I teach like lives depend on it. They do. Lives are at stake. Recognizing the potency of Education in mediating life outcomes for vulnerable people, I approach learning environments as opportunities to change the world. This responsibility informs every pedagogical choice I make as I carefully craft teaching and learning exchanges for students, practitioners, colleagues, and me.
Through a critical lens, I analyze and realize my world, both personally and professionally. This lens has been curated through my experiences and my academic training. I am a critical race theorist trained in cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and the sociology of education. Incessantly, constructive criticism consumes my interactions with myself, others, and my analysis of content—from media, policy, to literature. When examining my teaching evaluations, for example, I look for criticisms first, skipping all accolades initially. Underpinnings of theories and philosophies I espouse demand a critical lens through which to critique ontologies, construct new epistemologies, and create more inclusive, equitable structures, policies, and practices.
Rarely satisfied with how things are, consistently I wonder how conditions should and could be. Consequently, I often engage reflexive practices to assess my pedagogical practices and my relationships with other learners. I wonder to what degree I establish necessary relational foundations of care, trust, and mutuality with students in order to make them comfortable for the rigorous cognitive and emotional work of co-constructing a culturally relevant pedagogy that informs their practice and improves the conditions of the schools they work within, their relationships with students and families, and the overall field of education. If invited to discuss my teaching record with your faculty, I will provide both quantitative and qualitative data provided by students formally and informally to speak to my instructional effectiveness.
In my teaching, I employ a constructivist approach that is grounded in critical and culturally relevant pedagogical theories. Rather than pouring or banking information into students in my courses, students and I work together in processes of inquiry and exploration to co-create meaning. I challenge students in my courses to think critically about their multifaceted roles as learners, teachers, policymakers, and leaders within larger structures of schooling and society. To reach my goals and to acknowledge the wide range of backgrounds and experiences students bring with them to add to the richness of the classroom, I use a combination of whole-class instruction, class discussion, small group collaborative work, and individual tasks during each class meeting. Because of the nature of the information we explore, I frequently use myriad formats to concretize complex concepts. Real life examples and case studies, articles and artifacts complement theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Students routinely pose questions, offer critiques of content, and respectfully challenge their peers’ ideas and assigned authors’ postulations. With an effort to impart a critical lens much like the one I use to see the world, I strongly advise students to feel comfortable in taking course materials to task, and to offer divergent perspectives regarding the content, structure, and assignments. I encourage students to take intellectual risks, and to avoid exclusively concerning themselves with finding the “right answer,” or getting a “good grade.” I am more concerned with students developing a method of engaging with content, recognizing, and challenging multiple perspectives, and honing critical thinking skills. Often, students take the lead in structuring the learning in our classrooms. This involves great risk as they are asked to depart from traditional methods of learning, thus I spend considerable time building community.
Though I have focused here on higher ed classrooms, learning environments are ubiquitous and I teach and learn in diverse spaces. Minoritized students often feel marginalized in predominantly white institutions. A doctoral student approached me after our last class and asked if he could continue learning from me; I invited him to continue learning with me. We have co-authored three articles—one was recently published, another is in review for the Negro Educational Review, and the last has been submitted for review. He often lamented the scarcity in transformative advising and death of scholarly development he received throughout his program. After our UCEA presentation in New Orleans, we decided to support and develop Black scholars. Together we created a fugitive space for graduate students to rest, affirm, celebrate, and transgress with one another. Most importantly, our Vanguard Research Collective (VRC) compels critical self-reflection. We are educators charged with the well-being and development of Black lives. Within the safety, grace, and love of Vanguard, we consider the myriad ways we have ingested and internalized anti-Blackness. Much of our work is devoted to identifying and dismantling our own problematic, anti-Black ideologies, policies, and practices. Our paramount work involves identifying white supremacist anti-Black racism and dismantling it—starting with ourselves. We read, write, present, and publish together. Currently, four of the scholars and I are revising articles examining culturally responsive math instruction and leadership, principals’ roles in leading justice, and leadership preparation programs’ inadequacy in addressing inequities school leaders face in vulnerable school communities. All four manuscripts will be submitted to pre-selected journals by the semester’s end.
Six of the VRC members are Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD) practitioners. My partnership with DPSCD develops leaders focused on equity, justice, and access. Each year, aspiring leaders, mostly teachers, enter Eastern Michigan University’s (EMU) leadership preparation program as they are coached into critical leadership theories to transform Detroit schools. Participants in the partnership, current DPSCD principals, making transformative changes in their schools, coach them. Five of the aspiring leaders—two who now work in the Fisher building—and one principal coach entered the PhD program. This partnership serves as a veritable pipeline of critical Black scholars committed to learning together how to change their communities.
My partnership with DPSCD is just one example of my teaching and learning in schools with practitioners. I also work with Michigan’s Department of Education to bring attention to deleterious outcomes Black students experience in schools. Educators across the state (around 200 each year) convene for six months of learning as we think about persistent problems Black families experience due to educational malpractice their communities suffer. These learning communities are regionally diverse and the knowledge gained reaches every part of the state. Reciprocally, I learn about oppressive policies and practices plaguing Black communities across the state. Those issues help me bring theory to praxis in my EMU classrooms. Learning expands well beyond our monthly ZOOM meetings.
ZOOM has been my saving grace during COVID. My classes, professional development, and research team meetings moved seamlessly to online platforms as I have been teaching virtually for nearly a decade. Hosting two virtual conferences seemed a comparatively easy task. It was not. Nevertheless, we persisted. I serve as the Black Student Union Advisor. In 2019, we hosted our first Black Leadership Summit to bring college students across the state together to identify issues collectively affecting Black students and strategize ways to push for social change, equity, and inclusion. This year, we held an abbreviated Summit in an effort to stay connected. Our attendance numbers were on par with our pervious in-person meetings. Additionally, this year I received a grant to offer a free virtual conference, Centering Black Children in Education, this summer. Nearly 3000 people across the country, from varied professions and representing diverse interests registered for this weeklong convening of brilliant Black women and K-12 student activists. Virtual workshops, keynotes, and seminars provided educative spaces for community organizers, parents, students, educators, researchers, and policymakers to learn together and form coalitions for the improvement of Black school communities.
Since I was five and realized I could not be Diana Ross (I cannot sing), I have wanted to be a teacher. As the lunch lady, substitute teacher, English teacher, counselor, principal, community organizer, consultant, big sister, and parent, I teach and learn. Instruction is not restricted to the classroom and moments of actualization and realization are readily available to us—intentionally curated or serendipitously presented to us. Teaching and learning happen everywhere, all day, every day. I remain open to being both teacher and learner at all times.