Lee-Ann Stephens is a teacher in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. She was the Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2006. She works in a high school that provides extra supports to African-American and Latino students who take advanced course work. Ms. Stephens is responsible for providing a wide range of supports for those students. Some of those supports are uncomfortable for some of us to talk about, but it is important to understand exactly the kind of barriers that young people of color face in the classroom. Below is the first part of my interview with Ms. Stephens. I will post the second part later this week.
Me: How did you end up in St. Louis Park?
Stephens: I have been a teacher for twenty-five years. I used to teach in Minneapolis, for twelve years. I taught mostly elementary education. I was a gifted and talented specialist for a couple of years. I came to St. Louis Park, and for the last thirteen years I’ve been teaching here. I was an English specialist at a Spanish immersion school. I taught sixth grade. I took a leave of absence to help start up a KIPP school but came back to teach at St. Louis Park High School. My first year I was director of students, but that wasn’t my forte or passion. A lot of that was about focusing on discipline and creating a punitive climate. I was going to leave and go back to elementary school, but the superintendent asked me to take over the high school's high achievement program, and I’ve been doing that for the last four years. That program exists to recruit and support Latino and African-American students in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes.
Me: What does that support look like?
Stephens: The support is a variety of things. There’s academic support, there’s support for what happens after high school, including college visits and getting them involved in extracurricular activities. For the last two years, for example, I’ve had them involved with Academic World Quest, which is all about global issues. Our kids compete as a team against other high schools. That’s not a thing that’s normally available to underrepresented kids. I take them to conferences for students. Microsoft does a digital technology day every year for girls, and I take a boatload of girls every year. Microsoft did their first ever “YouthSpark Live” in the country, for boys and girls. So I focus not just on what’s going on in the classroom. Last year I got a grant and was able to do career modules for them, where they had to experiment with trying a case. They were prosecuting an environmental case, and they did it in an actual courtroom. It was fabulous, I was so impressed. I try to get the kids in those out of school environments all the time.
Me: What other role do you play beyond exposure to things that underserved kids usually don’t get?
Stephens: I monitor their grades, I monitor their attendance. I do individual and group meetings by grade level. I’m in constant communication with teachers and parents regarding what’s going on with the students in advanced classes. If there are any issues that come up, ideally, we’re now at the point where students begin advocating for themselves. By the time I step in, they’ve done everything they can.
Me: What are the toughest issues that come up?
Stephens: Honestly, there are times when the kids feel like a teacher is acting blatantly racist. And I have to have those kinds of conversations as well.
Me: Wow, that’s intense. How does that happen?
Stephens: Ok so, I had a student come to me and say recently, “I think so and so is racist and this is why: I’m ignored. I feel like the people of color are ignored in the classroom. When the white students speak up, they have more of a platform. Whenever a student of color has an issue, the teacher doesn’t spend enough time.”
Once we have that conversation, we decide together what to do next. I will never go to the teacher unless the student tells me they want me to. They need to know that they can say things to me, in confidence. If it’s really an issue, and not just a student blowing off steam, then I feel like I need to step in.
“What do you want to do about it?” I ask. “Do you want me to sit down with the teacher?”
In one particular case, after some hesitation, they asked me to talk to the teacher. I went to the teacher first alone, and I said, “Can you tell me something about these particular students in the class?” Namely the kids of color. I never go in with an accusatory tone. I say, “Can you tell me something about these students?”
Then the teacher gives me info. I listen for a while, then I say, “Ok, well I had a conversation with them, and they honestly feel that you are being blatantly discriminatory with them."
And the teacher, of course, was highly offended and defensive. Who wouldn’t be?
The teacher was pretty unhappy with that and told me as much. I said, “I get that this is how you’re feeling. But it’s not the intent of your actions that you need to focus on. It’s the impact and what the reality for the kids is. I’d rather have us all sit down and talk about this. Because if they have this perception, and they’re taking it to other people, that becomes the topic of conversation without you even knowing about it. We need to address that. You need to listen to what they say, but they also have to listen to what you say. You need to tell the students that you were hurt by this.”
So, we all met, including the kids and the teacher, and they initially held back on a lot of stuff. I said, “Wait a minute. You need to tell her everything that you told me, otherwise this won’t work.”
Then they spilled everything out. The teacher said, “I thought we had a connection.” She also shared that she was hurt by it, because that’s not what she wanted to do. She admitted that she would be aware going forward. She’s not afraid anymore. She admitted that she hadn’t been aware. A few years before that, she might not have taken it that well, but she’s really grown a lot.
We ended with a group hug. And so when I talk to her now, I tell her about all of the growth that I’ve seen in her, how much I appreciate that she reaches out, how I notice it, and how important it is that she’s willing to listen and acknowledge the kids’ perceptions. She still does get defensive once in a while, but I’m giving her a pass on it sometimes, because we’re having an open dialogue. She has changed so much in how she reaches out to black and brown kids. She will find ways to help students understand material. Now she wants me to be her coach. The fact that she wants me to help her become a better teacher speaks volumes.
Me: Does this always work?
Stephens: No. I just have to cut my losses some times. I have to apologize to the students. I have to tell them it’s not going to change and I have to get you out of that class.
Me: What happens in that instance?
Stephens: I go to the counselor and I tell them that this is a matter of racial equity. We need to get the kids out of that class. And so that’s not easy to do. But when it gets to a point where I think the students will be psychologically damaged, I’m relentless. Once I had to get three girls out of one class.
When a teacher puts everything on the kids, that’s the problem. You can’t take credit for the successes, and then not take credit for the failures. It doesn’t work that way. We encourage teachers to take ownership, even when they think that the factors are out of their control.
Me: You’re taking a pretty significant risk by raising something as deep as systemic racism in a school building. Why are you doing it?
Stephens: We have to figure out a way to get through this. But not everybody has someone like me in a school. So what happens when you don’t? What if nobody is fighting for you? Everyone needs an advocate. Every student needs an adult advocate who will fight for her. And really, we shouldn’t even need my job. It should be obsolete. But that’s not the case. Yesterday I was at a scholarship ceremony for some students, and one of the students talked about me and said, “She’s helped me make my dreams come true. And everyone needs someone to help make their dreams come true.”