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As educators, we must work tirelessly to advocate for students and educators who have endured generations of inequity.

Bringing our history to light can improve our students’ futures

As educators, we must work to understand the historical contexts our students bring into the classroom and advocate for children and educators who have endured generations of inequity

In November 2021, the Institute for Education Innovation (IEI) held its Fall Superintendent Summit at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V.–one of the most stunning resorts in the U.S.

But as with many of the nation’s iconic landmarks, from The White House to Harvard University, the legacy of The Greenbrier is directly tied to the greatest stain on our nation’s legacy: the enslavement of Black people. During the Summit, we invited Toni Ogden and Janice Cooley of the Greenbrier County Historical Society to provide a historical context of our surroundings.

The original resort was built in 1858 largely by enslaved people, and as late as 1910, when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway acquired the property, the company continued to exploit Black workers. African American staff members were expected to cater to the whims of white guests in the style of the old plantations before returning home to overwhelming poverty.

While The Greenbrier goes out of its way to welcome all visitors today, that history still silently lingers throughout the grounds, impacting some more than others based on their identity and lived experiences. An example of the hotel’s legacy could be spotted in the sports bar where several portraits of star athletes lined the walls—all of whom were white. It’s probably the only sports bar outside of Boston that has a picture of Larry Bird, but no picture of Magic. 

Several conference attendees of color, myself included, expressed an unease whenever we ventured outside our tightknit group. White attendees, like Doug, my co-facilitator and co-author, may not have been on the receiving end of the cautious gazes of other resort patrons, but they observed the phenomenon, which became a subject of discussion amongst the IEI community—both in terms of the weekend and in our daily lives as educators.

Like The Greenbrier, every school operates in a historical context by which cultural, economic, political, and environmental factors that emerged decades ago still play a significant role. For instance, Kansas City Public Schools continue to be impacted by redlining, the early 20th-century practice of denying credit to would-be homebuyers in certain neighborhoods based on their race. The level of desolation and blight through which students travel to school is proportional to the legacy of redlining, keeping the city in a perpetual state of segregation.

Our job as a community is to actively understand the historical contexts that our kids bring into the classroom and advocate for children and educators who have endured generations of inequity. IEI has strived to bridge the gap between educators and edtech companies while addressing diversity and inclusion, but there is certainly more we can all do.

1. Pave the path for diversity in educational leadership.

While the percentage of women and educators of color in administrative roles is increasing, it’s a slow climb. Less than one percent of Black teachers beginning their career between 2001 and 2019 stepped into the role of principal by the end of 2019. In addition, people of color are significantly underrepresented in the superintendency given the ethnic makeup of the pupil population, with only two percent categorizing themselves as Black and two percent as Latino.

At IEI, we’re helping educators advance their careers by co-sponsoring equity and inclusion workshops, ensuring representation among our advisory board members, and developing a diverse faculty in our aspiring superintendent program. For school districts, it means hiring leaders from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, especially those who might look different from the majority of students in a community. It also requires leading with empathy, supporting superintendents of color who are under greater scrutiny, and providing professional development opportunities, space for self-care, and work/life balance.

2. Embrace the opportunity we have in front of us right now.

As devastating as the pandemic has been on our children’s education, it also alerted us all to the issues teachers have witnessed for decades. Through the American Rescue Plan, $200 billion has been allocated to assist our nation’s schools, especially those that serve underrepresented students. We have the chance to repair inequities in education through evidence-based interventions, from addressing learning loss to boosting social-emotional learning.

It’s also time for businesses, organizations, and higher education institutions to ask what they can do to help every student succeed. Is it offering internships and apprenticeships to students of color? Or partnering with high schools to set up dual enrollment programs to give students a head start on college and ease their financial burden?

3. Realize it’s OK to recognize the problem and say it loud.

All students should see themselves represented in the curriculum through the lens of resiliency. However, the political charge behind banning critical race theory (CRT) has set educators on edge.

The omission of addressing our nation’s historical context, including the good and the very ugly, does our students a disservice. It is incumbent upon us to say loudly and proudly that we will ensure students are taught about our history from a combination of primary and secondary sources, without bias or political agendas. And we clearly communicate to our students of color that we will teach history as it happened to validate and honor their families’ lived experiences.

The worst thing we do for our children at this moment is to stay quiet. Their future centers on recognizing our collective history and using the power of our voices to bring real change to education.

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