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Teaching and Learning…to be Civil

 

As an NBCT, I left the Teaching and Learning 2015 Conference reflecting on what I had observed and learned.  The three Saturday morning plenaries[1] were especially refreshing to my spirit, a too rare occurrence at the many educational conferences I’ve attended.

The most touching parts of the conference, took me back to important lessons I learned growing up in the 50s-60s. Elder Black folks constantly reminded us children to act “civilized,” by which they meant not doing anything that might be used to confirm the stereotypes about us. We had to be taught, and we were, quite emphatically, that what we did and who we became mattered to our families and to the larger community.  We understood that our civic duty was to be responsible, accountable, contributing members of our own communities, and consequently of the nation. Civility, therefore,  included knowing what was expected of us regarding our contribution to the greater good and complying with, or more often aspiring to, those expectations Lifting as we climb was not optional; it was our destiny.

New NBPTS Executive Vice President, Peggy Brookins, NBCT,  reminded us that the majority of African Americans in this country are concentrated in twelve states, and most of us still live in the Southeast.  Kent McGuire noted the efforts across the South of his organization (Southern Education Foundation) and others to organize, support, and expand vibrant parent organizations, hopefully like this one in Greenwood, Mississippi (birthplace of the Black Power movement).

As I got older, I learned that in the larger, stranger world outside my nurturing community being civilized meant being compliant. Our failure or refusal to do so was usually attributed to our being ignorant and/or incompetent parenting.  This cultural misread can be heard today in the racially coded whining of too many teachers about their “unmotivated” students of color and how “those parents just don’t care about education.”  That’s why I was on my feet shouting, “Amen!” when David Johns responded to just such a charge (disguised as a question) with the truth: The children come to us wanting to learn; we’re the ones who mess that up, and turn them off to schooling.

Distorted by inequity and injustice, civil society becomes a space in which people practice public politeness, a self-righteous tolerant respectability. But as Martin Luther King, III reminded us, “A society is judged by how it treats its children,” so what does it say about American that we continue to tolerate and perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline?

The lack of genuine respect for children of color and their parents carries over to relationships within the profession, as well. It is neither a mystery nor an accident that unacceptably high percentages of African American and Hispanic candidates both cannot enter the teaching profession and are more likely to leave it prematurely. Lip service to cultural diversity or pretending to be colorblind will not stop these trends. As McGuire pointed out, “Relationships, relevance, and rigor will change the future for black males” from pre-K through teacher preparation and induction. At the same time, as Jose Vilson righteously reminded us from the floor, “cultural competence is professional competence.” Every teacher in every classroom in America needs full training in and professional accountability for cultural proficiency.

Civil rights are our nation’s social and moral contract clauses. It is the blood-bought, sacred promise that every member of our society can enjoy the privileges and exercise the duties of full citizenship. With all due respect to our beautiful national parks and those who serve the nation taking care of them, public education is America’s best idea, and a truly quality education is a fundamental right of every child within our borders. Panelists, especially historian James McPherson explored America’s long, and yet unfinished battle over civil rights. I believe Christopher Edley gave us an important key:

The Church stepped back after death of King, and lawyers and policy wonks have led the discussion. But what we're really having is a debate over values. That's what most people care about. In education, we know what policies we need, but do we have consensus on the values...we need to bring passion and compassion to the issues.

Educators today are the inheritors of a great civic and civil responsibility. It was thrilling to listen to the panel of women called “Rabblerousers” remind us of the best of our past and of the possibilities for ordinary people to effect sweeping social change. Civil disobedience is the strength to love and the courage to stand for the truth. Martin L. King, III shared with us that in a moment of great and depressing threat against his family, Dr. King went to his knees and received important confirmation from God:

"Stand for justice, righteousness, and equality and I [God] will be with you to the end of the world."

Amen.
 

 

[1] First, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African American moderated by David Johns, panelists Peggy Brookins, Kent McGuire, and Rebecca Pringle. Next, “From Civil War to Civil Rights” a discussion with James McPherson and Martin L. King, III moderated by Christopher Edley, Jr. Third, “Rabblerousers” panel moderated by Lily Eskelsen Garcia, including Dalia Ziada, Doris Zames Fleischer, and Rosemary Feurer.

3 Comments

K.Scott Burgess commented on March 21, 2015 at 1:51pm:

Amen and amen!

Thank you for the poignant replaying of the fantastic event from T&L2015.  I was unanble to make that particulary plenary session with MLKIII, but your recap was excellent.  Mr. Kent's assertion that "relationships, relevance and rigor" are the change agents for black males is spot on. However, many times we as educators find ourselves trying to drive the heavy loads of relevance and rigor over a relational bridge that is shoddily built or in need of repair.  Change the relational soil, change the harvest.

 

Renee Moore Renee Moore commented on March 28, 2015 at 1:58pm:

Building relationships matters

Glad you enjoyed the piece; apologize for the delay in my response. The issue of relationships matters not only for students and their learning, but also among teachers and for our continued learning.

Deidra Gammill commented on March 28, 2015 at 11:06pm:

Thank you for sharing

Thank you for such an eloquent and thought-provoking post. I wasn't able to attend T&L2015 this year, but your post made me feel like I was (almost) there. I appreciate your honesty, and I agree - teachers need deliberate and ongoing training in cultural proficiency, myself included. I'm not a racist, but there are many things about the cultures of the students I teach that I don't fully understand. Reading The New Jim Crow helped, but I know there's so much more to learn.  I think what's "saved" me from making any non-redeemable mistakes with my students and their parents has been my commitment to building relationships. I may not always understand them, but they understand that I love them and want only the very best for them in life. And as Scripture says, "Love covers a multitude of sins." I hope you'll post more reflections on this topic.

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