The term “ally” is often brought up for debate and discussion in education reform circles across our country. Is it appropriate for a white educator of relative privilege to self-identify as an ally, or is this a term that must be earned and offered by someone who more closely represents the students served by that educator? Who determines who is an ally and who isn’t? And even if the term ally is accepted in some circles, does that mean it is universal?
As a straight, white, male who grew up with options and had the opportunity to go to private high school and college, I have struggled with this very question over the years. And I’m glad that I have. The work of being an educator is not just about teaching; it is about listening and learning as well, especially in the context of the very communities which I have been a part of over the past eight years – communities that have shaped and evolved the educator and person that I am today.
This lesson crystallized for me this past summer during our first Education Pioneers workshop, the “Opportunity Gap and School Systems.” During one breakout session, I found myself in a group of 10 – and I was the only white male in the group. I caught a few curious glances, and after each person shared, someone turned to me and said, “what do you think?”
As silence surrounded us, and all eyes stared into mine, I shared a piece of my story and how I felt it was more important to look, listen, learn, and then speak. Someone chimed in, “I was wondering what the only white male in the group was going to say,” and we all shared a heartfelt laugh that opened up new doors of vulnerability and exchange within a group that decided lines of difference were meant to be bridged, and not to serve as barriers.
I have been surrounded by people who have pushed my thinking and constantly encourage me to reflect on my experience, perspective, and privilege.
I share this lesson as it applies, every day, to many of us. Regardless of our skin color, background, privilege, or circumstance, we often walk through the world and have our stories given to us. It was this past summer that I had a chance to collaborate with passionate and promising educators and colleagues in this work and to build bridges and understanding, not just for us, but for our kids as well. Because our work in these learning and development workshops, our work in developing ourselves, ultimately leads back to our students, families, and communities.
From Teach For America corps member to Teach For America staff, to the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Education Pioneers, I have been surrounded by people who have pushed my thinking and constantly encourage me to reflect on my experience, perspective, and privilege. I’ve come to see leadership as work to empower and support others, and not necessarily to take a role in the front or at the top.
Looking, learning, listening, and then speaking is not just an answer that I gave one day in July to a group of incredible colleagues – these actions, in order, have become part of my work and part of my leadership. I find myself now, the proposed founding school director of a charter school in the Hawaiian Islands, wanting to learn from others to inform my decisions and the vision of our school.
As we think about the names and identities we take on in the critical work of increasing educational opportunity and equity for all students, it is important that we allow for new ways of thinking and feeling to help design and shape our work moving forward. Not that we ever forget our values or beliefs, but rather take on new perspectives and ways of looking at challenging, persistent problems.
The challenge of what to self-identity as – ally, partner, advocate, friend – takes a back seat for me these days as I believe what we do, what we stand for, and the openness and humility we bring to this work will ultimately be what affects educational equity. I thank my Boston Education Pioneers colleagues for helping me see this over the summer and I look forward to the work that all of us will do, collectively, for so many children in our country.
Alex Teece was an Education Pioneers Fellow in the summer of 2016. He became an EP Fellow to bridge his academic, business, and personal experience with an opportunity to impact educational outcomes for kids. As a Fellow with the Boston Schools Fund, Alex helped design a viable, long-term strategy to better support and serve public schools in Boston. Prior to the Fellowship, Alex graduated from Harvard's School Leadership Program. He has been working with fellow Teach For America alumni to found a leadership-focused charter school in his home region of Hawai'i.