We Can Save You, But You Must Leave Your Community

Recently I had the honor of speaking at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year conference. It was great to be in a room with so many accomplished educators who have been recognized by their states as at the top of their games. My message was about “Resisting and Raising Resisters.”

I wanted to convey that we must ensure students are prepared to carry the baton of liberation in their own hands and that they should be prepared to carry this torch and to do this human rights advocacy better than we were.

I also wanted to remind these accomplished educators to be humble, curious, and extremely careful not to undermine their work by sending condescending, disrespectful, and ultimately oppressive messages to students about their homes, families, and communities. There was a time where I would frequently hear about educators telling students that in order to be successful they needed to “escape their neighborhoods.” It never sat well with me and I vowed to send a counter-message. Although I have only worked in three schools as a full-time educator (all in west or southwest Philly), each school brought me closer to the home I grew up in.

When teachers and school staff, send negative messages to students about their neighborhoods, they are shooting arrows at the very psyche of our students. These messages damage students’ well-being, sense of self, and tears at the very foundation of trust schools need to have with their students.

Desiree Martinez captures this colonial mentality eloquently in her recent article in La Comadre. She shares what her teacher told her on the last day of third grade.

I’m extremely proud of how hard each and everyone of you have worked this school year. I have no doubt in my mind that you will all be successful, but I have one piece of final advice for you. You NEED to leave. This environmentthis neighborhoodhas one of the highest rates of gangs, drugs, and crime. There’s nothing here for you, it’s dangerous. You are better than this, don’t get trapped.

“Kill the Indian and Save the Man” Philosophy of Education

This reminds me of the historically oppressive missionary and colonial mentality that led “well-meaning” educators to travel to the South after Reconstruction to “teach” Black children. It also brings to mind the “Indian Schools” that were constructed in America and Canada and the “Indigenous schools” in New Zealand and Australia. These schools, often residential, were all aimed at “bettering” students by stripping them of any and all connections to their communities.

When a teacher—one of the most important role models an inner-city student has—describes a community as unworthy, that teacher denounces and further oppresses a student. South Central is home to my family, my friends, our struggles, our endeavors, and our successes. Encouraging kids from the hood to leave drains the success away from a community, perpetually keeping a disenfranchised community in poverty. The barriers of South Central are not unique and neither is my story. Convincing students—the fruits of a disadvantaged community—that leaving inner cities is the only way to succeed is a direct insult to the effort of the community.

Respect, trust, and humanity must undergird all efforts to partner with families and communities who are pursuing great educational experiences and outcomes for their children. As educators, we should staunchly eradicate the notion that students will only be successful outside of their homes and communities. I was happy that NNSTOY educators, and countless others around the country, are working to address this oppressive mindset wherever they find it amongst their colleagues.

Read the rest of Desiree’s article here.

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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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