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It was my sixth of teaching but everything felt new. I was in a new position (photojournalism) at a new school. So, when I heard the words, “we need talk,” from my new principal, I panicked.

“John, I think the morning announcements have been working well but there’s one change I want you to make,” he said.

I nodded.

“I notice that you don’t have any ELL students doing the announcements. Why is that?” he asked.

“I, uh, well. It wasn’t intentional. I put out a call for volunteers and those are who I chose,” I pointed out.

“I know you value student voice but that has to extend to all voices.”

Honestly, I got defensive. I wasn’t willing to listen to him. I started talking about ELL theory and affective filters. I shared how my ELL students were afraid to go live in front the school. Raul listened patiently to my response and said, “If the system doesn’t allow each student to have a voice, you need to change the system.”

The conversation became even more challenging when we shifted to race and representation. Our school was about 90% Latino and close to 10% African-American but there was no black representation on the morning announcements.

“What message is that sending to students?” he asked.

We then talked about a plan of action. Honestly, I left the conversation feeling frustrated. I wanted Raul to assure me that I wasn’t being racist (I was) and that this mistake wasn’t indicative of a racist system (it was) but merely an oversight. I wanted him to recognize that I had worked for years, first for a non-profit and now as a teacher, for justice. And yet, Raul didn’t center the conversation on me or on my feelings. This was about our students and how I was complicit in a racist system.

I modified the morning announcements by changing the recruiting additional teams of students. Instead of going live, we prerecorded the whole show so that my ELL students could practice their lines ahead of time. We retooled everything so that students had more of a voice in the format and style of the morning show.

A week later, a teacher approached me in the staff lounge and said, “Can you do something about which students who have as the morning news anchors? I can’t even understand some of them.”

At that moment, Raul walked into the staff lounge and said, “If you can’t understand a student, maybe you need to work harder at listening.”

Although I had never heard the term anti-racism, this was just a small example of what it was like to be in a school with leadership that was actively anti-racist. Here’s a snapshot of what this looked like:

  • Raul changed our approach to discipline. It started with the dress code, which he changed from uniforms to jeans and t-shirts. He refused to suspend students for wearing baggy pants or having skinny jeans (opposite ends of the acceptable denim spectrum). Later, when other schools were suspending students for dancing in the hallways (remember the Dougie?), Raul created huge dance competitions before school. But it went beyond that. We also looked at the discipline data to examine bias and explore the racism within the system. I still remember when a teacher wanted to call the campus police (SRO) for a child being “disrespectful,” Raul refused. There were still consequences but they didn’t need to be criminal.
  • Raul actively celebrated our community and challenged white teacher perceptions about the neighborhoods around the school. When teachers said negative comments about parents in our community, he not only corrected them but also made sure parents were part of the conversations on school improvement. One day, when a teacher went on an racist rant on social media, he addressed this teacher but also asked teachers who were bystanders why they had been silent.
  • Raul empowered people of color who were from the community and working within our schools. Raul often ate lunch with the custodial staff, the secretaries, and the aides. I can think of one member of the evening custodial staff who had dropped out of college to take care of his dying mother. Because Raul took the time to get to know him, he ended up going to back to college to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher. Raul also started a leadership conference for our students and was intentional about including local leaders of color.
  • Raul had us examine our curriculum for racism and bias. He had us review our choices of books in the library and ELA classes. When I taught a block of reading intervention, he asked me to design one that was culturally responsive. He asked social studies teachers to avoid the “both sides” approach to injustices in history. But as my friend Brad points out, Raul also fought hard against the low expectations certain teachers had toward our students.
  • Raul invited white allies to listen more. To parents. To students. To experts who know and live this work. He challenged us to examine our biases and to enter into hard conversations. It’s easy to default to the ideas of “colorblindness” and to ignore or deflect.
  • Raul advocated publicly for racial justice. If you check out his Twitter profile, you’ll see that he is actively engaged in hard local work around racial profiling and policing. This isn’t something that he addresses only during a big national event. This is is his life.

Raul’s message was clear that we weren’t just going to be tolerant or even pro-diversity as a staff. He was going to ask us to dismantle oppression in our daily practice as educators — something I still often struggle with. I acknowledge that I am still on this journey. I still benefit from racist systems. I recognize that I have not done enough as an ally or advocate.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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