THE BLOG
12/15/2015 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2016

Decolonizing Teachers: A Conversation with Magdalena Gomez

Rarely in the field of education do I find someone with such a passion and talent for the work that she can hold a group of 60 teenagers completely captive for an entire afternoon. Such was my first encounter with Magdalena Gomez, public radio contributor, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Teatro V!da, and most recently the author of Shameless Woman, a stunning book of poetry chronicling her experiences in both the Bronx and Western Massachusetts, where she currently resides.

It had been over a year since I had last spoken to Magdalena, but we reconnected over a piece in The Washington Post by Valerie Strauss on Emily Elizabeth Smith's journey as a white educator of students of color. We both found it troubling and disturbing beyond its surface praise. As a white educator who worked primarily with brown children, I realized that the goal of "teachers who look like our kids" deserved a more critical examination. And nobody could better inform my thinking than Magdalena.

Before we started our conversation, she first wanted to know where I discovered my own racial awareness. I can only surmise that my sensitivity comes from attending integrated public schools in North Carolina, where as early as kindergarten we had to learn how to navigate race from the playground to the classroom. Most powerfully for me, an African-American classmate of mine drowned at a birthday pool party. I was in the 3rd grade. The white parents supervising had simply assumed that he knew how to swim.

I can only imagine him looking at all of the white faces in attendance and jumping into the pool with the rest of them, not wanting to attract attention.

By contrast since moving up North, I find that most people in my demographic have spent their entire lives in segregated schools and workplaces. During my graduate studies in teacher education, we were put through the paces of diversity coursework and seminars. Some of these sessions ended with my white (and more affluent) classmates breaking down into tears, similar to Ms. Smith's experience. I was mostly shocked that these courses were revelatory for my teacher education peers. But they absolutely were, and there was often defensive resistance.

So through a series of questions I asked and she answered, Magdalena and I dissected Ms. Smith's story as a means of exposing our national failure to prepare teachers to navigate issues that are critical to a child's identity.

1. What did you find troubling about Emily Elizabeth Smith's story in The Washington Post? What does her story say about the state of teacher education in America?

On the surface, the story is a beautiful one. A young teacher has an epiphany about how her whiteness might keep her from fully understanding the needs of her diverse students. But It is troubling to me that the story is treated as if this is some kind of miraculous revelation worthy of news ink. The subtexts of the article are what most interest me. The fact that she didn't come to this realization during her training to become an educator, but rather via a fifth grader: "A student told me I couldn't understand because I was a white lady."

To Ms. Smith's credit, she chose self-reflection and positive action over defensiveness. However, I have to ask, where is the Academy in all of this? What kind training fails to address the obvious, when it is a known fact that the majority of U.S. teachers working with students of color are white and female? Are the discussions of class, access, whiteness and privilege taking place prior to sending young teachers into communities they may only know from a safari-like perspective? I use the term safari from my countless experiences of hearing potential college interns say: "I want to help them." "I want to empower them." "I feel so bad for poor people." Discussions are far removed from the "we" or providing tools of self-determination so that people may "empower" themselves. There are more missionaries parachuting into the barrios with answers than visionaries walking in with questions.

Ms. Smith further reveals this void in her education when she refers to her emotional state following the fifth grader's admonition: "I sat there and tried to speak about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried because my children knew about white privilege before I did." The fact that she refers to her students as "my children" betrays yet another deficit in her education regarding the use of paternalistic language. It should not be the role of an educator to parent by proxy, but to elicit the inherent gifts, strengths and courage of their students, so they may grow in the skills of self-discipline and independence. I don't wish to be the word police nor do I ascribe to micromanaged political correctness. But word choices when teaching have the power to perpetuate or interrupt a colonial, whiteness dominant mindset.

Ms. Smith also refers to Latino culture. There is no such thing. We are not a monoculture, but many cultures of diverse dialects, customs, diets, arts, politics, religious practice, etc. Ms. Smith's journey to become an effective educator, as it is for most of us in the field, is in her own hands. It is the rare program that will teach her the nuances of embedded white supremacy even in the minds of the most well-intentioned people. The devil is not in the details, but in their absence. Ms. Smith is doing righteous work with the tools she's been given, but it is incomplete work.

When I address the shortfalls of Academia, many respond by blaming the parents or adults who have raised the children. I hear the bootstrap underscore from administrators, teachers, professors, and even parents with educational and economic stability: "It all has to start with the parents." First of all, not all children live with their biological parents. In addition, according to the 2013 U.S. Census, 2,483,539 children in U.S. schools experienced homelessness. Economic realities, stressors, inadequate housing, health concerns, food deserts and limited educational and transportation opportunities will play a role in what parents, or other adults raising children, may or may not be able to offer our students by way of understanding the world beyond their immediate communities.

When I worked in Holyoke, Massachusetts (the first industrially planned city in the U.S.), there were students from the tenements and projects at the "bottom" of the hill who, at age seventeen, had no idea that there were mansions and safe neighborhoods a little over a mile away in their own home city. Most of them froze when trying to understand a restaurant menu for the first time. "Please" and "thank you" had to be re-learned when dealing with waitstaff. They weren't rude; they simply didn't know what was expected of them.

"Whiteness" is a mindset that can be implanted into anyone who has been indoctrinated by a Euro-centric education. There is an urgent need to challenge school curriculums at every stage of development, where we are mostly included in the roles of victims or celebrities: Black people as slaves; Latinos as sports figures; all Asians rolled into a ball of Bollywood, martial arts, happy hula dancers and sexless techies. First Nations Peoples are mostly portrayed as past tense. I can assure you that we are still raising children and educators who refer to Latinos as "Spanish people" and who will give blank stares when hearing "First Nations". The fact that we still teach Columbus as a discoverer and not as an invader, that a teacher can look at me after I mention that I'm Puerto Rican (or my preferred choice, Boricua) and say "you don't look it" in front of students, are symptomatic of the conversations we aren't having regarding institutionalized racism, stereotyping and that cozy rice and beans multiculturalism that passes itself off as inclusion.

2. What harm do all students suffer from studying predominantly white authors?

In an increasingly global marketplace, we must constantly interact with diverse cultures. A monochromatic education diminishes the effectiveness of human communication, everyday interactions and negotiations. Cultural competence is imperative to workforce development in any field, from the arts, to medicine, to the corporate boardroom. You must have an understanding of your audience to attract them and empathy and connection to keep them.

3. Is it enough to appoint one author as a representative of a group (i.e. Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison) if the rest of the curriculum is still focused on white men?

This question brings an onslaught of memories; places where I've been invited to speak with the unspoken expectation that I could represent all Latinos, thereby absolving the institution of any further need for meaningful programming during "Hispanic" month. After all, with Junot in the curriculum and me at the podium, what more could they want? Backs get slapped, wine glasses clink, I call it out and spoil the self-congratulatory party. Oh, and then don't get invited back. There are entire worlds being ignored or marginalized as the inclusion conversations remain, for the most part, Black and White. School children grow up thinking that the entire Civil Rights movement revolved around Rosa Parks and Dr. King. Then there's the Black conversation that leaves Black Latinos in the limbo of "What are you? What box do I put you in?"

4. Is it always better for students of color to have teachers of color?

Not if those teachers have colonized minds. It isn't enough for an educator to look like the child; ALL educators must have cultural competence, regardless of melanin or culture. In case you're wondering, I avoid the word "race" whenever possible, since it is biologically arbitrary, just as ethnicity is fluid. These terms are accomplices of white supremacy and not fact-based realities. While it is absolutely important that children see themselves reflected in their adult models, it is of equal importance that their models be people of social conscience, with expansive world views and empathy, who have the humility to know that none of us have all of the answers. Learning is life-long, however, we need to pace ourselves in ways that help us meet our responsibilities, such as learning all that we can about the people we interact with, both in life and business. Allegorically speaking, a person who visits, let's say, Barcelona, and dashes off to eat at McDonald's instead of at a local restaurant, is not a person I would want teaching my child.

5. Why do so many people of color decide not to pursue the teaching profession? What do you think attracts so many white educators to low-income, non-white communities?

I don't have access to the data on this at the moment, nor do I know what kind of data is available on this issue. Both are loaded questions that make my head spin. I can share only anecdotally based on people I have known, and my own experience. I am a teaching artist and never wanted to be a classroom educator, because I find the unreasonable demands placed on educators at all levels are oppressive, unimaginative and highly restrictive. When I've asked friends who are born teachers why they didn't choose the field, the answers fall within the purview of economics and similarly to myself, they do not want to be bound to a system (referring to public education) that was intended to build a compliant work force and not innovative, imaginative critical thinkers. The system is designed to keep people in their lanes, obeying the rules and learning by rote. We get schooled in the system. Our education is the knowledge we pursue on our own and the wisdom we gather along the way.

I have no idea what attracts so many "white" teachers to work in communities of color. I would surmise genuine altruism for some, and an ill-perceived "easy" ride for others. Less checks and balances in poor communities. I am constantly appalled at what schools can get away with in economically oppressed communities, beginning with rust-colored water in drinking fountains, grossly inadequate facilities and schedules so dense that all the joy is sucked out of the school experience. Somewhere in the middle are the true s/heroes, motivated by the understanding that we become more of who we are when we engage in reciprocal, humanely paced, and inclusionary education. Those who dare to challenge the status quo, who strategically work around the data-driven madness. Those who struggle with and defy outdated systems, who by their example encourage students to become their most productive, essential, dynamic, informed and true selves.

Note: The Center for American Progress has identified a "leaky pipeline" for teachers of color, citing a variety of factors from low enrollment in teacher education programs to higher attrition rates based on well-known salary and prestige issues.

6. How would you describe your ideal teacher preparation program?

Preparation for any career begins on the first day of school for every child. That first experience and interaction with the teacher will launch a journey with either trust or mistrust. Joy or fear. I have the utmost respect for passionate early childhood educators who understand the enormity of their responsibility in the forming of a young mind. My ideal program for educators would include lessons in self-care and self-esteem building, since we tend to treat others the way we treat ourselves. Self-loving and confident people make the best educators.

To become the most well-rounded and balanced human being possible not only builds great teachers but is applicable to any life and career choice. The cultivation of passion for enduring learning, empathy and intentional human connections would be at the core of all the training.

Character training would begin in pre-school. K-12 education would include the age-appropriate and incremental learning of a martial art, yoga or other physical, personal discipline. Students would train in CPR and First Aid to instill a sense of social responsibility, learn to converse in at least one foreign language, and achieve basic fluency in American Sign Language. Everyone should study abroad for at least six months.

The curriculum would include human sexuality and relationship negotiations; healthy eating and thinking habits; arts integration across the curriculum; and for those interested in education, learning about the most revolutionary and effective educational programs already in place throughout the world.

I would begin a program for students to connect with authors from around the world via Skype or other evolving technologies. Literature and arts would be inseparable. Students would participate in bringing texts to life through and with the performing and multimedia arts. Howard Gardner's theory on the Multiple Intelligences, released in 1983, would not only be taught, but intentionally applied. Rarely do I see his theory in comprehensive practice. (Frankly, I applied Gardner's theories before I ever heard of him or his theory. To me, they fall into the category of common sense.)

As part of their training to become educators, candidates would be brought into the communities where they desire to work and meet with people from that community, especially young people, and learn as much as they can about what that community is interested in learning. Candidates would be trained beyond their comfort zones in an artistic discipline that is new to them. For example, one with an interest in abstract art might take up the cello; a flamenco dancer might study the Japanese Koto. Someone who declares themselves as having "no creativity" gets an extra semester of stretching their creative muscles, ha! Candidates should have a working knowledge of how to use social media and all current technology. Part of the teacher training would include how to get materials donated, how to write grants, how to create business and community partnerships and spend time in deeply human community service, such as volunteering in a pediatrics ward or in a prison.

There is so much more we must do for young educators who exhibit passion for their students. We must all continue to encourage and support the Emily Elizabeth Smith's of the world. We just can't stop at the congratulations.

There is so much we all still have to learn.