Photo: Josh Andrus
Kwame Adams, Ed.M.’20
Program Manager | Office of School Transformation, Boston Public Schools | Boston
Since graduating Wesleyan University in 2014, I have taught math within the Boston Public School system. Teaching math has been rewarding, not only because of the growth I have seen students achieve, but because of the ways I was able to shift how families saw math curriculum. What does it mean to have students be able to identify with a course they were often labeled a failure in? How do you get families engaged in the classroom to the point where they will engage beyond parent-teacher conferences? How do you make people feel affirmed and valued in your classroom? These are questions I grappled with on a daily basis. I wanted to ensure my students had the mathematical literacy that would enable them to achieve social mobility.
During my time at HGSE, I thought of the ways in which my practice could extend beyond the classroom and took courses that would further develop my leadership and strategic planning skills.
As I am beginning my new chapter as a member of central office staff, I not only keep those same questions in mind but push leaders to think of them as well. We are in the midst of a pandemic and there are global protests to highlight the ways in which Black lives matter; it is important for leaders to ensure their actions match their words. When you identify as an anti-racist but feel uncomfortable talking about race, how many missed opportunities to build trusting relationships with families and community members go unexplored? How can you identify as anti-racist but feel as though your students are not progressing because they do not like school and no one in their home holds them accountable, rather than critically reflecting on your classroom practices? What are some meaningful ways you are engaging families in your virtual classroom? Human interaction has changed in this climate, and it is important for respect, care, and vulnerability to still be expressed. Families were struggling before the pandemic and “a new normal” has not been established. As a Black man, it is my hope that the humanization of students, their families, and their communities will be more than a “best practice” and seen as common knowledge as we begin to rebuild and reshape our society post-COVID.
Though I have shifted from classroom educator to managerial work, I am still invested in making sure educators see students as humans first, students second. Though students are in that building or video window for hours daily, that is not the most important part of their identities. You cannot safely explore the identities of others until you explore your own through critical reflection. This work is challenging for a number of reasons, considering the lack of human interaction, or the ways in which Google Hangouts, Zoom, and other apps do not allow for a transfer of energy between people. The ways in which we can hold people has shifted also, but we must remember that meaningful human engagement will look the same virtually or in person.
One of the tasks I do to challenge perceived power is I push educators to think of a student or family they had during the school year that they would label difficult. Then I ask them to think of the additional challenges that come with learning virtually. Would your bond be stronger or weaker given the lack of physical space? Most reflect and recognize that a lot of their relationships would falter and attendance would be low. Other teachers have built such strong relationships that family members say hi or check in with them during class meetings. The reasons why their relationships flourish is because of their consistency, high expectations, and desire to get to know students lived experience beyond the schoolhouse.
Educators and school leaders must recognize the ways in which families offer value to school climate and culture. They must recognize the ways in which they uphold and combat racist and/or white supremacist ideologies. If a teacher asks a student during a video call, “Why is your house so loud?” they are showing bias. They are trying to exude power in a space that is not their classroom. A number of students do not have a quiet place in their home, and quite frankly, some of my colleagues lack those spaces also but that does not lessen the quality of their work. It also does not permit anyone to question the conditions they are working under if they do not have an immediate solution to the problem. Rather than making a student feel ashamed of their home environment, educators should think of ways to gauge the conditions students are working under and adjust. We must also continue to push educators to understand how their need for power is rooted in bias, and how these power dynamics do not lead to establishing trust, expressing vulnerability and high expectations, or allowing students and families to have input on curriculum. These power dynamics seek to keep the teacher in control.
Kwame Adams currently works in supporting school transformation efforts in Boston to ensure that students have access to quality educators and affirming curriculum.