I grew up in South Carolina. It’s southern and mostly white, with minority representation being few and far between on all fronts. Whether in a store or in school, seeing and being around people who look like me was a rarity. More often than not finding representation, and especially finding it in school, was a blessing. Out of all my years in school in South Carolina, I didn’t see many teachers that look like me. I can count on one hand how many teachers I had K-12 who looked like me and had similar experiences as me.
When the Student Voice Tour Across America’s Schools came to Connecticut, I witnessed the same problem. 815.9 miles away from where I grew up students were experiencing the same feelings and sentiments that I faced as a student in South Carolina. They became frustrated with a bigger issue at hand: a lack of representation.
“The teachers that we do have don’t understand what it is to come from our community. To be black. They don’t understand the struggles that we’ve gone through.
At the start of our day, students identified a range of issues that impacted their school climate and experience at school, from discipline to learning styles to assessments. After unpacking each of these issues, students realized that they all stemmed from the same place: feeling like most teachers and administrators don’t understand them.
When students expressed their concerns or complaints about any issue that day, it all came back to adults not listening. One student stated that “there are things that students will bring up, things that they’re uncomfortable with, things that they’ll say. [Student Council] wants to involve the students so that they can hear what everyone wants, but the teachers don’t listen. They do the exact opposite, they do what they want. It makes everyone upset.”
These students find themselves disappointed and overlooked time and time again—they aren't represented, they aren't heard, and they aren't seen. The failure of teachers to empathize with the student experience creates a divide that students know all too well. One student spoke to this divide saying, “The teachers that we do have don’t understand what it is to come from our community. To be black. They don’t understand the struggles that we’ve gone through. They don’t understand what it’s like to come from poverty. They never had to wonder where their next meal was coming from. They don’t live the life that we live every day. How can I come to you as an adult who is supposed to help me with my issues when you don’t understand them? It creates a divide between teacher and students—Teacher and student divide.”
It’s one thing not to feel represented, but it’s another to feel not listened to or welcomed because of it. One student mentioned, that “Teachers don’t know about our personal stories, what’s going on at home. Because when something happens, they won’t listen to us first. They discipline us first.”
In closing our roundtable discussion, I made sure to not only encourage them to keep moving forward, in being black, in being bold, and excelling, but also made sure to give them a call to action to continue to support each other. Knowing firsthand how it feels to be the minority in community, I instructed them to continue to hold each other to a higher standard. It isn’t easy. It only gets tougher from here on out. It’s imperative to keep each other motivated, because if they don’t, who will? I look forward to hearing about them finishing their high school career, leaving high school, and being happy with diploma in hand. In short - living their best life.
The problems that I observed in South Carolina and the issues these students of color deal with in Connecticut aren’t new things. I can only imagine the many other stories of students across the country. When will we start to prioritize student voice alongside student-teacher representation? You can’t be what you can’t see.