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The toils of U.S. education: The cycle of censorship

My name is Quinn and I’m pretty upset.

To provide some important context, I am a 22-year-old, white non-binary person who is currently enrolled in a social justice-oriented teacher credentialing program for an art credential. I have grown up with education through the eyes of a student and as a child of an educator.

My mother began teaching when she was 20 years old, later worked as a principal for several years, and is now an administrator at the district level. I fortunately have had the opportunity to become familiar with education jargon and pedagogies before entering my current program because of the toolkit my mother possesses and chooses to share. Unfortunately, my mother and I also share similar experiences of being censored in the classroom, which has recently led to feelings of misery.

There are many reasons for said misery, however, this current state can easily be attributed to my forced departure from the high school art class I have been working with for two months. This was supposed to be a year-long commitment, but my time with my students was cut short. It is still unclear what the true, hidden reason is for this decision, but what was blamed was the “explicit language” in a music video that was shown to discuss perspective and racial stereotypes. My experience feels all too familiar to that of my mother’s over 20 years ago when she was nearly fired as a teacher for talking about the TV host Ellen’s public “coming out” after a student had mentioned viewing this over the weekend.

These experiences are not completely the same, as my mother’s lesbianism was the root of the attack and she received threats from the community. However, we both were thinking of the students when teaching, which is a practice called student-centered learning. I had first gathered that my students appreciated music videos and learned various subjects through them so I began my planning with that knowledge about them. With my mother, she was simply responding to the interest that was shown by her students in the topic and the event, as a student had brought this up to the class.

The reason I decided to pursue becoming an educator was to promote accessibility. Thanks to my familiarity with the education system growing up, I was aware that this was a need in education. I considered art therapy, but decided not everyone can afford or approach art therapy. This then led me to teaching art where I could incorporate aspects of art therapy. As a white person who completed my undergraduate studies at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in the southeast, I had access to immense amounts of resources and knowledge, which is why I decided I would make it a mission to also bring these college-level conversations to middle and high school students. However, as a student teacher in search of a new middle or high school art classroom placement, I am finding that this is going to be even more of a challenge than expected.

The problem is not the students. The students are wanting to have access to ways of thinking about and dealing with the real world, but it is the system that is preventing this from happening. By system I mean all the forms of control at the national, state, district, and local levels and all the traditions and norms of education. Having a video censored for its swear words and ignoring the important questions raised or being punished for having a conversation about sexual identities that differ from the norm of heterosexuality are both examples of school culture that regulate both teaching and learning.

So where do we go from here? I’m not sure. I am being advised to find a way to balance working within the system and slowly chipping away at its foundation. I have to get sneaky, apparently. Especially if I decide to teach at a predominantly white school to teach the white children to not be terrible people, I would continually experience pushback from conservative, overly-involved parents with power. This whole experience is just practice for that.

No matter how overwhelmed I feel as I continue my journey as an educator, I will look to my mother to remind me of my passion. Over 20 years later she is still doing great work in the same district that turned their back on her. I just keep telling myself it’s all for the students.