There’s a difference between acknowledging diversity in education and valuing it.
“It’s not enough to acknowledge diverse perspectives,” says Joy Taylor, a teacher consultant for WAVE — the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education. “That’s like inviting somebody to the table and telling them they can’t eat. It’s not enough to acknowledge them, but we have to be sure to value them, too. ”
In her classroom, Taylor works with students who fell through the cracks in the traditional classroom and need additional support to succeed.
According to their website, WAVE “offers a flexible, student-centered, project-based approach to learning for students who need an alternative to the traditional high school model.”
“Learning in my classroom really aims at individuals,“ explains Taylor. “I co-teach classes where I’m gauging to see if students get lost. And if they get lost, I work with them individually to make sure they’re understanding the material.”
Throughout my conversation with Taylor, I was struck by how the personalized approach to learning she articulated could be a mechanism by which we value the diversity of our students as well.
Every student is different, she reminds us, and we need school systems that are adaptable enough to truly value these differences.
“We can’t force our traditional ways on every student,” she says. “But if we’re patient, if we’re innovative, if we work with them, I believe all of our students could accomplish what they set out to do.”
In one case, Taylor’s patience and one-on-one support had a big impact on a student who had all but given up on school.
Making a difference for a student who had all but given up on school
“When I first came to WAVE,” Taylor says, “I had a student who was disengaged, but extremely bright according to test scores. She was classified emotionally impaired with depression, bipolar, and several things that were documented medically. She was also a transgender student who suffered with some high anxiety and was terrified to go outside. She hadn’t been coming to school.”
It took some time for Taylor to build trust with this student.
First, the two of them talked on the phone until she was comfortable enough to meet in a coffee shop in Ypsilanti. Slowly, over time, the student was able to develop trust with other teachers and then, eventually, come to class with other students.
“Eventually, the student started joining face-to-face class and enjoyed it,” Taylor says. “Did you hear me? Enjoyed it. I’m not saying that we never had any issues because she would have some times where she felt her anxiety and we would just go to a room talk, calm down, get water, and work through it. It just took time, but we built trust. We got to the point that when she was face-to-face, she was talking so much in the class that the teacher said she overtook the class because she was enjoying it so much, and this was coming from a person who had high anxiety and wasn’t even able to go to the grocery store or go outside before.”
In 2020, this student graduated, and Taylor says the staff at WAVE was in tears hearing her graduation speech to the other students about how she made it through. She has future plans to attend college for optometry.
“Sometimes our students are going through so much more than we see,” Taylor reflects. “Or what we allow ourselves to see. Yes, they have to pass the test. But in the meantime, we have to get them to the point where they desire to be at school. If we show an ounce of compassion, I think that makes all the difference in the world.”
Offering students input in the educational process
Teaching is Taylor’s second career. She started off in corporate America with a bachelor’s degree in business management, but found herself lacking passion for what she did on a daily basis.
After praying for purpose, she found it by remembering how much she enjoyed working with young people at her church when she used to teach Sunday School.
“I recalled that I love having relationships with young people,” she says. “I like to see them blossom and assist them in achieving their goals and cultivating who they are. Because they have so much to say, it’s just that we have to listen.”
That last line in particular is powerful:
They have so much to say. We just have to listen.
Taylor advocates for a system of education that offers students to offer input into their own learning. You can tell by the way she talks about her students that she really puts this philosophy into action in her classroom.
“I think it’s really important that we meet our students where they are and allow them to have input in their education,” she says. “And I’m not saying that they can say, ‘Oh, I’m not doing that homework.’ But instead, maybe they could say, ‘You know what, this assignment is a little hard right now, can we start on something else?’ Allowing them to be a part of the educational process can make a difference by allowing them to stay engaged and motivated.”
The bigger picture: What else is needed to create equitable school systems?
But, of course, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to create truly equitable school systems.
“Every student needs to have the opportunity for a quality education, and it needs to be more than just lip service,” she says. “Some action needs to be put in place.”
When Taylor’s own daughters began attending school, these opportunity gaps became abundantly clear to her.
“My children went to school in the suburbs,” she explains, “and they were introduced to some things that some of the students in the city where I worked in Detroit weren’t introduced to. I thought that was so unfair, because some of our students have skills and talents that they never even were able to explore because they didn’t even know about it.”
Her daughter, for example, had always loved art and had the opportunity to take an architecture course in high school. Through this class, she participated in a statewide competition and ended up winning second place.
“Every school should have these programs,” she says. “Not just the suburbs, or the schools in the Upper Peninsula or the schools in the more affluent parts of the state. “
The importance of teacher diversity
Another way we can improve equity in education, Taylor argues, is by valuing diversity in the hiring and recruiting of new teachers.
Early on in her life, there was a teacher who left a big impression on her.
Her name was Teresa Sheffield. “She was the first Black teacher that I had,” Taylor reflects. “And she was so professional. I mean, she was dressed to the tee and was really engaging. She was the first Black teacher who made an impression. She was somebody who looked like me, you know.”
It’s important, she says, for young children to see someone who looks like them in school.
“When my children were going to school,” Taylor says, “they only saw so many people that looked like them. Even though most of the teachers that they had were really good, at some point, you want to see somebody that looks like you because you can feel like they can relate to where you are. I think that’s important.”
There’s quantitative data that supports the importance of diverse representations in schools, too.
A 2018 study published in the Institute of Labor Economics titled “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers” found that having at least one Black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a Black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent.
For very low-income Black males, the results were even greater, with their chance of dropping out falling by 39 percent.
These statistics bring gravity to the case Taylor makes for the importance of diverse representation among teaching staff. But, she reminds us, this has to go beyond merely hiring educators of diverse backgrounds.
We also have to value what they bring to the table.
Extending mercy to one another
Taylor has a lot of ideas for what’s needed for equitable education reform. You can hear her vision unfold in greater detail in our full-length interview.
But ultimately, my biggest takeaway from our interview had to do with her emphasis on the difference between acknowledging and valuing diversity in education.
This thematic thread ran through our conversation down to the way Taylor approaches learning in her classroom, where each student’s unique backgrounds, goals, and context is honored and they are able to offer input into their own educational process.
By sharing with us her experiences at WAVE as well as her success working 1:1 with students who were close to giving up on school, Taylor reminds that hope IS possible when we’re patient and innovative, allowing students to move at their own pace, explore their own interests, and build trust with a caring educator whose diversity is honored alongside their own.
One final take away from our conversation:
Everyone’s struggling right now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many parents are frustrated with kids at home while trying to work two or three jobs. Some teachers have had to hire people to take care of their children, so they can teach.
“We have to make sure that we’re extending mercy to each other,” Taylor implores us. “If we can learn to understand each other, I think we could really make this a team effort. Just be human. Just be kind.”