With more students entering schools dealing with issues such as homelessness and hunger, as well as emotional and physical trauma, educators are expected to address those social and emotional issues while carrying out their primary duties as academic facilitators. Fair or unfair, that is the reality of being an urban school educator.
With the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, I’m even more compelled to further my impact as an educator. With every death, I’m reminded that it could easily be one of my students caught in the crossfire of racism and hate. That feeling alone is enough for me to keep fighting even when my gas tank is on “E” and the tread of my tires is wearing off. More than ever, we all have to do more to support our students and families. The further we extend our impact outside of the classroom, the greater impact we will have on our students, families, and colleagues, and the communities we serve. The revolutionary cry for humanity during these unprecedented times is calling for us to awaken our spirits, even if it comes with “the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance,” as the great James Baldwin eloquently stated.
Student advocacy is at the heart of our work as educators. Educators such as Akbar Cook, Bettina Love, and Sharif El-Mekki exemplify what it means to truly advocate for young people and the greater community. These educators personify the concept of authentically active community engagement, which is the ability for educators to engage and build positive relationships with students, families, colleagues, and the outside community in a genuine and attentive manner. As educators, we can achieve this level of engagement at the classroom, school, neighbourhood, state, national, and international levels in the following ways.
Beginning-of-year conferences, building a class website, and starting a class newsletter are examples of actions that help keep students and families informed about assignments, projects, resources, and other classroom-related activities. In some classrooms, teachers may designate a class parent who will help in organizing fundraising events, purchasing supplies, and recruiting other parents to assist in the operation of the classroom. Lunch groups and restorative circles also help in building trust and gaining respect from your students.
There are a number of ways that we can engage with our school communities. This may include starting or participating in an extracurricular activity such as organizing a school dance or a debate team. It could be taking on a leadership role to facilitate professional development workshops, mentor new teachers, or support other staff members within the school. For those into athletics, coaching a school sports team is another option.
Generally, local businesses and organizations look to partner with neighbourhood schools to support extracurricular events or community service projects such as organizing a clothing drive for a homeless shelter, painting a community mural, and starting an urban garden. With budget cuts looming over many school districts nationwide due to Covid-19, teachers can obtain sponsorships as a financial supplement to help alleviate the cost of textbooks, food, field trips, and other essential school resources. Townhall meetings and school district hearings also serve as opportunities for teachers to learn more about issues that directly impact their students’ neighbourhoods.
STATE AND NATIONAL LEVEL
At this level, teachers can join a state or national educational organization such as the National Education Association to network with other educators. Teachers should also stay informed on policies implemented by the Department of Education and analyze how the implementation of these policies directly impacts their work as educators. If there are any policies that make it difficult for them to do their best work and support their students, they can write a letter, make a call, or start a petition to express concerns to their elected officials.
Starting an international pen-pal program is a great way for students to connect with children in other countries and learn about what’s happening in other parts of the world. With virtual meeting tools such as Google Meet and Zoom, teachers can virtually network with educators in other countries and share best practices with one another. The Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program also allows for these connections to take place.
As educators, we sometimes allow our minds, bodies, and souls to be overburdened by the collective hardships of our students. These burdens can serve as the fuel we need to continually fight for the issues and causes that truly matter. We recognize the need to take a more innovative approach to problem-solving when conventional methods aren’t yielding the desired outcomes. Although other people may believe it’s impossible to make a significant change, we educators have long since overcome that belief.
Educators, our time to act is now! Are you ready to pass the community engagement test?
By Kwame Sarfo-Mensah