Unpacking My ‘Why’ As a Culturally Responsive Educator

By April Francis, Social Studies Curriculum & Staff Development Specialist

How does one blog about their passion, their calling? When I thought about blogging for The “Art of Teaching”, I took a pause. I took a pause because I had so many thoughts and emotions, I was unsure as to how to express them. As a woman of color, single mom, and educator for over 16 years, I have had so many unique experiences that I find hard to verbalize. How does one take their love, fears, and hopes and put them into words for others to understand in a comprehensive manner? How do you express your lifelong passion to others without sounding jaded, raw, and unrealistic? Well I will try today…

As a middle child of six children in a working class first-generation family (parents from Jamaica/St.Thomas), I always had innate feeling to want to help others. Maybe it was my spiritual upbringing, or being a middle child with three younger brothers to be an example for, or having an amazing mother and older sister who set a path for me to follow — I cannot pin down the main factor — but I can say that from a young age I knew I wanted to be an educator. I wanted to educate young people regarding the injustices that happened to so many, to help them ensure it would not happen again in the future. In reflection of my young adult teacher goals, I was unaware of how much was entailed in that simple notion.

Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education was an evolving mindset in my early years of preservice teaching, pre-2000. I remember one classmate I was paired with on an assignment to read each other’s classroom observation reflections. After reading my reflection, she was amazed that I wanted to ensure that all students saw themselves in the curriculum I would teach. She expressed to me that, as a white female, she hadn’t even thought about teaching in a diverse community where that would be necessary, because she had aspirations to teach in the district she grew up in, which had zero diversity. That resonated with me. I looked around my class that day in my junior year of undergrad and wondered how many of the other young white women preservice teachers thought this way. How many of these women, who may or may not get a job in their old predominantly white districts, thought about teaching students who didn’t look like them?

Fast forward 18 years later as an experienced social studies teacher and education leader, and I see the repercussions of my former classmates’ lack of base knowledge of educating those who do not look like them (due to no fault of their own, pre-service education programs play a role in that). In a district that was 98% black and Latino, with 75% faculty of white educators, students of color struggled and were stereotyped on a regular basis. So much so, that the district was cited for disproportionately suspending black and brown boys who were classified in the special education program. Later, in a district that was 80% white American, 15% Latino, and 5% other, the story was the same: black and brown boys that were classified were suspended at a higher rate than any other subgroup. Was this just a coincidence or a trend? Were our educational systems to blame? Was this the fruits of institutionalized racism?

So when asked to blog about my “Art of Teaching” I first need to unpack my experiences so that I can breathe and reflect and be the voice I have always wanted to be. What is MY art of teaching? Well, it starts with ensuring that I am teaching the students in front of me and providing curriculum that allows for their learning experience to include “mirrors” of themselves and “windows” of others. Starting there would certainly reframe our present public-school education systems. It will help to humanize the profession and allow us to confront our implicit and explicit biases, to then revolutionize our curriculums and dismantle inequities in education. But it starts with the first step, self-reflection and understanding our “why” as educators.

April Francis is the Regional Social Studies/Blended Learning Curriculum & Staff Developer in Westchester, NY. She holds over 17 years of experience in the education field. April is a former lead social studies classroom teacher, as the Chairperson of Social Studies, ENL, and Foreign Languages, and the Principal of the Twilight Alternative High School in two Long Island school districts. In 2015, April participated on the NYS Teacher Collaborative Council (TCC) that piloted the C3 Framework inquiries. April’s passion for equity in education, has led her to work with professional organizations such as NCSS, NYSCSS (serving as Vice President), NYU Metro Center, NYSTESOL, and the Long Island Consortium for Equity and Excellence (LICEE) in education. She is a contributor to the educational books “Growing a Growth Mindset” by Dr. Kevin Sheehan and Jessica Ryan, and “NYS and Slavery: Complicity & Resistance” by Dr. Alan J. Singer.

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