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An afternoon spent with Baruti Kafele and Chaunté Garrett is inspiring and thought-provoking. Both are skilled presenters and brilliant individuals. Kafele has spent many years as a teacher and principal in Newark, N.J., and has written several books. Garrett works in Rocky Mount, N.C., as a chief academic officer.
Kafele's Sunday session, "Critical Questions for Inspiring Classroom Excellence: The Teacher 50," was designed, in his words, to make his audience uncomfortable. His goal was to have us looking at and challenging ourselves to ensure we're bringing the best of ourselves for our students. His argument is that the attitude of the teacher is critical for students. Our students may be facing many issues outside of school, but we are unable to control those. We do control our classroom. We do control our beliefs about our students. One of his questions that really struck me was, "Are my students at an advantage because I am their teacher?" If the answer to that question isn't yes, why isn't it? What do your students need to be at an advantage because of you?
Kafele's story, as a high school dropout who returned to finish and become an educator, is a powerful one. He understands the struggles students face. But he doesn't see those struggles as excuses. He believes that every student is brilliant, worthy, and full of power. Our role as teachers, principals, and others is to ensure students know that we believe this and that it is true. Our attitude, our beliefs about our students, makes a huge difference in their lives. They matter, and so do we.
There was a lot of conversation in Kafele's session as we struggled with his questions. It is important to see what we are doing for our students, as well as what they still need from us. It can be uncomfortable to look at ourselves that closely, but it is the only way we can improve and do better for our students.
Garrett began her Sunday session, "Critical Race Theory: Where the Conversation Begins," with a discussion about the academic achievement gap, and participants were quick to share their thoughts about the struggles teachers and schools face.
One of the challenges, according to Garrett, is the issue of access. We have students who are unable to access the learning and instruction. Lack of access can be the result of many different factors: social life (what is happening outside of school), educational interactions (what is happening inside the school), culture, socio-economic status, parentage, and the educational institution. It’s important to keep in mind that these factors are not judgment calls and are often out of a student’s control. They are differences, but they not necessarily negatives. Any negative connotation is often the result of society's perception of these factors and manifests itself as racism. Racism, said Garrett, is a significant factor in the academic achievement gap.
Kafele and Garrett focus on the same issues but take different approaches. Where Garrett looks at race primarily academically, Kafele takes a more intellectual approach. Seeing and hearing them both offered a wonderful balance and gave this participant a lot to consider.
Jennifer Orr is a National Board–certified teacher at Lynbrook Elementary in Springfield, Virginia. She has taught elementary school for two decades at various grades in Title I schools. When she’s not at Lynbrook, she can be found on Twitter @jenorr or at www.jenorr.com.
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