By Barrett Smith
Last month I resigned from my position as a tutor and teaching assistant at a “No-Excuses” Charter School in Boston. What follows is an open letter to my students.
First, I need to get something off my chest. I came to your middle school for some selfish reasons. I wanted to tutor you not only to help you but also to help myself. I came to Boston temporarily and as an outsider, looking for a year of training in skills that I could take with me to my future home, and to benefit my future students.
That’s not to say that I don’t care about you. Working with you was the best part of my job, and I learned from each of you every day.
I came to your middle school hoping to give you the best possible education, but what I saw at your “No Excuses” charter startled me and still troubles me deeply. I was trained on how to discipline you, but not on the best way to help you understand material. I was lectured on how to turn your learning into data points, but was never told who you are and where you came from. Your school forced me to do things that I don’t believe are in your best interest.
But instead of focusing on what your middle school was doing wrong, I want to focus on what you deserve: the best education available.
The education you deserve
You deserve an education that fosters dignity and self-respect. None of you are bad kids, no matter how many demerits, lunch detentions, send-outs or Friday detentions you have been given. Your self-worth should not be determined by your demerit count.
You deserve an education that helps you find your voice, not one that consistently silences you.
You deserve an education that provides a social outlet. Education is also about socialization, and you should have the time and space to make mistakes and to learn and grow from your experiences. A school that almost completely eliminates social time can’t teach those lessons. You shouldn’t go a full year without knowing the name of someone in your homeroom.
You deserve an education that treats you like a human being. You may be young but you are fully capable of understanding and choosing, and I see how you resent being constantly commanded and ordered about. The end goal of an education that’s truly liberatory should be to make you curious lifelong learners with a thirst for knowledge, then give you the tools to try to quench that thirst.
You deserve an education that teaches you to solve problems with your peers, tutors and teachers. Your removal from a class or school until you are considered docile enough to return doesn’t give you the space or tools to learn how to resolve conflict effectively. Copying and recopying the lunch detention protocol doesn’t address why you ended up in lunch detention. Sitting upright, staring at a wall for two hours in Friday detention is punitive but not constructive.
You deserve an education that does more than teach you to be good at taking tests. You are not a number or a data point. You should have art classes, music classes, academic electives and foreign languages. Your education should be holistic and respond to the needs of your communities. At a school with nearly seventy staff members for a student body of two hundred and fifty, there is more than enough human power and resources to provide a dynamic, responsive and powerful education.
You deserve an education that expands your mind instead of controlling your body. You shouldn’t need to ask my permission to blow your nose; I trust you.
You deserve an education that meets your individualized needs. You deserve to have your Individualized Education Plan (IEP) followed, not just because it’s the law, but because it’s critical to your education.
You deserve an education that arms you to name, confront and challenge the racism and classism you face daily.
You deserve an education that empowers you to create a more beautiful, equitable and just world. Because you have that power within yourselves now.
Barrett Smith is a former tutor at a no-excuses charter school in Boston. Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.