The Color of Mirrors: An Equity-Based Approach to Teaching and Learning

I’m overly conscious when I drive my car. I never liked speeding and probably check my rearview mirrors more often than needed. It may also sound a bit vain, but I like to look at myself in the mirror several times a day. Every morning I stare at my reflection, squinting to see if anything has changed: searching for any additional gray in my beard, estimating whether or not the crows feet beside my eyes have extended their outward paths, wondering if my innie belly button has gotten deeper or if its just my stomach that has slightly inflated around it. I know where I developed an inclination to reflect. I am a Black man born to an immigrant father and a white mother who lives on Indigenous land––my life has always centered around looking at things from the inside out. And in doing so, trying to grow from the things I’ve learned along the way.  

After graduating from high school in Toronto, Canada, I headed south to Ohio to complete a prep year in the hopes of following my dreams of becoming a professional football player—because, you know, being an athlete was one of the things Black boys aspire to be. A year later, I was off to Colgate University in upstate New York on an athletic scholarship. Things were going according to plan. Two years, multiple injuries, and a burgeoning affinity toward partying and alcohol, I decided it was time to move on. After a few detours, I finally landed back in Toronto, with a more realistic goal: to graduate and become what I never in a million years thought I would want to become—one of those nerdy-ass teachers that I used to hate.

Roughly ten years ago I wanted to be a high school football coach. Those last few months of undergrad––when I had to start seriously considering what career I could pursue with a college degree––I figured that coaching teenage boys in the sport I loved and wearing track suits to work would be a great way to enter the next chapter of my life. If I had to teach a few courses of history or English along with some Phys. Ed., then so be it––that would be a sacrifice I was willing to make. Teaching things I thought I didn’t like so that I could spend a few hours a day doing the part of the job I thought I would like. I applied for a few teacher’s college programs and one actually accepted me.

I was one of four Black student-teachers in a cohort of sixty. As the weeks rolled into months while we learned about structuring lesson plans and classroom management strategies, I started to re-think my initial reason behind entering the profession of teaching. It helped that we were often asked to look back, to reflect. When tasked with reflecting on various points of our school experiences, I observed that I had little in common with almost all the other folks who also wanted to become educators. And if I––a grown man who graduated from similar institutions and pursued parallel career paths––had little in common with these fellow teachers, how did most of the students who grew up in lower socio-economic environments feel?

Most of my friends hated most parts of school. My little brother was kicked out of high school in the tenth grade. My dad never showed up to one parent-teacher meeting. School seemed to be a thing that was imposed on Black boys like me. Something we were compelled to participate in. Something we had to comply with. The deeper I reflected, the closer I felt like I was getting to some of the core reasons why school felt so distant for students like I once was.

When I was a student, it always felt like teachers didn’t really invest themselves in who I was beyond what I could produce on tests and assignments. I was there, in their classrooms, and was treated as if my life in that specific moment represented the complete capsule of my hopes, dreams, and potential. Nothing beyond the information as it pertained to the curriculum was poured into me. Nothing aside from the black and white academics of that day was inquired about me. I sat at the back of the classroom and merely existed. Only to be monitored if I stepped outside the lines of acceptability––of their acceptability. And when I occasionally did (by doing things like wearing my hat in the school hallways or arriving late to class), I was chastised. That was the only time I was implored to “do better”.

By the time I earned the credentials to teach high school, I no longer wanted to be the gym teacher and football coach. After reflecting, that now felt too limiting, too stereotypical. I didn’t want to be the Black teacher (and perhaps the only Black teacher in the school) wearing the tracksuit, studded out with the earrings, exposing the tattoos–– all the while teaching gym class and coaching after school. I had a degree in English. I wanted to use it. I also had a brain, a background, a personality and a life that existed outside of the courses and classrooms I once sat in. I wanted to emphasize that. But I had to do so by being my authentic self. That would be one of the only ways that I could explicitly and implicitly encourage my students to reflect.

Despite what I looked like on the outside, to the outside world, I knew that if I didn’t help challenge and shatter stereotypes, Black boys that looked like the younger versions of myself would look at school the same way my friends and my brother did––the cycle would continue. They had to see men like me exist in roles that extended beyond basketball courts and rap videos. I had to meet them where they were at while fostering opportunities for them to think about who, exactly, they were. I knew that would be one key to keeping students who looked like me engaged in school buildings that never made any attempts to represent their wholeness.

I came to this work understanding three realities. First was the reality that if we want students who ostensibly don’t align with the “universal student” then the onus is not on them, but on us, as teachers, to provide a learning environment where they feel welcomed, validated, and brilliant. Second was the reality that cultivating an equity-centered environment starts way before and many times in between any curriculum delivery. Third was that in order to create such an environment I would need to be myself.

I’ll admit, the aphorism, “be yourself,” is an overused and vague platitude. It is actually dangerous if merely taken at face value. It has the potential to inspire adults to think that their views, positionalities, and subjecations are infallible. The saying subtly encourages teachers to teach from a “holier-than-thou” lens. By “being yourself”, I mean enter your teaching space as close to the most unbridled version of yourself in order to open up the floodgates for your students to enter as their most unbridled self. That’s where reflection ultimately occurs. I mean being authentic in your relationships with the children you are charged with teaching but I also mean rigorously reflecting on your shortcomings or blindspots as a person, and by extension, an educator. For me, that process took time. But it fostered an equitable stance on teaching that, over time, extended beyond race, culture, class, and the impending generational gap between myself and my students that seems to widen at warpspeed!

Reflection, through the lens of continuous learning, protected my students from me. It curates a space where students feel safe in being themselves; willing to talk about their likes and dislikes with the content, the way it’s been taught to them, and their overall observations about schooling. It allowed both them and myself to grow. And to commit to continuous growth. By virtue of continuous reflection.

See, that’s the thing that we need to emphasize in education. Growth through the process of reflection. That there can’t be taught through a textbook, it can’t be photocopied for a worksheet, it can’t be read in a best-selling book on pedagogy nor a discrete yet concise teaching guide. It is only begot through the essence of learning itself––moving forward and occasionally taking pauses to look in the mirror. And it is the key to equity driven pedagogy, anti-racist teaching, and abolishing the opportunity gaps we still face today.  

I had my own reservations about schooling. That is why, 10 years ago, I just wanted to coach football. Luckily, I was allowed to grow, change, adapt and fine-tune my hopes and desires. Reflections pushed that onto me. Reflecting, not on the final answers, but the reasons behind them and the process that one took to get there is the key that leads to equitable, anti-Racist, and nourishing teaching. We’re allowed to as adults. We need to allow our students to do the same. The best part is that it isn’t that hard to do. We just need to look in the mirror every now and then.

Matthew R. Morris

Matthew R. Morris is an educator and writer, born and raised in Toronto. His writing focuses on the intersection of race, Black masculinity, hip-hop culture, and education.

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