This February, students across the country celebrate Black History Month. For my kids, the content was familiar —black history is American history, and I weave those themes into many of my academic, character and leadership lessons throughout the year. I know this material carries special weight for my students, because as they learn about the struggle of the past, they’ll begin to recognize it in their own present.
I am an assistant principal in a community rich in history and the contributions of people of color. The Greenwood District in Tulsa was once home to many of the nation’s wealthiest blacks and booming businesses, but in the 1920s “Black Wall Street” was burned to the ground. Nearly 100 years later, my students recognize the struggles of the past in their own present when they turn on the news and see another person who looks like them lose their life to senseless violence, the negative stereotypes of north and east Tulsa black and Latino youth and the lack of economic growth in neighborhoods of color. These lessons are anything but history.
In my school, the histories of people of color aren’t confined to one month or one week. Instead, the history of all people is interwoven into many of the academic, character and leadership lessons throughout the year. We’ve had many conversations surrounding our personal history — from acts of injustice to stories of triumph — and how to channel the perseverance and strength of leaders and difference makers throughout history as we overcome oppression and inequity in our country today.
My students live in a historically racially divided city. They have pride in their community, but witness injustice and inequity firsthand. Numbers and statistics often tell their story, and they sometimes find it hard to strive for success in a society that allows the color of their skin or where they’re from to determine their path in life. The reality of separate and unequal endures, but we must work to dispel these damaging assumptions. Last school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are students of color. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.
I joined Teach For America to help further education opportunities for all students, and my motivation hasn’t wavered. Now in my sixth year as an educator, I am proud of the leaders and advocates my students have become. They are breaking stereotypes and overcoming barriers every day.
When my students and I reflect on themes that are illustrated throughout history we see grit, optimism, self-control, social intelligence and an unwavering charge to open the doors of freedom and equity to all people. In our hallways these themes are salient. They live in the depictions on the walls of civil rights leaders. They live in the high expectations given by teachers driving the message home that “you can do all things.” We are driven to make sure all students leave our school with the vision to get to and through college.
Overcoming acts of injustice in the past that have created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change agents committed to guiding students down the path of success. Whether you decide to enter the profession through traditional pathways or alternative ones like Teach For America, choose to teach and you can be at the forefront of change. You can influence the future leaders of our community. We can work together to remind all kids that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.
Anthony Grant is a 2010 UCSB and Teach For America-Oklahoma alum. He earned his Master’s in Education Administration from the University of Oklahoma and is currently working on his Ed.D. Grant is Assistant Principal at Marian Anderson Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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