A Blind Eye Toward Change: Confronting Teacher Brutality Inside the Classroom

I’m going to get to the point and be real: I’m struggling.

I’m struggling with the fact that there are people who can justify police pulling a drive by on 12-year-old Tamir Rice, with absolutely no consequences. I’m struggling with the fact that we can send people to the moon, but we can’t get police body cameras to work. I’m struggling with the fact that Korryn Gaines can get killed by a SWAT team in her own home while holding her son in her arms. I’m struggling with the fact that a good amount of 5th grade students enter my classroom at the beginning of a school year, reading and writing way below grade level.

This problem does not only persist in my classroom but in schools and communities throughout the country. The solution to these problems is a major paradigm shift, both within and beyond academics. The shift analyzes the mutual relationship between classroom culture and students’ lives beyond school walls. What did high test scores do for Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling or the other police brutality victims whose names have gone unspoken? When we talk about school we are talking about more than just academics. The culture that teachers create, the way we interact with students, teaches them a lot about themselves too. What are your students learning about themselves in your classroom?

The paradigm shift that I speak of can start in our urban schools and impact the community at large. Most folks talk about what it means to be walking while black, but it’s not black people that are the problem. We need to start asking instead what it means to be teaching, patrolling, managing and politicking while racist. It’s all connected and for our students it leads to one of two outcomes: either a physical death out in the streets or a mental death in the classroom. To combat these realities, we need to change how we look at justice inside of the classrooms. That means the rules and regulations of your classroom should reflect the needs and goals of students. Hence, justice is not kicking students out because your classroom management skills are poor. Neither should detention and suspension be leveraged as the primary tools to implement justice when students do wrong. Ultimately when we do this, we contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Quite frankly, if you do not think your job is connected to the social justice efforts out in the streets and you are silent, you are a part of the problem. If you are looking at our kids as criminals, and not doing everything in your power to have culturally responsive teaching and discussions in your classroom, you are a part of the problem. If when confronted with these issues, you start to talk about black-on-black crime or combat Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter, you are a part of the problem. These problems in communities are further implemented by teachers who inflict what I call teacher brutality. This concept defines the social, emotional, psychological and institutional ways that teachers, school leaders, staff and policies inflict harm on students. For the sake of our students’ well-being, these are the people and policies who need to be fired, terminated, let go, eliminated.

The brutal facts is that while every year many of our schools push to get 100% of students into college, every day any of these students could also be one of the black and brown men and women who are gunned down in the streets by police.

If you are still reading this, chances are you’re committed to creating the type of environment in which our students can flourish. For that, I thank you. Let’s continue to do the work necessary to ensure that the leadership and staff at each of our schools are not a part of the problem. Our students will not remember what we said, but they will remember what we did. What are we doing to ensure their success both inside and outside of the classroom? Because while I’m struggling to wrap my mind around a lot of things in this world, I have no doubt that our kids have and are worthy of the bright futures ahead of them.

By: Rakim Jenkins, Educator, Community Advocate, Motivational Speaker

Rakim Jenkins is a 2013 alum of The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York and a 2014 alumni corps member of Teach For America-New York City. He is currently Grade Team Leader, Assistant Dean and a  History Teacher at Leadership Prep Brownsville Middle Academy in Brooklyn, NY.

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