Taking Inventory: The End of a Year Teaching at My Old Elementary School

Coming home to teach has provided me with some important reflections as I prepare to set out again.

I returned to live at home this year for many of the same reasons that so many of my post-grad peers did the same, and was looking for education related jobs. This naturally led me back towards the school system from which I had graduated only four years earlier, and ultimately to the elementary school in my own neighborhood which I attended from second to sixth grade.

I have worked this entire year in two classrooms, acting as a bilingual tutor in a kindergarten class, and an academic aide in the same sixth grade room and with the same teacher who I had as a twelve year old. While much of this happened out of circumstance, as an aspiring educator it has been an incredibly powerful experience to return to the site of my own young education, and to have a chance to work with and learn from some of the same teachers who sparked my love of learning.

Going home–not just to my house and family, but to the source of much of my own education–has helped me reflect on which parts of my own time in school were empowering, which parts were not, and what pieces of my own education experiences I hope to carry forward. As the year comes to an emotional close, these are some of the major lessons I have found myself focusing on:

Public education is inherently radical. I was lucky enough to work this year with a collective of staff, teachers and tutors, many of whom were of color, who have lived in our area for generations, and passed through the school system in which they now educate. I have learned profoundly from their wisdom and expertise, especially the many ways they find to balance their own lives and families with a true and longterm dedication to their students and school. The greatest challenge they face is in creating curricula and classroom communities which have the capacity to support, engage and give voice to a student population bursting with disparities and contradictions. Inventing traditions, devising projects and coming up with daily activities which don’t only teach but let students explore their own knowledge is an enormous and perpetual undertaking, and I see teachers do it every day for wealthy, homeless, immigrant, disabled, poor, white, brown and queer students in equal measure. Creating classrooms in which these many experiences don’t merely interact, but learn to work together, trust each other, and teach one another is a constant struggle, and miraculous when it actually happens. Watching experienced teachers accomplish this, even in the occasional fraction of a moment, has encouraged me to continue pursuing education.

Public education is inherently conservative. Though classrooms have moments where remarkable ranges of experiences come together in a united vision, there are just as many moments in which the conservative legacies which lie at the foundation of public education cannot be denied. Seeing every day the ways in which the classroom environment leaves people behind–sometimes in the name of things like “diversity” and “social justice”–has impressed upon me the aspects of public learning that I’m not convinced can ever be gotten around. Testing, standardized curricula and occupational learning, all of which are being given more and more focus as private and government bodies overhaul public schools to meet their own economic needs, are the most glaring reasons which make it difficult to construct radical communities of learning in traditional public schools. Yet on a more fundamental level, entrenched systems of reward, competition and recognition are at the core of public learning, and require more than mere creative lesson planning to challenge. Again and again I am reminded that those of us who see the radical potential in public learning also tend to be the ones who, at least to a certain degree, the system of public learning worked for–whom it did reward and recognize, who competed and were successful. If my own experience of public school had been marked more deeply by alienation and repression than approval and support, would I be less inclined to imagine the classroom as the site of radical change? This is a question which returning home to teach has only brought further to the fore of my thinking.

Students of privilege have a role in social justice education. Coming home to teach this year meant returning to my relatively well-funded public school system, one which, while being genuinely economically, racially and ethnically diverse, is still largely suburban, affluent and white. As a young educator committed to justice for oppressed communities, this was something I thought might be a source of frustration for me. In reality, working with privileged students alongside those who share my experiences as an oppressed person, and watching more experienced educators do the same, has grounded me in a lesson I know I will need to keep coming back to: A vision of justice which excludes or ignores certain voices–including voices of privilege–is only devising new forms of silence, marginality and erasure. Not only do students of privilege have just as much to learn about challenging power as their oppressed counterparts do, they have opinions and ideas which are valuable and necessary. They bring perspectives which paint oppressive orders in complex lights, giving us more nuanced ways to think of how we might imagine new structures to fight and ultimately replace them. Education is most empowering when it teaches us and our communities to meet each other where we are, instead of continuing to see one another through the fracturing lenses of dominating orders. This means building learning spaces which, while acknowledging the differences among us, don’t label certain students as privileged and others as oppressed. Instead, we need learning spaces which teach all their members to see themselves as part of a struggle to bring about a more just world for all people. Embarking on this mission collectively, as teachers and students from a whole host of experiences, is taking a step towards an inclusive movement for radical change.

Learning exists in places which may never have occurred to you. One of the major ways in which I’ve been challenged this year is in what I qualify as radical learning. The teachers with whom I spent the year working come from a span of class, race and gender experiences, but all share an expertise in taking advantage of rich quandaries as they come up organically, and actively connecting all lessons in the classroom to the the communities which exist outside of it. This has taken the form of lessons which take place in spaces outside of the classroom, learning projects which are designed to be taught, shared with and presented to other members of the school community, and the putting aside of curriculum to discuss difficult questions. As a result, I’ve seen all kinds of learning moments that would never have occurred to me to introduce on my own take a central place in the classroom: A discussion about alcohol and drug use after a student made a joke about being high; A mock trial in which students whom I had rarely heard speak vocally argued for racial justice; A carwash in which students had to take responsibility for independently raising money for their end-of-year trip. I would not have planned out any of these events on my own, and would not have been likely to qualify them as radical learning. Yet what I come away from this year with is the understanding that social justice education is not about doctrine or buzz words, and often is not even about specific topics or material. It is about carving out room for student voices, striving at each moment for honest inquiry, and forging links between the daily and sometimes mundane routines of the classroom and the world that we hope to build out of it.

Longevity is key to building community. I believe the school I work with strives to be a support system for all of its students, a place where young people are not merely taught but are engaged, cared for and made an esteemed part of a network of resources. One of the major ways I think my school is able to do this effectively is through the longevity and perspective of staff and educators who have been a part of the school for years, and in some cases decades. It is amazing, not only to return to a school ten years after being a student there and still find influential teachers in their familiar roles, but equally to be a part of spaces in which generations of families have been taught by many of the same staff and educators. When a teacher knows the parents of a student from church, when a former student comes to drop their daughter off for their first day of class, or when an entire neighborhood turns out for a school event, a foundation is laid for a kind of learning that cannot occur when educators share no geography, history or culture with their students. Education undertaken as both a longterm and a local effort does not only generate learning governed by an understanding and sense of community which is impossible to replicate. Further, it opens the door the struggles, needs and concerns of that community to enter into the classroom in ways they might never be able to otherwise. For education to be effective, and for learning communities to be genuinely that, educators, families and students need to build bonds outside of the curriculum, outside of the classroom, and be ready to rely on them in the face of conservative reforms. This kind of organizing can only take place through a long, committed process of investment and connection which requires that teachers become a part of the communities they teach outside of the structure of school.

As young educators, and particularly as those who take an interest in the wellbeing and empowerment of disenfranchised communities, there is a great deal of pressure placed on us–sometimes by academic institutions, sometimes by private projects, but most frequently by a culture which does not question the benevolence of schooling–to go out into communities which are not our own and implement someone else’s idea of education for oppressed people. Returning home to teach has given me the opportunity to revisit the people and places which had a hand in shaping my own identity as a learner and community member, from the perspective of an educator rather than a student. It has forced me to think about the nature and needs of my own town and neighborhood, the aspects of my own education which did and did not work for me, and why.

Having the chance to do this before stepping out into a new community has been invaluable, because it has given me time to meditate on what elements of my own community hold the power and knowledge which can help me move forward in my quest for radical learning. It has reminded me to trust the wisdom of people over the institutions which house them, and to approach education as a commitment to those people more than anything else.

2 responses to “Taking Inventory: The End of a Year Teaching at My Old Elementary School

  1. “A vision of justice which excludes or ignores certain voices–including voices of privilege–is only devising new forms of silence, marginality and erasure.”
    Thank you! I struggle with voicing this idea because, living with and standing with oppressed peoples for most of my life, it feels like a betrayal to advocate for this even though that is what I often inherently believe.

    • Thank you! I think this teaching is one which is counterintuitive for me, given what my experience of education has been, and in which spaces I have found empowerment as an oppressed learner. Yet it is definitely one of the significant lessons I am taking from this year, and I am going to need to keep reflecting on how I see it manifesting itself in the kinds of learning communities I hope to be a part of building.

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