My Life, My Purpose: Reimagining Teaching
"Sometimes, you don’t have to search for your purpose because it has always been a part of your life story."
UnboundEd, a New Profit grantee-partner from 2016-2020, is dedicated to empowering teachers and leaders to meet the challenges set by higher standards, unfinished instruction, and institutional racism by providing immersive instructional equity professional development and free high-quality standards-aligned resources for the classroom.
New Profit has been honored to partner with UnboundEd over the last four years, during which we have supported the organization in scaling its impact:
- UnboundEd’s Standards Institute, an immersive five-day professional development experience designed to build, improve, and sustain equitable instructional excellence in ELA, math, and leadership, saw its participation grow nearly 4x over the past four years from 1k in 2016 to 3.9k in 2020
- Educators engaged through direct training went from 1k in 2016 to 12k in 2020
- Educators interacting with digital content went from 28k in 2016 to over 1M in 2020
These are just a few of the breakthrough strides that UnboundEd has made and continues to drive toward their vision of a world where education systems disrupt systemic racism by providing students of color meaningful, engaging, and affirming grade-level instruction. We asked Lacey Robinson, President and CEO of UnboundEd, about the life experiences that influence and drive her in this work.
Sometimes, you don’t have to search for your purpose because it has always been a part of your life story. I’ve always been an integrator: from growing up in Ohio where we lived in neighborhoods with enough Black people, including my own family of three, that you could count on one hand, to my career where many times I was the first or one of the few women of color, either as an elementary school teacher to now, as a CEO and President of UnboundEd. Every personal life experience I’ve had has pushed me to strive to maintain my core beliefs and values of who I am as an African American woman from the midwest, while simultaneously learning as Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings so eloquently notes a “bi-cultural” knowledge of mainstream norms and practices.
Sometimes, you don’t have to search for your purpose because it has always been a part of your life story.
Like many Black children, I found myself in a position where I was forced to learn some adult lessons very early in life. Shortly after my parents divorced when I was in first grade, my mom moved my sister and me to a neighborhood in Dayton, where we were one of the first Black families. I’m sure it comes as no shock to you to learn that the welcoming committee was less than welcoming and greeted us with racist pranks, jeers, and taunting that they were more than happy to shout while chasing us through the neighborhood as we made our way home from school or just outside playing. That alone would be enough to make most people pack up and head elsewhere.
Not my mom.
She remained steadfast to the idea that my sister and I would attend a school where she believed we could attain a better education as compared to the schools that held a larger number of students of color. That, unfortunately, due to redlining and other systemic and systematic racial policies and social practices, left the schools with little to no resources and a novice teaching staff. She was committed to ensuring that her daughters were not going to be “cheated” out of a highly efficient education.
Consequently, I didn’t have a Black teacher until the fifth grade (which terrified me because I didn’t even know teachers could be Black) and found myself in classrooms where white teachers felt comfortable enough in their ignorance to blatantly spit out, “I don’t teach n*gger kids how to read,” or silently ignore me and my contributions to the class. My mom, knowing the bigger purpose of having her Black daughters return to these spaces where we were judged exclusively by our skin color, would often grace the school with her presence to put the school leaders on notice that, “I hear what you’re saying to my kid, and she’s not going anywhere. You will educate and respect her like all of the other children.” And that was that.
You may be reading this and thinking, “Why in the world would a Black woman put her daughters through this?” I wondered the same too. My mom had already experienced how proximity leads to expertise; she knew how psychologically the trauma of being Black in America was and still is challenging, but she wanted us to see the other side. She wanted us to learn how to slay dragons early on—to acquire the much-needed skills of how to live life as Black women in white spaces. As a child, I was placed in positions where I found myself being “the first Black…” I’ve fought battles as the minority and been in wars as the majority. And that’s precisely why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Systemic racism is still everywhere; it’s just dressed for the current times. I’ve seen first-hand how racism can play a role in student achievement. My career has placed me in low and high socioeconomic schools where again, students are judged entirely based on their ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The lower the socioeconomic status, the fewer educational opportunities and supplies available to students, and the lower the expectations are for those students because it is assumed that they simply can’t learn or don’t hold the assumed sufficient prerequisites for the grade-level. We are loving our kids dumb.
Systemic racism is still everywhere; it’s just dressed for the current times.
I’ll let you in on a little secret all great teachers know: a student’s intellect will go as far and wide as you deem capable as a teacher. Don’t allow the smog of racism to clog your expectations of students. This means you will have to be committed to raising your awareness of when and where that smog shows up.
I first learned this lesson personally and then professionally. I attended an HBCU—partially at my mom’s ushering (she refused to support my sister and me otherwise) and partly because I knew the educational track was just as reliable and rigorous as those at other schools. At least, I thought I knew. I soon discovered that the prep work being done at HBCUs for up-and-coming Black teachers was far beyond any training I would have received elsewhere. My professors talked about culturally responsive teaching and believed in immersive learning, requiring thousands of hours in the classroom to graduate. During my teacher residency, I was allowed to attend the Marva Collins Preparatory School in Cincinnati, OH. There is where my possibilities of how and what students learn were broken wide open and expanded as far as I could imagine.
A student’s intellect will go as far and wide as you deem capable as a teacher. Don’t allow the smog of racism to clog your expectations of students.
The first day I walked into the combined second and third grade class of students, some of whom had been deemed as ones with “disciplinary” issues in their previous public school settings, I found them reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Not only were they reading the words, they actually understood what they were reading. They were having educated discussions, in which they were making comparisons to Lenin and Stalin and what was happening in their own communities. I was shocked. There were college students who could barely have such intellectual conversations about Animal Farm. Yet, these so-called “disciplinary” issue children that would have been left and forgotten elsewhere were allowed to push the limits of their learning capacities thanks to teachers looking beyond their assumed capabilities as students of color or students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to what they were: bright and talented students capable of learning whatever you could throw at them. This propelled and drove me to provide the same experiences for all students no matter the zip code or the color of their skin. The students at the Marva Collins School were held at the same level my mother had for my sister and I. The only difference was that the level of expectations that they received at home extended right into their school day, with every teacher and experience they had at the Marva Collins Preparatory School.
I am very rarely intimidated by anybody or any space or place. I believe if I can see it, if I can believe it, if I can imagine it, I can achieve it. That’s what was driven into me. Usually, in most professional settings, I am the only woman and the only Black person. However, when I became the CEO of UnboundEd, I was very afraid my sex and ethnicity would prove to be a barrier to receiving funding. I wasn’t in the social circles or didn’t have the connections that many of my white colleagues had. But I pushed myself to hold, just as I learned early on in school, the bicultural norms I had acquired—matched with the unwavering belief that I am enough. I can learn, critique, and push into those social circles. This belief allowed me to engage even when I know my background and maybe even experiences I have been exposed to don’t match my white peers. It is important for me to note this because as my mother also drilled in my sister and me: I hold the responsibility to be a model and open the door for others. At UnboundEd, I specifically discuss and cause networking experiences for colleagues who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in some spaces. I speak specifically to women of color in my organization about fighting the “imposter syndrome” that we often battle with or are implicitly driven into.
So many of our teachers are well-equipped from a lived experience. Specifically speaking, keeping teachers in this dynamic profession is another challenge altogether. To be a teacher is the greatest career choice someone can make, but it’s not for everyone.
I want to reimagine what it means to be a teacher in the U.S. I want more teachers of color leading children. Teachers of color deserve the same opportunities as their white counterparts. We have the network, the passion, and the dedication, but we don’t have the same step ladder.
I want to reimagine what it means to be a teacher in the U.S. I want more teachers of color leading children.
I’ve seen what happens when we allow the expertise of educators who have been in the same shoes as the very children they are teaching lead. I’ve even been that child who was desperately looking for a teacher or even a community that saw me beyond my skin color. The opportunities are limitless when we create spaces for people to thrive and include leaders with those shared living experiences. To create those spaces, however, we have to be intentional about bringing equity into our processes, practices, policies, and procedures. We have to listen and learn from our colleagues who have been marginalized, making particular room for educators who have experience on a lived level, as well as create space and opportunities for educators to adequately be equipped with the skillset and will to support students from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is just as important for teachers in every socioeconomic setting to hold the norms of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
But, what do you do if you’ve never walked in your students’ shoes? You walk the streets of their communities. Where do our families shop? Where do our families gather? You learn about students’ history from an asset-based lens. What is their cultural and linguistic history? Are we affirming it in our classrooms? We adopt a mindset of equity. We decide to be intentional about providing engaging, affirming, and meaningful grade-level instruction. We can become a student of our students’ learning styles, needs, and strengths. This will take work but it will also allow teachers to see more of the school through their students’ eyes.
Seeing the world through our students’ eyes can help us all gain a more informed understanding of the contextual realities our students bring into our classrooms. It helps us bring clarity and urgency to our instruction and girds our belief that all children are able to learn at the highest levels, no matter where or how they live. We need to continue to support growing educators’ understanding that ensures students are at the center of learning and they are being held to standards and pedagogy that supports expanding their views beyond their cultural perspective—while at the same time honoring their heritage, cultural norms, language and ways of being.
Seeing the world through our students' eyes can help us all gain a more informed understanding of the contextual realities our students bring into our classrooms.
That little girl in Dayton wasn’t defined by what she was called or how her teachers limited her potential. She had an adult in her life who held high expectations, beliefs, and provided access to opportunities for rigorous learning. We can all be that adult for our students who disrupt systemic racism by providing students of color meaningful, engaging, and affirming grade-level instruction. We can all walk in these education streets in service of our students and their families and most importantly OUR United States.