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. In Part 1 of this interview, Ms. Stephens discussed how issues of racial bias can affect classroom instruction. In this second and final part of the interview, she discusses how she holds students accountable, despite the challenges associated with race and poverty.
Me: You talked about keeping teachers honest. How do you keep the students on the hook?
Stephens: The students sometimes tell me stuff, and then I find out otherwise, and I remind them that when I go to bat for them, they better not have me looking stupid. They’ve learned that they better have their ducks in a row. I’m like the Judge Judy of the school. When I go to talk to a teacher about something as significant as racism, I don’t want someone telling me that kids haven’t been coming to class, or that they haven’t been engaged. Students have to do their part.
Me: So how many chances should a kid get if she’s coming for a more challenging background?
Stephens: I have a high school student in my school who works a job 40 hours a week. She takes care of her siblings. She told me she had an assignment that she wasn’t able to hand in because she had to watch her siblings. And the teacher said, “Too bad for you.”
“I didn’t want the teacher to lower her standards or expectations. Because I wanted to finish the assignment,” the student told me. "I just want her to understand who I am.”
Me: Why does that matter?
Stephens: Sometimes we intentionally don’t now the story of our students. If I don’t know your story, I assume you’re like everyone else. Some of the things that our kids go through, nobody could understand until they hear it explicitly. There are adults who couldn’t deal with what our kids go through.
And when I hear those stories, I don’t say, “Oh, your life sucks, it’s horrible." It’s not about saving a kid from her life at home, because it’s “so terrible.” Students are living it everyday, so they don’t need you telling them how bad it is. That mentality, that I as the teacher am going to save you from poverty, and I know what’s best for you and your family? I’ve had to confront teachers on that mentality where they don’t want students to work hard because their lives are too hard. That is the worst. Why wouldn’t you want to push them? Wouldn’t you want them to have an even better situation? I won’t imprison a kid because of her circumstances.
“There’s something wrong with that black or brown child, and I need to fix her,” is the mentality that too many folks bring when they walk into a school. The problem with a narrative around "fixing" is that it creates a low expectation from the start. I, as a teacher, already think that you have this deficit. And as the teacher, here I am helping you out of the hole. It’s already assuming you are in a hole.