I never liked speeding and probably check my rearview mirrors more often than needed. It may also sound a bit vain, but I like to look at myself in the mirror several times a day. Every morning I stare at my reflection, squinting to see if anything has changed: searching for any additional gray in my beard, estimating whether or not the crows feet beside my eyes have extended, wondering if my innie belly button has gotten deeper or if its just my stomach that has slightly inflated. I know where I developed an inclination for reflection. I am a Black man born to an immigrant father and a white mother who lives on Indigenous land––my life has always centered around looking at things over and over and from the inside out.
In teacher’s college, I was one of four Black student-teachers in a cohort of sixty. When tasked with reflecting on various points of our school experiences, I observed that I had little in common with almost all the other folks who also wanted to become educators. And if I––a grown man who graduated from similar institutions and pursued parallel career paths––had little in common with these fellow teachers, how did most of the students who grew up in lower socio-economic environments feel?
Most of my friends hated most parts of school. My little brother was kicked out of high school in the tenth grade. My dad never showed up to one parent-teacher meeting. School seemed to be a thing that was imposed on Black boys like me. Something we were compelled to participate in. Something we had to comply with. The deeper I reflected, the closer I felt like I was getting to some of the core reasons why school felt so distant for students like I once was.
When I was a student, it always felt like teachers didn’t really invest themselves in who I was beyond what I could produce on tests and assignments. I was there, in their classrooms, and was treated as if my life in that specific moment represented the complete capsule of my hopes and potential. Nothing beyond the information as it pertained to the curriculum was poured into me. Nothing aside from the black and white academics of that day was inquired about me. I sat at the back of the classroom and merely existed. Only to be monitored if I stepped outside the lines of acceptability––of their acceptability. And when I occasionally did, I was chastised. That was the only time I was implored to “do better”.
Despite what I looked like on the outside, to the outside world, I knew that if I didn’t help challenge and shatter stereotypes, Black boys that looked like the younger versions of myself would look at school the same way my friends and my brother did––the cycle would continue. They had to see men like me exist in roles that extended beyond basketball courts and rap videos. I had to meet them where they were at while fostering opportunities for them to think about who, exactly, they were. I knew that would be key to keeping students who looked like me engaged in the school buildings that never made any attempts to represent their wholeness.
I learned three keys along the way. First was the reality that if we want students who ostensibly don’t align with the “universal student” then the onus is not on them, but on us, as teachers, to provide a learning environment where they feel welcomed, validated, and brilliant. Second was the reality that cultivating an equity-centered environment starts way before and many times in between any curriculum delivery. Third was that in order to create such an environment teachers would need to be themselves.
I’ll admit, the aphorism, “be yourself,” is an overused and vague platitude. It is actually dangerous if merely taken at face value. It has the potential to inspire adults to think that their views and opinions are infallible. The saying subtly encourages teachers to teach from a “holier-than-thou” pedestal. But, by “being yourself”, I mean enter your teaching space as close to the most unbridled version of yourself in order to open up the floodgates for your students to enter as their most unbridled self. That’s where reflection ultimately occurs. I mean being authentic in your relationships with the children you are charged with teaching but I also mean rigorously reflecting on your shortcomings or blindspots as a person, and by extension, an educator.
Reflection, through the lens of continuous learning, protected my students from me. It curates a space where students feel safe in being themselves; willing to talk about their likes and dislikes with the content, the way it’s been taught to them, and their overall observations about schooling. It allowed both them and myself to grow. And to commit to continuous growth. By virtue of continuous reflection.
Growth through the process of reflection is what we need to emphasize in our education circles. That there can’t be taught through a textbook, it can’t be photocopied onto a worksheet, it can’t be read in a teaching guide. It is only begot through the essence of learning itself––moving forward and occasionally taking pauses to look in the mirror. And it is the key to equity driven pedagogy, anti-racist teaching, and abolishing the opportunity gaps we still face today. We just need to look in the mirror every now and then.
[A longer version of this blog was previously published at The Digital Pedagogy Lab]