Two weeks ago, 9 USEP members attended the Florida Education Association’s Delegate Assembly, our state union annual convention, where we conducted the regular business of approving our state union’s budget, debated several business items and positions for our state union and elected a representative to the National Education Association’s Board of Directors. We witnessed an incredible conversation on institutional racism with students, community activists, educators and our FEA leaders, with the most powerful statements coming from the students. The session was moderated by David Johns, the director of the White House’s Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
The students spoke about their feelings while in school, which teachers and staff made them feel safe and cared for, and which teachers and staff made them feel worthless and a bother. The students’ comments were pointed and gripping. One student from Miami talked about just getting by in Elementary School and Middle School and feeling like she did not matter until she had a high school teacher who, as she put it, “actually cared about me.” This teacher who cared about her was at the FEA DA and is the Miami-Dade County Teacher of the year, Precious Symonette.
As powerful as the students were, Ms. Symonette made the most powerful statement of all. She told her story. When she began teaching, she worked hard to get the highest ratings possible. All her evaluations were perfect, and she was viewed as a model teacher. She thought she was at the pinnacle of her career, a great teacher, until one of her students did what she asked. Ms. Symonette had her middle school students write in a daily journal. One of her students wrote one day about how she hated her life and wanted it to end. She wrote about cutting her wrists each day when she got home from school hoping it would be her last day. As Ms. Symonette said, this was the day she realized that she was not the great teacher she thought she was; she realized she was a teacher who had failed her students.
As she proceeded, she said this was when she realized that the marks on her evaluations were not important; it was the students who were. That child has succeeded. She is doing well in college now and on a path to a successful future. Ms. Symonette says the child considered herself a success, but as Ms. Symonette put it, she sees the child as a hero, her hero. This child made her rethink her impact as a teacher and what was truly important. It is not the tests or the evaluations, it is the children.
It was evident that Ms. Symonette is an awesome teacher as acknowledged by not only her students, but her colleagues who selected her as the Miami-Dade Teacher of the year. What made her story stand out is that she demonstrated that even as a highly rated model teacher she realized that she was not having the impact on her students she thought she was having. That is a powerful lesson!
We all came into this profession, whether teacher or SRP, with the hopes of making a positive impact on kids. Too often testing, a rigid curriculum, and our evaluations seemed to get in the way of what we want to accomplish. If we are really honest, sometimes our own biases get in the way too.
We all have had those very challenging students. The question we need to ask is why is that child so challenging? What is going on in that young life that is impacting their behavior? What can I do to help this child or young adult?
Some people say we cannot save all of them. We can, but it takes all of us to do so. USEP will be exploring, as the District is, the institutional racism that exists in our schools, like it does in all schools. We must face it head on, and we, the office specialists, instructional assistants, custodians, bus drivers and assistants, and teachers, are the ones who have to lead the change that will end the practices and perceptions that disadvantage some of our children.
Please take a little time and watch the two segments from the FEA- DA, the discussion on institutional racism, which last about 90 minutes, and the presentation by Ms. Symonette’s students, the Viking Freedom Writer, which is about 9 minutes long. You can watch both videos here, http://www.myfeatv.com/videos/2016-delegate-assembly/.