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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.