. It paralyzes us.

This truth I experience daily at work. There is a ton of fear at charter schools. After all, they have taken on the incredible challenge of closing the achievement gap. To do it, they create dozens of systems designed to control as many different variables as possible, when the truth about learning — the life-changing kind of learning — is that it is unclear and it is messy.

Those of us who cleave too tightly to the systems allow our doubt to turn to fear. We hold on so tight that we don’t allow for the miracle of life to take place: growth. But the teachers we consider the best are the ones who decide that children and their academic success trump the latest administrative directive, and decide that they will work with all of their energy toward what they believe is right.

I see fear in students, too. I’ve seen scholars with below-average IQs, multiple disabilities, and severely damaged home lives take leaps of faith and reach out toward their destinies. Those scholars have felt the sudden shift of gravity — that feeling of realizing that maybe this leap was a mistake, that their world is about to come crashing down.

It makes sense to want to quit here. But the ones who buck the fear water their destinies with faith and allow the sunlight of discipline, courage, and perseverance make their lives ready to manifest miracle.

Fear in this metaphor is not the bird who snatches the seed, or the gravity that pulls a scholar down after the jump. Fear is much more sinister. Fear keeps students from even fathoming the jump. Fear tells them there is no seed of destiny and if there is, seeds like yours won’t grow.

Fear may not be from God, but it is universal. When Eve ate the apple, she feared God was holding out on her, and when Adam ate the apple, I’m sure he felt the same. But I also think he felt a very familiar fear. He didn’t want to hold his partner accountable. I think he feared her reaction, feared being alone.

In America, teachers, students, and police officers all deal with fear. A lot of that fear is focused on black men and boys — part of a twisted psychology fed by the messages that stream from the subconscious of a country that revolutionized slavery.

I couldn’t stop looking at the officer’s hands in the murder of Philando Castile or the timbre of the voices of the officers who shot Alton Sterling. He is terrified. They are terrified. I’m sure that some of these men have malicious intention, but so many more are suffering from their own prejudice.

Despite this fear, these men deserve to be punished. These men have made choices to take the lives of innocent men and women, and my heart at times loses the strength to pump when it feels as if these crimes will go unpunished.

There is a silent party that saddens me and stirs me to anger: a police force full of well-meaning police officers who remain silent. Those men and women have the responsibility to say, “That officer was wrong. He or she acted unprofessionally.” The officers who don’t are committing Adam’s sin. They are allowing themselves to be deceived, and the results are tearing our nation apart.

TV tells me that no one likes the police officer who stands out to hold their coworkers accountable. The truth is, no one has ever loved that guy — they crucify him. History, however, loves that guy or that woman or that group of people, the people who stand for what is right, who use their God-given anger, stubbornness, compassion, courage, and doubt to manifest change. Too many good men and women co-sign their souls to evil by not speaking up. And when evil is allowed to grow, insanity prevails.

I mentor young men at my church’s youth group. One of them is now entangled in a violent beef with kids in his neighborhood. It is a beef that he and these other kids did not start, one that originated with their fathers, who are no longer in the picture. He told me that he wanted it to end, but had to do his part to maintain his safety with guns and knives. He is constantly looking over his shoulder — a tremendous burden for a 14-year-old to carry.

One Sunday I asked him what the latest news was on the conflict, and he told me that things were looking good. He was moving out of the neighborhood soon, and the young man he was in conflict with was in prison or jail. I told him that moving away doesn’t solve the problems he is having because there will always be beef. Running doesn’t solve those issues. Confronting them head-on does.

I was not advocating that he strap up and fight. I suggested he go and visit this young man in his prison or jail cell and see if he could make a move toward peace. His response blew me away. He could never fathom in a million years having a conversation with this boy who was behind bars. The mere idea was inconceivable.

He was not afraid to pack weapons that could get him arrested or killed. He was afraid of allowing for space for the miracle to happen. He was afraid to face fear with faith and believe that his gesture, his seed, could bear fruit.

He said to me, “Things aren’t like they used to be in the old days where people could make peace.” I almost laughed at the notion that we adults had somehow figured out peace, but then Obama’s words, Jesus’s life, Martin Luther King’s example, and Gandhi’s actions all hit me: be the change.

Police officers, government officials, teachers, and school safety officers all have a choice — a simple but daunting decision. Will we step up as role models of faith in the eyes of adversity, or will we forfeit our children to the destructive power of fear?

Our children need us not just to prepare the ground for miracles, they need us to model what it means to have faith in the face of overwhelming anger and hate. They need us to show them how to make way for miracles of peace and progress to grow in their lives.

As a sixth grader at a charter school, my dean of students made several mistakes. He pushed too hard, trying to control too much of students’ mindsets and behavior. He learned from those mistakes, and he’s used that experience to affect the lives of thousands of people. His debt to society is paid. The good outweighs the bad. His karma is all set.

When I was in my early 20s we had a chat about those days. In many moments of vulnerability and humility, he apologized for the ways he may have hurt the Rousseaus, the Ikes, the Dwaynes. He apologized for the legacy he may have left that allowed for the Rays and Charleses to feel disenfranchised from their education. Now, he makes it his life’s work to be a role model for leadership, even if at times that means he is must be an unpopular voice.

I try to imagine what it feels like for him to take the risk every day to push for better education in our country when there are living testaments to his mistakes. It takes great courage and an unwavering perseverance. It means confronting fear. He has had a significant impact on my belief in humanity.

Fear are the weeds in our lives that require our constant attention. We, like my middle school dean, must decide that the right thing to do trumps our fear of rejection, our fear of failure, our fear of danger, and in some cases our fear of death.

We as adults have the responsibility of being the change we want to see. My dean modeled that for me, I will model it for my daughter, our society needs to model it for our future.

Want more Chalkbeat? Check out What four recent conversations about race and policing looked like in classrooms across the country. You can follow us on Facebook, too.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.