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Why I do this work

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“I don’t care.”

“What did you say?” my grandmother responded.

“I said that I don’t care.”

“Don’t you ever say that again.”

I was in 8th grade and instead of being at school, I was at my grandmother’s home. I had been suspended five days for fighting during science class. I was depressed because I had ruined my perfect attendance; I had perfect attendance from kindergarten up until this suspension. The girl I fought, who was also Black, had made it her mission each day to remind me how I was not Black enough and how I was trying to be white. I knew too many answers. I helped too many classmates. I had hair longer than most of the Black girls at my school. I followed the rules. Every day she would find a new issue with me.

I told the science teacher. I told other teachers, but they did not understand. They told me not to worry about it; if I ignored her, she would stop. Even if she did stop, how did that help my “real” problem? I wanted to be successful in school but I also wanted to fit in. My white teachers did not understand my struggle. Was an education worth my Blackness being questioned?

“When people don’t care, they become reckless. Reckless people are dangerous.”

I was confused. I didn’t feel like I was a dangerous person. Yes I fought, but it was a knee-jerk reaction to harassment. As my grandmother continued to explain, it became clearer.

“My family came here, child, for a better life. If I can help anyone better themselves, then I will lend a hand. When you don’t care you become apathetic and apathy is dangerous to our community. Don’t worry about how others perceive you, just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep learning and keep helping. Keep helping our community”

I would later find out from my father that my grandmother was the first of her siblings to be born in Indianapolis and  her family came here because the Ku Klux Klan burned down their house multiple times in Georgia. She wanted to become a school teacher, but her circumstances did not allow that dream to become a reality. She believed our community had a responsibility to reach out and help each other move forward.

Although she was not able to achieve her dream of becoming an educator, I did. I do this work because I know how important it is for students of color to have educator who looks like them and live in the community where they live. It is easier for a teacher to help a student when he or she has had the same struggle. It is hard for students to believe they can achieve success and have a better life than their parents when they do not see anyone who looks like them, and has a similar background making those achievements.

I am completing my 10th year as an educator this school year. Over these past years, to help my students succeed, I have visited their homes, helped their parents who are in school with their homework, organized family literacy nights, sponsored clubs and volunteered to tutor students after school, ate lunch with my students to work on classwork for my class or another class or just to talk, offered online office hours where students could email me for help with their homework, attended their personal events with my husband and children and advocated for them, when at times, no one else would. I think one of my former students said it best, “Mrs. Barnes is not going to give up on you. She doesn’t care what type of student you were last year. She is going to get in your business and stay in your business until you get on the right track.”

It is not easy being an urban educator, but how dare I have accomplishments without reaching out to help others like me do the same?

Shawnta S. Barnes is an educator at Wendell Phillips Elementary in Indianapolis Public Schools and a 2016 Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow and a Teach Plus Change Agent.

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