March 7, 2022

Dorthea Wiliams-Arnold:

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In a Chalkbest First Person column, teacher Dorothea Williams-Arnold looks back at the many challenges faced by Detroit teachers and talks about why she’s not giving up yet.

Working while the district was under state control meant teachers faced intense scrutiny. Our salaries were frozen, and we were forced to reapply for our jobs. Meanwhile, our infrastructure crumbled due to continued disinvestment. So when, after about 15 years of state control, the school district moved beyond the disastrous clutch of state control, it seemed as though our worst days were behind us.

Then the pandemic arrived, forcing me to sink or swim in a sea of deadly virus, isolation, and feelings of inadequacy. I would have to reinvent my approach to teaching and adjust my expectations — for my students and myself.

Frantz Fanon’s analysis of colonization and its effects that once gave me a sense of purpose felt useless in the new online space, where many of my students were reluctant to turn on their cameras. How could I teach to blank squares on a screen? How could I adequately serve my students outside of the classroom space? Theories of liberation would not help my students if they refused to engage with me.

During remote learning, I struggled to help them understand that their ill-equipped school district was not a result of anything they did wrong. Jonathan Kozol’s book “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools” rang as true as it did some 30 years earlier. I saw many of my students and their families lacked necessities like stable housing, internet service, and food, and my school district struggled to accommodate them. Against this backdrop, being tasked with closing the educational gaps felt like a blow to the chest. Disinterested students broke my heart. My idea of who I was as an education professional was at risk.

It’s been nearly two years since the pandemic forced me out of my comfort zone, and in that space, I have learned to adjust the length of my reach. These days, I pay attention to the small things, like the cadence of my student’s voices, and celebrate small gains. I try harder to connect and adjust more often. But unfortunately, since our return to school, constant interruptions have left me unable to cover as much material.

A large student body — along with vaccine and testing resistance — means we’re still operating on a hybrid schedule with students learning in person just two or three days a week. I am still unable to adequately address the needs of my struggling students when they are learning from home; as a result, many of my 190 students will continue to fall behind.

Before the pandemic, I felt a sense of shame when my students did not perform at the level I thought they should. Now, I have accepted that some things are beyond my control.

Admittedly, I am now feeling the wear and tear of the past two years. This fatigue has left me more resistant to feelings of inadequacy and less apt to lose sleep over district-administered evaluations and exams that do not take into full consideration the constraints we must manage. I won’t beat myself up over falling short despite my best efforts. Instead, I allow myself to be more spontaneous and take breaks to chat with my students, to create art, write poetry and prose on themes of their choosing, or to collaborate on a class playlist. I give them time to socialize with each other when they are in person. They shouldn’t feel pressure to make up for two years of academic setbacks. It is not fair to them or us.

Though I am exhausted and frustrated by the ways poverty and inequitable funding impacts my students’ education, I will continue to show up. I will continue to help them move towards more significant academic gains through culturally relevant instruction that leaves room for them to enjoy the limited time they have in the physical classroom.

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