Talent, Systems, and Accountability or Excuses: Educating the Black Child

“I am not accountable for the violence, drugs, pregnancy…in my school.”

I wasn’t surprised by this final retort. It was tweeted to me by a seasoned educator. I don’t doubt she loves her students. And judging by some of her lesson plans I had the pleasure of reading, she works hard to help her students gain academic skills. But, there is a clear disconnect in the role of a school and what the possibilities are to influence and deconstruct barriers to students’ success.

As a turnaround school principal, I am often asked what are the key ingredients in turning the 2nd most violent school in Philadelphia into one of the safest. They want to know how a school that was seeped in a decades-long culture of chaos was able to reinvent itself into a school of achievement and community.

Top Talent, Aligned Systems & Accountability

There are many reasons, but I always respond with the same foundational three. The three that are adult-facing; Top Talent, Aligned Systems, and Accountability.

Top Talent

As a school leader, I need a high achieving staff that has a high level of self-efficacy. Intellectual warriors doing the emotional work of educating youth. I look for those who have a combination of content expertise and a growth, yet fixed, mindset. Growth because they know that everyone in our community can achieve, including students and staff. Fixed, because I need partners in this work who are hell bent on establishing a community that holds student liberation and educational justice at the forefront and who have the talent and ethics to bake love and outcomes into their work.

Securing top talent is crucial if our school is going to be an effective partner for our families and community to address seemingly intractable forms of oppression. Top talent works in solidarity with the community it serves.

We don’t believe that we can solve all of society’s ills, but we know that the foundation for liberation is through great education. That is our wheelhouse. Securing and supporting Top Talent with a high level of self-efficacy and the right mindset is step one.

Aligned Systems

Not the paralyzing systems that feed bureaucracies. We want to ensure that our entire school ecosystem is reinforcing achievement. There are simple questions that schools can begin with to check how they are doing with aligning systems.

Are there staff members who work with students needing any kind of supports? Do they talk to teachers? Do non-instructional staff understand what the school’s academic goals are? Have they internalized that every time a student is absent for any reason, that absence undermines the academic goals of the school? Do people make announcements during instructional time that cause hard working teachers to pause their instruction? How long are transitions? Do lunch transitions ever really end?

By taking a look at the dozens of systems within a school, staff can determine which systems reinforce or undermine achievement of all types.

Accountability

Embraced by some educators, dreaded by many.

And, I don’t mean the accountability of an outsider hovering over my shoulder to ensure I am doing right by kids. Only the lowest performing educators need that. I speak of accountability of the highest order.

When I first began teaching, my mentor and coach, Mrs. Yvonne Savior asked questions that spoke to my mindset. She asked me if children whose families struggled with poverty or trauma (or both) could be educated at the highest levels.

Mrs. Savior didn’t ask me about what a just society would do. She didn’t ask me what my principal would do. Every question centered on what I felt I could do to help a struggling student. I didn’t know the technical answers of many of her questions, but I innately felt responsible and could influence children by having the right mindset, great instruction, and a warm, welcoming, respectful, and engaging classroom that students would be eager to embrace.

These would prove to be tried and true methods in room 306 when I began teaching students, many of whom felt wounded from some unspeakable trauma.

Too many educators wait and wail

I am not advocating that educators work in isolation, not involve others in our work, or absolve the responsibility politicians and other power brokers have. Hardly. Having power in society means leveraging one’s public office to undergird our schools with the necessary support systems and safety nets to pad the falls that may happen.  A system that is bereft of real supports for the thousands of school age children is barbaric.

But, what I am saying is that educators know that we cannot wait and wail. As school leaders, we can lament the years of systemic oppression, or we can determine how to hire and support the best we can find, develop systems that make sense and are useful, and hold ourselves to the highest levels of accountability for students’ success.

That takes belief in children. It takes belief that families are sending us their best, that they have aspirations for their children and that kids pine for success as well. It means that we look at other people’s children as if they are our own. That is a community. That is what school villages do.

At my school, we aren’t perfect, and we struggle daily. But, we know it’s well worth it-our students deserve our struggle. We also know that our struggles can’t possibly match our students’ struggles. Their families are looking for partners who will hold themselves accountable for their child’s success. Unfortunately, when it comes to Black children, too many people refuse to hold themselves accountable.

When you look at Top Talent, Aligned Systems, and Accountability, accountability is, unfortunately, one of the most fleeting of these must-haves.

“I want to be an educator, but don’t hold me accountable”

Too many people believe that the road to helping Black, Brown, and/or poor students is blocked by an insurmountable brick wall. When we are feeling low levels of self-efficacy, it would behoove us to remember Randy Pausch’s quote, “The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

I want a safe school, free of drugs and violence. I want my school community to help students set goals that thwart teenage and childhood pregnancies. As an educator, I hold myself accountable for positively influencing these potential roadblocks. I strategize to surround my students with a like-minded staff.

How badly do we really want Black, Brown, and poor kids to be successful? What are you doing about it tomorrow?

Do you feel accountable to your community to be successful?

If not, the excuses will rapidly pile up.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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