The 2020 rookie teacher of the year for Miami-Dade County Public Schools is calling on the nation’s fourth largest district to hold a town hall with Black teachers, parents and students to inform administrators’ strategies for eradicating racism in education.
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Kalyn Lee, a Black English teacher at Miami Carol City Senior High School, was honored as the district’s top educator in her first five years in the classroom.
She told WLRN she believes the school district isn’t doing enough to educate staff about racism, listen to Black students sharing their experiences with discrimination in schools, and to take meaningful actions to address it.
Here’s an excerpt of WLRN’s conversation with Lee, which has been edited for length and clarity:
The school board [approved] a proposal to review the district's curriculum that deals with racism and multiculturalism and enhance anti-racist curriculum, and also establish a student task force to talk about racism in society, in schools, and bring back what they learned from those conversations to the school board. Is that a good start?
LEE: My question is, once you pull this information and you put these students on this task force and you talk about this curriculum — what are you gonna do with the information? Because that's the most important part.
What are we doing to change the culture? How are we benefiting our Black students? Are we making sure that our students always have tablets and Wi-fi? These issues didn't come up just because of COVID-19. The same communities that we are catering to right now, or that we're trying to push for change — they had these problems before COVID-19. Why couldn’t we do this before? We have a lot of work to do within the system as a whole.
When the school board was debating this proposal to improve anti-racist curriculum in the school district, one school board member, Marta Pérez, who is Cuban American and not Black, said she thought it would distract from the district's efforts to respond to COVID-19. How would you respond to that?
I don't know how you can have a conversation about COVID and not talk about racism — and if you can, that is the distraction right there.
How do you talk about these communities that are being affected and not be able to recognize that there are health disparities in our communities? How do you have this conversation and not realize that so many of our parents don't have access to health insurance, or that they don't have enough coverage to be able to give their kids what they need?
How do you have this conversation and not talk about how the community that has pre-existing medical conditions that COVID-19 is literally taking out in front of us — a lot of the population that falls into that category is Black? Black students, Black teachers, Black parents, Black community members.
She [Pérez] also said that Miami-Dade schools has been a shining example of inclusion and that any wrongs the district may have committed in the past have been quickly corrected.
For you to say that the Black community is happy with what's going on and happy with how all situations have been handled without consulting with the Black community — and when I say the Black community, I mean more than just one or two or three specific Black people.
That's why I think that it’s important to have essentially a Black educators town hall — and I'm calling for the district and the school board leaders to create one and create one quickly, so that we can discuss the issues that are happening within our Black schools because the Black teachers, the Black parents and the Black students are the ones that are there five days a week.
Did you have a chance to talk with your students about George Floyd’s murder and the uprisings?
So, I was able to have a few conversations. It kind of sounded like this: ‘I never thought that I was gonna see something like this in my lifetime.’ And honestly, I kind of had the same sentiments. I'm not old at all.
My grandmother — she marched in the Civil Rights movement. She had scars on her legs from water hoses and from dogs attacking her. I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, and one of my very close family friends — her name is Miss Lisa McNair. She's the sister of Denise McNair, which was one of the four little girls that got killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
For me to be having the same conversation with my students, and it sounds similar to the conversations that I'm having with my grandparents and my family friends right now, is the reason why education has to change. Because we are not in a 40, 50-year gap anymore. Right? We are literally training the next generation of citizens, of people, of activists, of leaders, of community members, of parents, of teachers. We are literally about to give them the torch right now.
So what are we doing to prepare them — not only to lead our country but also to be self reflective and understanding what implicit bias is, understanding how that can affect how you treat people?
Just lastly, what would you say to Black students who are hurting right now?
I would tell the Black students who are hurting right now: First, feel it. Allow yourself to feel it. Pain, a lot of the times, is part of progress. Sit in those feelings. But then after you sit in them for a little bit, look up and figure out how you are going to contribute to change, because without you, we are stuck.