“I think my parents hate me”
That is how a student, who we’ll call “Earl,” recently started a conversation with his teacher, Cornelius Minor, after class one day. On today’s podcast we’re talking about advocating for our students with Cornelius Minor. Mr. Minor is a frequent keynote speaker and Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York where he works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support literacy reform in cities. In his work, Cornelius draws not only on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with kids. He’s also currently writing his first book for Heinemann.
Cornelius says it best; "we may not have the answers for every situation we face, but we can’t choose to do nothing." So what did Cornelius do? How did he advocate for Earl and all of his students? Listen below to find out.
See below for a full transcript of our conversation
Cornelius: And that's such a huge question, Bret. Like, when I think about advocacy, that word just sounds intimidating. You know, like, I'm a seventh grade English teacher. I deal in the realm of verbs and gerunds and participles, like that's my realm. So when you throw out words like advocacy, for me, what comes to mind is that Morgan Freeman movie Lean On Me. Everybody wants to be Morgan Freeman, but that guy's got skills. I don't got skills like that, and so how do I, with my regular every day nerdy self, stand up for kids in a big way. So I've really been trying to think about, like, yeah how do I do that?
When I think about Earl, and I think about the struggle that he's having with his parents right now, I don't have answers. I think a lot of times we ask ourselves, what should I do? And when we don't know, we choose to do nothing. I'm just at a point in my career now, even though I'm wildly imperfect at standing up for kids, and even though my advocacy game is in it's infancy, doing nothing can't be an option for me anymore.
Brett: And in this case, it could be dangerous.
Cornelius: And it could have been dangerous. Yeah. One of the things I have with Earl ... In New York City we're mandated first reports. So one of the things that has to ... I teach in Brooklyn, and so any time I sense that a kid is in danger or any time that I hear that a kid is in danger, it is my job per state of New York to call it in and alert a guidance counselor.
Actually, he just told me ... and I know him like I know all the other kids, so I know his writing, but I wouldn't say I had a closely personal relationship with him, but when they came to me and he was like, you know, I had a conversation with my parents this weekend that didn't go well. And I was like, oh, well tell me about it. And he's like, oh, not now, but I want to come to you later. So he came later and he just kind of put it on the table. He's like, you know, I think my parents hate me. And I was like, no, your parents don't hate you. This is a great kid. Athlete, reads every book in the world, keeps a really great writer's notebook. And I'm like, your parents don't hate you, man. If you were my son, I'd be the luckiest dude on the planet. And he's like, no, I'm pretty sure they hate me.
In the way that Brooklyn kids are resilient, he had a sense of humor about it, and then he went on to tell the story about, you know, when I told them that I was gay, they told me that they didn't want me to come back. They gave me a week.
Here's beautiful Earl in my classroom, and he's got seven days left in his house, in his mind. That must be terrifying for a seventh grader. So immediately, I'm like, we got to get you to a counselor. I can hear this, and I want to be there with you. Fortunately for me, the counselor's not too far down the hall. So we walked together down. He didn't feel like sharing with her. And I'm like, well Earl, I'm going to tell her what you told me because we need to make sure that you're protected.
We talked about it and the counselor was like, great, I know what to do. There's lots that we have in place for homeless youth. There's lots that we have in place for gay kids. So she did her counselor thing, but the thing that kept nagging, even though he would have a safe home and even though the proper services were being activated, and people were gathering resources for him, the thing that he kept coming back to with me, is he's like, my dad still hates me. So even though I'm in a safe home. Even though I have food to eat. Even though I'm wearing nice clothes. The man that I care about the most on this planet hates me.
That's something that I can do because at a literacy teacher, I deal in love. I deal in hate. And I deal in story telling. And I deal in redemption. So we sat, and I'm like, dude what do you want me to do? What can we do together? I didn't know it at the time, but that was a really powerful question for Earl. Earl was like, no one's ever asked me what I wanted to do, and how they could work for me. I don't know if you can change my dad, but I want you to show him some of the cool things that I do.
Brett: What is your action plan in that moment? Do you feel you need to run out the door that second? Do you sit down and map this out with Earl? How did you approach that?
Cornelius: At the heart of teacher advocacy, I think the action plan is always listen to the kid. So, I tried to identify what he wanted, and then what I could do to get him closer to that goal. The guidance counselor was already doing a lot. The principal was already doing a lot. And again, I'm the literacy teacher, so I'm like, you know, you want your dad to love you and I can't move that mountain, but again, he was just like, I think my dad will start to come around if he's reminded of all the cool things that I'm doing. I'm like, that I can do. You've written hundreds of stories for me. That I can do. You've read tons of books. That I can do. Your essays are brilliant.
So really, the action plan is to co-create. I think as a reading teacher, or a writing teacher, I'm used to co-creation in small groups. I'm used to co-creation in conferences. I'm used to co-creation in my mini lessons. So, we take what we already know, and we just apply it to the human condition.
Brett: How did that go?
Cornelius: You know, the thing about life is it's complicated. I think it's important to say that happy endings exist in movies, and life has really messy endings.
Earl and his dad are still in a complicated place, but I think the number one thing that it did for Earl is he saw that I was willing to fight for him. I think what's important, is that you engage in the fight, even if you lose.
Brett: What message ... I mean, I'm sure there's a teacher listening to this that is thinking, I don't know what I would do in that situation. I don't know that I would want to step out of the classroom, and I'm happy to speak with the student, happy to have that moment with them in the classroom, but to go beyond that and talk to the parents and try to step in, in that advocacy roll ... What could you tell them to encourage them to take that step?
Cornelius: Three big things have been really helpful for me. A, organizations. The national PTA, amazing. Like, amazing. They have tons of resources to support gay and lesbian kids. They have tons of resources to support teachers who want to support kids. They have tons of resources to help you talk to parents. So the PTA ... amazing. Just knowing that I'm not the only one thinking about this. I think so many times when people come to us, it feels really, like, I am lonely. I am hearing this kid, and I've got to carry this thing. So, even though I'm in a school with lots of other professionals, in that moment, it feels like you're the only one. I'm certain teachers are listening to this podcast thinking that.
Knowing there are organizations. There are also tons of organizations, both locally and nationally, that serve children that deal with homelessness, that deal with depression, that deal with talking to your parents. So, having local organizations has also been really helpful as well.
The second thing that's been really big for me ... and this is kind of a surprise ... but, working with guidance counselors to rehearse hard conversations. I remember leaving after we talked with Earl and Earl went home, the guidance counselor kept me in the office, and she was like, well, you know, you did a good job. Thank you, Mr. Miner. But next time something like that comes up, here are some things that you can do, here's some things that you can say. And then we roll-played it.
So, that you sit with your guidance counselor. We did it in, like, 10 minutes. It wasn't even long. But that she was just like, kids are going to say things, and because now they know you're safe, because Earl has had this conversation with you, these conversations will probably start happening more frequently to you, because now the word is out that you're that person. Knowing that I didn't have to be an expert. That there's a person in my building who can help me was a big thing. I know this sounds silly, but I sit with the guidance counselor from time to time and I rehearse a conversation that I need to have with a kid later on, or that I rehearse a conversation I need to have with a parent later on.
Advocacy doesn't have to be something like Earl's situation. I had to think, we just had parent teacher conferences in New York City, and I have a very assertive father, and I had to figure out, how am I going to tell this guy that his kid isn't doing well. I want it to go well. I want the conversation to be a productive conversation, and I don't want there to be anger. I'm sure there was. So, I went to the guidance counselor, and I'm like, I'm about to speak to a dad and I'm not sure how he's going to take the news that his kid isn't doing well. So can we rehearse that conversation? Another big thing for teachers who are thinking about doing more for children is practice. I know that sounds so, so silly, but I'm an athlete and when I want to get good at soccer, I practice. When I want to get good at skateboarding, I practice. That's my default mode of learning, and so, when I wanted to start having more meaningful conversations with children or families, I just sat in the guidance counselor's office and practice.
Brett: Just to back that up a little bit, too, the more you practice, the more ... if you're uncomfortable with any of these conversations, be it an aggressive person that you're not quite sure how to talk to, or having a conversation that might catch you off guard, or you might not be quite prepared for, the more you practice those conversations with someone, the better, more comfortable you are with it.
Cornelius: Exactly. Exactly. There's a couple of default conversations I just keep in my mind. Like, I have a conversation for dealing with unkindness. So if I'm ever surprised by unkindness, I know what to say, because kids call each other names, they talk about each other's living conditions. Sometimes as the teacher, I feel like I'm surprised by unkindness, and in the moment I don't always know how to stand for a kid. So I'm like, okay, kids call each other names that are unkind. Kids do things that are unkind. I want to always be on top of that, so let me go ahead and just know what I'm going to say ahead of time. I have that in my back pocket, so when it happens now, I'm not uncomfortable or off guard. I know how to, kind of, address directly unkindness. So, that's a conversation.
A conversation like a welcoming conversation is another one that you rehearse. Kids tend to withdraw sometimes. I'm a middle school teacher, so you read the room sometimes, and a kid is having a bad day and you don't always know what to say when the kid is having a bad day. You kind of go, and awkwardly want to cheer him up. You're like, be happy. I don't want to be that teacher. If I look across the room and somebody's having a bad day, I've already rehearsed that conversation. Recognizing that my job isn't to change your feeling, 'cause how you feel is how you feel, but my job is too announce my presences, and let you know that, again, I will fight for you. So, just practicing those conversations.
Another conversation that I practice all the time is how to bring you down. If something happens that surprises a kid, and the kid escalates quickly, how to de-escalate.
The big take-away is that we play for a team. There are guidance counselors in all of our schools who know what to do, and so, that we utilize those folks. That we listen to kids. That the chief architect of progress, the chief architect of happiness, the chief architect of the utopian future that I want for every kid, is the kid himself. The kid herself. That so many times we think we know what's best, but I don't know what's best for Earl. Earl knows what's best for Earl. That I listen to him and honor that is really, really important. So, I play for my team, I listen to the kid, and then I think that I remain flexible and willing to learn as a teacher. Accepting the reality that I'm going to do something wrong some times, but the operative word is that I do something.
Learn more about Cornelius Minor at Heinemann.com and download a sample chapter from his new book below!
We offer many resources based on the conversation we're having on this episode. Here is a complete list:
- The Journey Project: http://thejourneyproject.us/for-families/
- LGBT Community Centers: lgbtcenters.org
- Gender Spectrum: genderspectrum.org
- Human Rights Campaign: hrc.org
- The National PTA: pta.org
- GLSEN: glsen.org
- PFlag: pflag.org
- Teaching Tolerance: tolerance.org
Cornelius Minor is a frequent keynote speaker for and Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In that capacity, he works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support deep and wide literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe. Whether working with teachers and young people in Singapore, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius always uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to recruit students’ engagement in reading and writing and teachers’ engagement in communities of practice. As a staff developer, Cornelius draws not only on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with young people.
You can follow Cornelius on Twitter @MisterMinor