Ethics of Teaching Mathematics in the #BlackLivesMatter Era

In my final year as a high school mathematics and special education teacher in Brooklyn I turned down a student’s request to forgo 45 minutes of Geometry instruction for a discussion of the previous night’s announcement of non-indictment of the police officer responsible for Michael Brown’s death (11.24.2014, Ferguson, MO). Yes – I had my reasons for rejecting his plea, reasons that other teachers tell me are entirely justified – but I am still not sure. Most immediately, it was 7:58am and I was not prepared to improvise the facilitation of a painful conversation, especially at the risk of doing so poorly. I was prepared to teach Geometry that morning, not to address questions of police violence and racial justice. Yet, this is exactly what haunts me. Not just that I was not prepared on that morning, but my classroom was not designed to be a place where I did not have to sacrifice one for the other – mathematics for meaningful events in the lives of my students – where the two were inherently intertwined. Because we live in a world where I believe they not only should be but they are. But my classroom did not always make that clear.

While I could not articulate it at the time, I often think now that my move from teaching to pursuing a PhD in Mathematics Education and Race, Inequality and Language in Education was driven in part by my increasing failure to juggle the predicament in which I found myself that morning. I did not become a teacher in order to help students achieve passing scores on the New York State Geometry Regents Exam (even while I understand that it can be an a necessary stepping stone to traditional measures of success and access). I became a teacher so that I could participate in the journeys of young people becoming critically conscious citizens prepared with the tools of change necessary for creating a world more just, inclusive, loving and equitable than the one they were brought into. As I became a more experienced teacher I found myself moving farther away from that, rather than getting better at the weaving it together with the demands of the NYS Geometry curriculum.

Over my years teaching I taught almost every content offered in a New York City public high school – that is the nature of being a Special Educator in a city where integrated co-teaching is the norm. I always taught a little bit of everything, and a lot a bit of math. As I looked around I saw Social Studies and Literature teachers finding ways to engage the social and political project of teaching. I worked closely with one colleague teaching a 10th grade Global History and Literature course, who, like me, had training through Facing History and Ourselves, and I was filled up by that collaboration. But not only is a similarly socially and politically engaged classroom challenging to create in the context of our current mathematics education landscape, it seems the aspiration itself is in many places utterly absent. When I tell people that my graduate research looks at issues of race, inequality and language in mathematics education I often get blank stares – what could such a clearly rule-driven, neat and tidy field like mathematics possibly have to do with race or language, or social (in)justice? People scratch their heads, while I think, how could it not?

My questions for academic research will be different from those I hope to use this blog space to pursue, in large part because I believe that many questions worth asking are not answerable through careful academic research. Sometimes the asking is more important than a clear, concise or comprehensive answer. Sometimes our search for easy answers is precisely what endangers the power of the questioning itself.

So, what are the intersections between mathematics education and education as a social and political project for racial and economic justice? What does a classroom look like that finds these interstices?  And what is the work of a teacher who is supporting this classroom, especially a teacher who comes from racial or economic privilege that is not shared with her students? What are the ethics of teaching, and teaching mathematics in particular, in the era of #BlackLivesMatter? For myself I know I must start and end and find myself returning every day in between to a certain soul scrutiny. Next time a child approaches me at 7:58am while I juggle my classroom keys, coffee cup, and an armload of photocopies and says, “Can we talk about Ferguson [or Charleston, Orlando, Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland] during class today?” will I be able to respond differently? And if not, what can I do between now and then to prepare myself to be the type of educator that can take up the call from a child to engage with a world that is so often full of pain an injustice, not just so that we can cry or rage together, but so that we can change it?

I want to thank my dear friend, former colleague, and constant inspiration, Wendy, for introducing me to the world of blogs and blogging. I know that there are many math teachers, math teacher educators and math education researchers out there that are doing this hard work of asking how we connect the social and political world to our students in ways that are meaningful and productive, both in and outside of their classrooms. I hope that as well as giving me a space to develop some of my own thoughts, this blogging project also gives me another means to become more familiar with you, your work, and your thoughts.

Here’s to my attempt at an opening post: Cheers!