This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Cornelius Minor talks about his new book and how teachers can be agents of change in their community.
Today I’m talking with Cornelius Minor, a Brooklyn-based educator and staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. He’s just released a new book called “We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be.”
In our conversation, we’re going to discuss some of the key themes I pulled out from the book, particularly his thoughts on rewriting the teacher-hero narrative and disrupting the status quo in our classrooms and schools.
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Tell me about the heart of your message–the thing that you’re most passionate about sharing with teachers.
Well, Angela, first of all, it’s so exciting to be here with you. Whenever I think about the heart of my message, it’s actually really hard to encapsulate into one thing. There are so many hearts, but they all stem from this — I am quite uncomfortable with the reality that we live in America.
We live in a specific kind of America that’s okay for one kind of education for some kids, and then a totally subpar education for other kinds of kids. Our country, and specifically our education system, has been defined by intergenerational inequity which really bothers me. And so, much of my message is around how we disrupt that, how we can begin to look at the things that have plagued us for generations and begin to take those things apart.
So many times as teachers, it’s really easy to fall into platitudes like, “Oh, everyone should have the same thing,” and, “People deserve opportunity.” But then we really don’t act on those platitudes. And so much of my message is around inspiring and moving people to action so that we can disrupt the things that aren’t good for all children.
Can you give me an example of something you’re thinking about, in terms of those inequities?
Oh, for sure. We exist in a system of schools and schooling that has been really defined by many of them. When we look at data, we have become all too comfortable with the reality that girls don’t score as well as boys in sciences and mathematics. We’ve become all too comfortable with the reality that kids with disabilities don’t always get to access the curriculum that they need in order to thrive. We’ve become all too comfortable with the reality that black boys don’t read.
And these things are not natural: that girls aren’t born bad at science; that black kids aren’t born destined for poor reading scores; that these are the result of decades upon decades of policy that have really served to marginalize specific groups of kids.
One of the things that I’m really interested in is looking at how those systems work. So really looking at reading scores and asking the question, “How did we get here? What are the practices that delivered us here?” Or looking at performance in science, or looking at access to curriculum and really asking, “Okay, if I’ve got huge populations of kids that can’t quite access a curriculum, what am I doing about that thing?”
It has been really rewarding and fulfilling to lead teachers and schools and districts into that work where we really take a hard, honest look at ourselves and we step fully into our potential as change agents.
One part of your book that really resonated with me was about rewriting the teacher-hero narrative. Can you talk a little bit about why that narrative developed to begin with and how we can change it?
I think a lot about oppression and how it works. When I think about the role of the teacher, just by definition, a teacher is anti-oppressive. That when we look a the role of a public school teacher, that comes from several places. And many smart people before me have theorized public schools; we’ve looked at Dewey, and we’ve really thought about the role of the public school in the social development of a community.
We all know that Thomas Jefferson is wildly problematic, but as problematic as he is, I often go back to one of the things that Jefferson theorized when he was drafting the document that would eventually become our Declaration of Independence. He was really imagining what America could be, and at this time, America was but an idea. And we know that in Great Britain, if you were poor, you weren’t fully included. If you were a woman, you weren’t fully included. If you owed money, you weren’t fully included. If you weren’t a landowner, you weren’t fully included. Certainly, if you were black, you weren’t included.
Jefferson began to ask the question, who could we be if we were more inclusive? I think that’s a really powerful question. He began to theorize that if we want to move away from a monarchy and to have a democracy, one of the things that a democracy needs are strong public schools. That if people are to vote on the issues of the day, those people need to be educated. I think that that’s a pretty radical idea because basically, Thomas Jefferson was positing that a strong public education is our greatest defense against tyranny. And, for me, that’s huge. That means that the work that we do as educators is hugely disruptive. It keeps us free.
If you’ve got a group of people who are dedicated to preserving the freedom of a republic, in some regimes, and especially when we think about now that the market drives everything, that everything is driven by how much money that people can make. If you’ve got a group of people who are just dedicated to delivering on access and freedom, which is our work as teachers, then it benefits some populations of folks to undermine that work. One of the ways that you undermine the work of a freedom fighter, one of the ways that you undermine the work of a teacher, is you silence those people.
We all know what silencing looks like: that we don’t respect people’s voices, we don’t allow people access to the discourses or to the communities where they can spread a message. One way to silence people is actually to deify them, and we saw it with women’s suffrage. When women first wanted to go and get the vote out, one of the things that people said was like, “Well, they need to be at home because they’re dainty, and we need to protect them. They don’t need to be in the streets voting. They don’t need to be in the streets advocating for themselves because they are fragile and frail.”
That kind of deification led to this idea that people could be marginalized. I think the same is happening with teachers.
When you say, “I am a teacher, therefore I am a hero”, you erase all the parts of me that are not quite heroic yet. You erase the parts of me that are still becoming, the parts of me that are still grappling with curriculum or with working in communities. And so what happens is we try to live up to this ideal, and then we hide all of the parts of us that are not heroic.
If you walk into a teacher’s lounge in America, everybody is struggling through something, but because we’re all heroes, we’re not allowed to talk about that out loud. I really wanted to use “We Got This” as an opportunity for us to talk quite candidly about the things that scare us, about the things that inspire us, about the things that move us, but also about the things that we’re not quite complete on yet because I think in that becoming is where the revolution is.
When we think about who we want to be, we don’t come out as fully formed perfect teachers. But if you listen to the discourse on teaching, one would think that we are. I just really wanted to get to a place where we could talk candidly about who we are and about who we’re becoming.
So when we’re not afraid to talk about our imperfections, then we’re removing this deification of teachers–this thing where we have to be perfect, and we have to be there to be the heroes to save kids.
Exactly. It’s a lot of the work that has been done in so many communities where we’re looking at the images that the media hands us and we’re really resisting those and complicating those. If you look at what we’ve been handed as teachers, we’ve been handed this, like, you all are perfect.
I get that. I work with some of the best colleagues on the planet. There are days when I look at my colleagues and I’m like, “Wow, they’re amazing.”
But we all have work to do. I think that when we really embrace that idea, we can do this work and we can do this work in public. I don’t have to hide in my classroom and close the door in order to improve. I don’t have to cry silently in the teacher’s lounge when something goes bad because I can’t talk about it.
There are far too many schools where we do that. Where if I’m having a hard day, I can’t quite speak up on it because I’m not supposed to have a hard day because I’m a hero. Or if I don’t know what to do next, I can’t talk about it because I’m not supposed to not know because I’m a hero. I just think really complicating that hero narrative is really important for the work and for the world that I want to see.
You also mention in the book that teaching is an economic and political construct. I think that’s an important point to understand because I hear a lot of teachers who want to separate their work from politics. They see politics as something controversial and divisive, and we’re supposed to all just be there for the kids, right?
They don’t want to be divisive. So they’ll say things like, “Oh, let’s just stick to talk about teaching. Let’s not get political.” Can you help us understand why teaching is inherently political and why we can’t really talk about our profession without understanding the politics that are affecting us?
I think the term “being there for the kids” in many ways is divisive. It is my work as a teacher to walk right into that division and stand for children. I always say that it is my role as a teacher to initially create opportunities for children and to eventually teach them how to create opportunities for themselves.
That’s all of our jobs. That we look at kids, I look at my 32, you look at your 28, and every morning when we go in, it’s our job to say, “What opportunities can I create for these kids? And how can I eventually teach them to create opportunities for themselves, with respect to each other and with respect to our environment?”
That being said, anything that stands in the way of opportunity for children is our enemy. And there are several things in society that attempt to abridge opportunity for kids. Those things are political, but they are real, and they’re our prerogative.
So, if family separation threatens opportunity for my kids, then I’ve got to be against that. If access to health care threatens opportunities for my kids, then I’ve got to be against that. If kids can’t have access to healthcare, and it’s abridging opportunities, then I’ve got to figure out how do I stand on the side of history, the side of law, the side of politics, in order to make sure that my kids have the things that they need in order to be successful, in order to access opportunities. And, for me, it’s been really powerful to see.
One big thing in Brooklyn here is food — we encounter kids who don’t always have access to food, and that’s a political issue. There were certain council folks who were for free lunches for kids and there were certain folks who were against free lunches for kids, and that was political. But one of the things that I know is that when kids eat, they can conjugate verbs better. When kids eat, they can compute numbers better. When kids eat, they can create better art. People say, “Well, Cornelius, you were advocating for free lunch for kids, and that’s political.”
Absolutely. Because at the end of the day, it impacts kids’ abilities to conjugate verbs. It impacts their ability to do math.
I always say when people ask me what my politics are: I am radically pro-kid. That definitely means that I am walking into every arena that attempts to abridge opportunity for kids and I’m attempting to disrupt those things.
Right. And when we say pro-kid, that doesn’t mean my kids. That doesn’t mean kids who live in my community, kids in my socioeconomic bracket, kids of my race. That means I’ve got to be pro-all kids.
I think as much as we talk about being there for kids, there’s still a a division — whether it’s consciously or subconsciously. It’s sometimes “those kids.” I go into that community and I teach “those kids”, and then I go home. And when I vote and when I advocate, I’m thinking about my kids. I’m thinking about kids in my neighborhood, and the kids that my kids play with.
And so we’re not necessarily thinking about what’s best for all our kids as a whole. What are the policies we need for all kids? What are the things that we need to do in order to stand up on behalf of all of them, particularly the ones who don’t benefit from the way the system is now?
So we can’t choose not to see politics and how politics impacts education. Salaries are funded by taxpayers. And the budget for schools is determined by politics.
It’s all political here. And if we pretend that we don’t see politics, it’s kind of like saying, “I don’t see color.” You’re missing a whole realm here of information that can be useful for you in better serving kids.
Absolutely. And when you choose to not engage in these things, you’re complicit in them.
In this academic year alone, we’ve seen two major strikes by teachers, and that’s important. A city as large as LA and also Seattle — they just went to the polls yesterday to vote on funding for teachers, and there were people in communities who were actively against funding for teachers.
And so, that we are not political, I think, works to our detriment. And so, it is important to be not just aware of issues, but aware of the systems that regulate our realities every day. That is really important work for me.
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The systems, yes. Moving beyond just the individual and thinking about systems. You’re so right about the thing with the strikes. We want to stand with teachers who are walking out or who are striking, but that is, in fact, a political act. It’s disrupting the status quo.
That’s something that you mentioned more than one time in your book. There’s a whole section that’s called “You can disrupt the status quo in your class.” In it, you talk about questioning what defines classroom culture and identifying any groups of students who, and this is a direct quote from the book, “that consistently benefit less from the way that things are.”
Again, I have become really ill at ease with how things are, that we are a society that sleeps well at night even though large numbers of disabled kids don’t get the access that they need to school. We are a society that has grown okay with the reality that a large number of girls or children of color don’t get what they need out of school, and that’s just how things are. That’s what I call status quo.
There are kids who benefit less from the way things are. Our data in every district, in every school, shows us who those kids are. It’s not just this kind of pie in the sky number. We can name the kids depending on the school. I think that that’s really important to assign names to our data so that we can think these are the kids that aren’t receiving a benefit from the way that we’re doing things right now.
What’s interesting is I have been very upfront with people when I talk about the work that, overwhelmingly, those are the kids of color. Overwhelmingly, those are the disabled kids. Overwhelmingly, those are girls. And so, school, as we do it now, is sexist, is racist, is ableist. That’s really important to say.
Now one of the things that often happens in common discourse when we talk about things like sexism or racism or ableism, people get really emotional about that. They’re like, “Well, I am not racist because I am nice,” or, “I am not sexist because I say hi to women in the office,” or, “I am not ableist because I have a friend that’s disabled.”
I think it’s really important to note here that when we talk about these things, sexism, racism, ableism, these things are not merely personality traits. Rather, I posit that these things are systems. And systems are the rules, the policies, the procedures, the customs that govern a place that lead to inequitable outcomes for specific subsets of people.
So any rule, any policy, any tradition that leads to an inequitable outcome for girls is a sexist system. Any rule, any policy, any tradition that leads to an inequitable outcome for children of color is a racist system. And so, again, when we look at the rules and systems that govern school, it is clear from our data that we are okay with racism, that we are okay with sexism.
I really wanted to use the book to say, “Actually, we’re not okay with those things.” Then one question that I wanted to ask was, well, then what are the specific systems? I wanted to name them.
And oftentimes people say to me, “Well, Cornelius, I’m not the governor. I’m not the superintendent. I’m not the chancellor. How can I impact systems of oppression that are alive in schools?”
One of the things that I’ve done is I’ve really taken a look at classrooms. And so, yes, I am not the governor, so I can’t impact the state. I am not the mayor, I can’t impact the city. I’m not the chancellor. But I am the seventh-grade teacher, and there are systems, there are rules, there are practices, there are customs that govern my seventh-grade classroom. And those rules, those systems, as they exist, marginalize some groups of kids.
So, one of the things that I can do is I can labor intentionally to change those things so that the outcomes for the kids that I see every day are better. It’s really exciting work to do. Those systems can be anything from the way we do our seating arrangements, to the way that we expect kids to turn in work, to the way that I have kids work in their notebooks.
I talked to a kid at the beginning of the school year this year. It was early September — we start after Labor Day here in the city. And I did the typical teacher thing where I mandated that all the kids bring in a certain kind of notebook and that they have their name on the upper left-hand corner of the cover. You know, the thing that we do every year.
And I sent the note home. They needed three spiral notebooks for my class. And this one kid came to me and said, “Cornelius, you just gave people a marginally hard time for not having spiral notebooks.”
He’s like, “And I get why you want kids to have spiral notebooks.” He’s like, “I get it. I totally respect you. You’re the teacher.” But he said, “But also, I’m left-handed and writing in a spiral notebook really hurts my hand. So, whenever I have to write in the notebook, I write slow. The ink gets all over the page. It’s really messy. I don’t like it. I don’t want a spiral notebook.”
And in that moment, I’m so glad that he brought that up to me. I was just like, “Of course I’m not going to make you have the spiral notebook.” Unfortunately, this is my 19th year of teaching. He was the first kid to ever call me out on that. And I don’t know how many kids over 19 years have had to suffer through the spiral notebook that marginalizes them. He was just like, “Yeah, I’ll do a lot better with a composition notebook. I’m not arguing against the notebook. I’m not arguing against the writing that you want me to do. It’s just that if I write in that notebook, I’m not going to produce what I know I can produce.”
I just went home and I really thought. I was like, “Wow, I have been such a stickler for the rules, not even really thinking how that rule might marginalize specific kids in the room.”
That’s a small example where how many of us have been such sticklers for the rules, for the customs, for the systems that marginalize kids. And so, me insisting on that notebook made it incredibly uncomfortable for my left-handed student. I’m lucky enough that he was brave enough to come talk to me about it. But then I look back on my 19 years and I’m like, “How many kids weren’t? How many kids had to live in that discomfort and just be okay with it?”
There are these small things, but then there are the bigger things. One of my best educator friends on the planet kind of left me eight years ago to become a principal. She was the literacy coach that raised me, and I tell this story often, but she is perhaps my best teacher friend in life. She taught me everything that I know about teaching literacy. Eight years ago, she left school to become a principal so she left teaching. Then she got her own school and it was really, really exciting. And because we’re really good friends, we still check in with each other each Sunday night.
About a year and a half ago, she called me. It was March. She called and she was just like, “Hey. It’s been one of the toughest Marches of my career.” And for a woman like that, I wasn’t really expecting a statement like that because, again, this is the strongest educator that I know. She’s like, “Yeah, it’s been a tough March. I’ve had to suspend 12 kids this March.”
If you know where we teach, suspending 12 kids in one month is a huge number. As she continued, one of the things that she said to me, she was like, “You know, Cornelius, I really feel like this number, this 12 suspensions, has a racial dynamic to it.” And she said, “Of the 12 kids that I suspended, 9 of them were black or Latino males. That’s 75%.
The problem with that number is black or Latino males make up less than 20% at my school.” Statistically, that is a racist outcome, that people who make up a statistical minority in your school make up an overwhelming majority of the suspensions. And we wanted to look at that. She was like, “Yep, absolutely, this has a racial component. This outcome is racist, statistically.” But the thing about that is she’s like, “Cornelius, we’ve been friends for years. You know that I am not a racist person. You know that I don’t run a racist school. Yet, my school is perpetuating this racist outcome.”
And, fortunately, because we’re friends, we got to sit and look at her data. We kind of put all the office referrals out on the table. One of the things that we saw right away was that of the 12 office referrals that led to the suspensions, 10 of them occurred in a social studies classroom. Not in the same social studies classroom, but in the social studies department.
She was like, “Wow, okay. So 10 of my 12 suspensions originated in a social studies class.” And what was powerful is she was like, “My social studies teachers are the most progressive people on campus. They’re the people who are most willing to talk about this.”
On the following Monday (in New York City, we have professional development on Mondays) we gathered the social studies teachers and we just shared the data with them. We were like, “Last month we suspended 12 kids. 10 of those suspensions originated in your classrooms. We need to take a look at this.”
They were game to talk about it. After about 25 minutes of talking, one of the things that we discovered was that in that particular school, reading and writing were taught in a workshop-based way. Science was taught through inquiry. Mathematics was hands-on. Arts were through exploration. But social studies was taught through lecture.
So, we began to ask ourselves the inquiry question. And, again, we know that that correlation does not equal causality. And I’m a researcher, so we asked ourselves an inquiry question. We were like, “Could it be that lecturing at kids for 45 minutes is leading to the kinds of disciplinary actions that encouraged suspension? Could it be?” And once you ask an inquiry question, you’ve got to do the action research. So we did two weeks of action research. We said, “What would happen if we changed our teaching methodology for two weeks? Would office referrals go up or would they go down?”
We decided that we were going to try to use centers. We did centers-based activities for 10 school days, two weeks. Each day we monitored three things. We monitored student affect. We monitored their productivity — so how productive they were, how much social studies they did. And then we measured, of course, how many kids received disciplinary action and had to be removed from the room.
Over two weeks, we found that office referrals went down. And we did lots of end of class interviews with kids. So for 10 days of centers, we had all these interviews. We had all this student data in the form of their work. And then we had the number of office referrals themselves. And we were really able to sit at the end of that two weeks and say, “Wow. Because we changed our teaching methodology, suspensions went down.”
That idea to change our methodology was an anti-racist act, even though it had nothing to do with signing a petition, even though it had nothing to do with going to a march, even though it had nothing to do with supporting Black Lives Matter. By changing our teaching methodology, fewer kids were suspended and fewer kids had to leave the classroom. More kids had access to social studies.
So, when I talk about systems, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about looking at our everyday practice, our traditions, our customs, and really thinking about which one of these customs marginalize kids disproportionately. We found, in that specific instance, that lecturing the kids for 45 minutes was just not working. In how many schools do we lecture kids, watch them get suspended, and keep lecturing?
When I think about what it means to be an anti-racist practitioner, it means looking at the things that marginalize kids of color and changing those things. When I think about what it means to be fully inclusive of gender or class, it means looking at the things that marginalize those kids and changing our practice.
What advice would you give teachers who want to make a change in the norms in their school or their classroom, but they aren’t sure how to make or execute on a plan?
I’m a huge fan of inquiry — the action research has been how we have defined ourselves as a profession. So if something bothers me as a teacher — if I’m looking at my data and the girls aren’t achieving, or if I’m looking at my data and my kids with disabilities just aren’t getting what they need — then I get to invent something.
When we look at our heroes, the single most common characteristics that our heroes have, no matter who our heroes are — from Martin Luther King to Mae Jemison to Frederick Douglass, whoever we want to think about — all of our heroes had imagination, that they were able to imagine a reality that is better than the one that we currently exist in.
If the reality that I currently exist in says that girls don’t do science well, then can I imagine a reality where girls would have more access to science? And once I imagine that reality, I try it. So, 5 days of action research, 10 days of action research where I invent a thing for my class, and then I try the thing. Again, I’m not trying the thing forever, but I’m trying the thing for 5 or 10 days.
What happens when I try a thing is then I begin to measure outcomes. I look at how productive are the kids, how happy are they? Are kids being removed from the classroom? Are kids are achieving more? Are they scoring higher in science? And then I can take that data, and then I can sit with my principal, and I can say, “Hey, I was really worried about the girls, but then for five days I tried this thing. Here is what happened to my data when I tried this thing,” or, “I was really worried about the kids with disabilities,” or, “I was really worried about the kids from single-parent homes. Here’s what I tried, and here’s how my data shifted.”
I think that that’s our work as teachers. That it’s important to note that there will still be things in our school that are hard to deal with, and there will still be things in our school that we want to see improve. But if we wait around for the school district to tell us, if we wait around for even the principal or the literacy coach to tell us, that we’re going to be waiting for a long time. Action research inquiry work allows us to take that practice into our own hands and walk toward the results that we want to see.
There are so many good things in your book and so many great topics that we’ve discussed so far. I feel like this could be a six-hour podcast if I could get to all the questions that I have for you! But I want to give you a chance to share the most important idea from your book, the one thing that you wish every teacher understood.
I think it’s an idea that has kind of permeated our conversation: this idea that we cannot be okay with the way things are. That it’s just too dire for too many kids. That education matters a lot. When families send their kids to school, they send us their best kids. They don’t keep the good ones at home.
And so many times, we make excuses for the way things are by saying, “Well, this is how we’ve always done it,” or, “Things aren’t ever going to change,” or, “I’m just a teacher. What power do I have?”
The most important thing to me is that, “Yeah, I’m just a teacher and we have a whole lot of power.” To be able to step back, look at my practices, look at my customs, look at my traditions, and do the kind of action research that’s going to lead to change really matters a lot to me.
I hope that people read We Got This and really take the title to heart, that I don’t have to wait for city hall to say, “Let’s do this thing.”
I don’t have to wait for the state of New York to say that, “Yes, we’re finally going to get on board with equity.” That I can look at the inequitable outcomes in my school, in my department, in my class, and I can address those things in a really intentional way using action research or inquiry. That’s what matters a lot to me.