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The Risky Business of Teaching

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

There is nothing more special than watching your student’s face light up when they “get it.” When they arrive at that place where knowledge meets understanding and a spark ignites. That moment when the metaphorical “light bulb” goes off and you witness their sense of accomplishment and self-confidence blossom. It is here that their belief in their own ability grows. It is here that their belief in themselves grows too. It becomes a bit stronger, a bit firmer. A smile comes across their face, the pace in their step lightens, and their eyes are a little brighter. For teachers, these moments are paramount to students enjoying their educational journey. Good teachers will try any and everything in order to make that happen for students everyday, and I mean each and everyday.

Teachers will vary resources, try new texts to teach, consider the latest and greatest in pedagogical approaches, plan school trips around the block and around the world, and invite guest speakers to come share their expertise. Teachers will wake up early and sleep late, wear silly costumes and decorate every single inch of their classroom – all in an effort to help kids feel that spark. Even with all of that effort and work, there are still way too many teachers instructing our children from a very limited lens. Teaching with the best of intentions but creating harmful learning for students, especially for Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) students, and even more so for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Pansexual, Transgender, Genderqueer, Queer, Intersex, Agender, Asexual and other queer-identifying (LGBTQIA+) students. Now imagine identifying as both.

Imagine being a child expected to care about learning and development in an environment where the narratives, books, characters, examples and voices shared look and sound nothing like them. Imagine being a child expected to enjoy school when what the educator offers leaves out anything of personal interest. Imagine being a young person expected to do well in school when parts of their intersectionality are not even acknowledged or affirmed. And when characters are introduced, the narrative is often filled with trauma and suffering. Ask yourself, who was the last character of color you introduced to your students who didn’t come from trauma and pain? When was the last time you read for your own edification a story of a person of color whose narrative wasn’t steeped in trauma? Who’s the last queer BIPOC person that you have read?

Schools will teach what is “safe” and stay from what is “risky” or uncomfortable. That same culture permeates the institution and before long, the definition of risky starts to change. Eventually, certain texts and people and places are omitted from narratives. Key figures who helped shape our society are never mentioned or worse, parts of them are never mentioned. They are erased because it is easier to be safe than to be right. They are erased because it is easier to teach what one is used to than what should be. We will intimately study Beethoven but not Basquiat? We freely throw around J.K. Rowling books but not the works of Audre Lorde. Why? Do we really want the youngest to not see all that we have been and all that we could be?

For me, it is important that as children start to realize themselves we show them all they could be and should be. Research has shown us that student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) programming starts to wan off for students of color (especially female-identifying students of color) as early as the fifth grade. Why is that? For the most part, the content has not changed. I think it has a lot to do with HOW we approach the subject. Yes, we teach George Washington Carver when Black History Month rolls around, but how long before we introduce the work of Katherine Johnson (NASA)? Mae C. Jemison is our first Black woman astronaut (still living) and yet do our students know her? How about the work she’s doing now? Even the multi-billion dollar industry of video gaming has to give its credit to Black pioneering inventor Jerry Lawson, who is responsible for creating the game cartridge that was the premiere device for games for decades. Do your students know of him? We credit the greek philosopher Pythagoras for his contributions to geometry and at the same time NEVER give respect to the other ancient African, Latinx and Asian civilizations for doing the same exact thing. When do we share these narratives of Black and brown excellence? More importantly, is it fair for us to expect students to be excited about learning content when our narratives omit the parts of the story that look and move like they do?

We share every narrative and introduce voices into unheard spaces. We take the “risk” to teach to the whole child because the whole child has always been the focus. Our fears be damned because you don’t get around to safety, you go through to safety. Silence is what makes all of this unsafe and harmful. We must hold the space for knowledge to grow and information to be shared, even when we don’t hold all the answers. We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable because none of this is about us, it’s about them. So let’s stop making what’s not difficult, difficult. In my practice, I like to follow these several guidelines:

1. Create the space to talk about the subject (even if it doesn’t connect directly to your lesson). You will be surprised how much MORE students are happy to learn what you are teaching when you actually take the time to listen to what’s on their minds/hearts first.

2. Make it clear that all opinions are valued and honored and safe here unless they cause harm to another. There is a difference between dialogue and debate.

3. Prepare with facts and shut up. Your job in this case is to facilitate the conversation and its direction. Having (vetted) facts help to not only steer the conversation but also keep the climate calm.

4. Finally the fourth guideline is follow-up, circle back and follow through. The energy of that conversation should not just end there. I reflect on what future work needs to be done. I think about any student who might have shared something personal or deeply connected, and I follow up with that individual to check-in and see how things are. You’d be surprised how helpful that one is. Sometimes the conversation isn’t finished in one gathering. I’ll plan a follow-up conversation to see/understand if there have been shifts in student thinking and if there is feedback in terms of what the school or I as a teacher can do in order to make students feel more affirmed and comfortable. If so, there’s where my energy and effort must go.

Teachers love their students, and love is an action.

Something has to move and be done. I recognize that teachers do not control the direction that school goes and yet we have immense power. We can still positively impact, grow and teach the WHOLE child while we focus on scores, test grades and reputation. For me, this notion that we can’t is based in fear not love. We cannot ask children to be fearless while we cower. Children will always see us before they hear us. So if this sounds like a risk, that’s because it is. Teaching is risky and brave business. This is the work we should be doing because ultimately we all learn something and that’s good news.


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Alexus Bertrand is a noted professional educator and content creator. For 19 years and counting, Alexus has served in various capacities in education from mathematics teacher & specialist to coach to vice-principal. He has student-led organizations that foster educational support, employment / post-high school opportunities, and community-building. Overall the past 5 years, Alexus has been helping to redesign math curriculum and teaching through the lens of diversity, equity, & inclusive practices. Currently, Alexus is serving as a mentor, math teacher, math specialist, and Equity Chair of the Middle School. Alexus is co-advisor to the Dimensions; a student-led club that connects all students of color through community building and activism. One of Alexus’s proudest achievements to date is being a co-founder of Hero-Con. The Dalton School’s (first and now annual) Superhero-Comic book-Video Game-Literary Convention, a social justice event that connects the community with noted artists, authors, and talent who all leverage their art in the name of justice and awareness. In his spare time, he’s a video game streamer, singer/songwriter, and soon-to-be podcaster.

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