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

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.