The common discourse about students of color is demoralizing and hostile to their humanity. Rather than celebrating their fullness, as we often do with other children, commentators have normalized a view that reduces living, breathing children to a stereotypical collection of their perceived deficiencies. In this guest blog post Lee-Ann Stephens wants us to change our frame. As an educator with 25 years experience, and as Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year for 2006, she is more than qualified to give us an accurate view of the kids our narrative marginalizes.
My students are resilient and overcome circumstances in life that would make many other people buckle under the pressure. These black and brown students, some who are born in the United States, and some not; some are first generation high school graduates who come to me because my school offers them support in taking advance placement courses – they teach me as much as I teach them.
I want you to know: they are not problems. They are amazing human beings.
Nothing bothers me more than when people talk about my students as if they are characterized solely by deficits rather than their humanity.
We may believe kids don’t hear us, but they do. Here is the message they hear: “Your life is so horrible and I’m here to save you because I’m better than you.” That message tells them they can’t trust you because you don’t understand them or their lives.
It’s the epitome of degradation to constantly frame these students publicly as pitiable creatures who have no power or agency, whose only asset in life is our role as their saviors. Viewing them that way enables excuses to have low expectations. Educators are then off the hook for expecting these students to bring greatness to the classroom.
Adjusting our own view
We often think of superheroes in terms of their fictional characterization of super human skills as they don capes and masks. Perhaps they may “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” morph into slime to slither under sealed doors or fly through the air. Whatever the skill is, we are often mesmerized by it.
My superheroes take a very different form.
My superheroes come by foot, car or bus. Some wear the latest fashion trends or Muslim attire. They sling backpacks filled with books. They saunter through the halls as they make their way to classes. They are multilingual and multicultural.
My superheroes navigate an educational system that doesn’t often understand or have knowledge of their stories. Stories that show their super human characteristics. You see, when a student has to take three buses to get to school and drop her sibling off on the way, that’s super human. Taking a plethora of AP/IB classes, including AP Calculus, maintaining a stellar GPA, while holding a job and looking after younger siblings, that’s superhuman.
My superheroes are undocumented, but contributing members to our community. They don’t want a hand out, just an opportunity to show their value.
My superheroes have to listen to others tell them to go back to their own country, when this is the only country that they have ever known.
My superheroes meet with me on weekends to study. They spend hours with me during their winter break to get caught up on their school work.
My superheroes come to school early and stay late after the school day ends. They challenge people who hold low expectations for them. They debate controversial topics with the prowess of a college professor. They know that the amount of melanin in their skin often brings about prejudgments of who they are.
My superheroes may look like ordinary teenagers living ordinary lives. However, this teacher sees extraordinary individuals living extraordinary lives.
This teacher sees superheroes.