When I heard of Abdul Wright, the 2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, I knew I needed him to speak at our inaugural Black Male Educators Convening in October 2017. Read his blog post below and you’ll see why.
And, while the official Teacher Appreciation Week was earlier this month, those who know realize that genuine appreciation for our teachers is and must be all year long.
I come from nothing. I was reminded of this at a tense board meeting in which a member from the community, upset with my opinion on something, shouted out, “Mr. Wright, I remember your interview. You were living in your car, do you remember that?”
Of course I remembered that. I wouldn’t be where I am without the struggles that I’ve gone through in my life. However, I also know that my life has been a constant balancing act of struggle and grace and compassion given to me by strangers, teachers and community. My lived experiences have shaped my views on education, my philosophy on teaching, and the importance of equity and its role in our schools, community and society.
When I was living in that car, searching for my first teaching opportunity, I knew all of those things because of the different people who played a role in my life. Specifically, the teachers and community people that helped changed the trajectory of my life. People created a foundation for me to fail and more importantly, get back up.
When I reflect on some of the things I’ve witnessed as an educator, it is devastating to see young people not given these opportunities. At times, I feel helpless. Like nothing I do is enough or could ever be enough to truly give these babies what they need and deserve. Some of the young kings and queens I serve daily are inflicted with so many traumatic experiences, from homelessness to parental incarceration to verbal and physical abuse by the very people who are supposed to raise and nurture them into adulthood.
WHEN MY STUDENTS’ PARENTS FAILED HIM, WE STEPPED IN
Whenever I think of struggle or trauma, I think about a young man, who was in special education as a seventh- and eighth-grader. His dad was absent from his life since his mom kicked him out after years of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. The mom fell into a deeper depression. The young man finished seventh grade with very few people, other than his special education teacher, knowing the daily trials and tribulations he endured.
He came back the next year noticeably more focused and determined. Nothing in his home life had changed. The only thing that changed was his realization that school was his safe space, his place of comfort.
But two months into the school year, he stopped showing up to school. Our truancy flags were raised. The special education team reached out to his mom, who hadn’t reported his absences, and what we found out was even more alarming. Not only had the young man not been at school, but he had also ran away from home and had been missing for over a month. Two months went by with no sign of this young man.
Then, as fate would have it, he showed up at school as if nothing had happened. Our social worker quickly reached out to the police and his mom and his special education teacher. All of them, along with the assistant principal and me, came together and we had an “intervention.” As we sat in this office, something became crystal clear: Love was absent.
There was a lot of back and forth going on, and finger pointing, until we got to a point in the conversation where we asked both the son and mother to stand up and hug each other. The mother refused.
His mom hadn’t seen him in months and refused to hug him. Just typing these words breaks my heart all over again. By law, we had to let them leave together and his mom took him home and a few hours later he left again.
Eventually, we got a hold of him, got him back to school, and put systems in place. Got him a bed at a homeless shelter for at-risk youth. Got him a cellphone to communicate with the program, his family and staff at school. Once he got to school, he had people he checked in with, people who helped him get his meds when needed and refills when he ran out.
Today he has love in his life and he knows it. He got back to being that young man with purpose. That makes my heart happy.
EQUITY DOESN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT LOVE
What happened in this situation is equity. What is equity? Equity is having the ability to see yourself as successful, or as important. Knowing that you belong. That you matter. That you can make a difference.
Equity doesn’t happen without compassionate, selfless, loving people who choose to give, even when they don’t have to. These are the types of individuals who changed my life and who have changed this young man’s life for the better.
What happened in this situation was no miracle. It was the strategic implementation of systems that were designed around his individual needs. Without these systems, there is no hope or belief or feeling of importance. What so many of our youth who come from less than ideal situations need are systems that don’t fail them. Systems that are designed and implemented specifically for them. That is equity.
Equity transcends skin color, income, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, you name it. There are young people of all demographics who are crying out for help. No, they are screaming. They are angry with what hasn’t been done for them and they are rebelling against systems that were never meant for them to be successful.
What gives me hope are stories like this, because the people involved in this student’s life are indicative of educators across this great nation. There are teachers and support staff and administrators working and serving our babies daily.
I thank you. I thank you because y’all are the hope. Our babies see it. And they’ve learned from your compassion and your courage and they are beginning to use their voices in ways that we could have never imagined. They are the change that we’ve yearned for and it feels pretty damn good to see this evolution of what equity is.
Teachers, nurses, support staff—who are the heartbeat of a school—keep pushing. Community members, keep looking for ways to give and hold stakeholders accountable to the creation of equitable systems that give all young people the ability to thrive and succeed and own their importance.
We as a nation have a long way to go. But we are so much further than we’ve ever been in this journey to embolden the words written by our founding fathers that certain truths are self-evident: All men are created equal. See, yes, we were created equal. But we haven’t all been given an equal opportunity. Let’s be a part of giving all of our royal youth the inalienable rights they deserve.
This blog was originally posted on Education Post’s blog page.
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.