Review: We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be

Chris McNutt
July 12, 2019
We Got This is part personal narrative, part Paulo Freire critical pedagogy, and part comic book allegory. It’s a fascinating look at how a current public school teacher disrupts the status quo so his students have every possibility to achieve.

We Got This is part personal narrative, part Paulo Freire critical pedagogy, and part comic book allegory. It’s a fascinating look at how a current public school teacher disrupts the status quo so his students have every possibility to achieve. Cornelius Minor has written a masterclass on equitable practice — an inspiring look at how teachers can change the world not by drilling content but by pushing for change in systemic inequities.

Minor’s work is centered on the idea of teacher as creator — whose work goes beyond lesson plans:

If we choose to act, things can be different. They won’t be radically different right away, but they can be incrementally better.

The longer I stay in it, the more I realize that our work is more evolutionary than it is revolutionary.

I always have to remind myself here that I am not the first educator to ever struggle. I’m not the first one to dream of better, and I’m not the first one to try to imagine tomorrows that are slightly better than our todays…This is the work of questioning everything and building paths for ourselves and our students based on our own study, consideration, planning, and trial and error, not on someone else’s promises of shortcuts and miracles.

Being a teacher who works against prevailing notions will cause a lot of stress. Although it’s in the best interest of our students, it is another factor to burnout in a profession already plagued with issues. Depending on the environment, there may be little to no support on any ideas that fundamentally change the current culture, which is taxing — even with increasing numbers of supportive communities being established online. Minor addresses this issue directly,

Much of my teacher stress is born in the limited space between taking calculated risks to grow my practice in service of kids and doing what the boss told me to do…

Though our culture celebrates innovation, at times it encourages and rewards compliance. When we look across our schools, it can seem that the people who move forward are the ones whose loyalty to mandate outlasts their bonds to creativity. We talk about entrepreneurial spirit while worshiping the status quo.

I appreciate Minor’s candor throughout this work. He celebrates the will for teachers to enact change while simultaneously recognizing this work isn’t easy. As a current public school educator, Minor reflects on the challenges he faces and issues guidance to others who are struggling. And along the way, he offers many essential words of wisdom. This excerpt was revitalizing and a favorite of mine:

// There is no magic. Knowing what kids care about and acting upon that knowledge can be learned.

// Classroom cool is not performative. It is relational. Most of this work happens when you are not “onstage.”

// Many times we seek to foster a sense of compliance or one of accountability. Those things are based on us being powerful and kids being comparatively powerless. We can work instead to build trust. For kids, it’s a more powerful place from which to learn.

Referencing the core tenants of critical pedagogy, Minor is enacting a contemporary methodology of Freire’s words. The idea of being a “human first” teacher, focusing on who we are while not in front of the classroom, is something I’ve always related to, but never explicitly thought about. If we spent more time being a caring person first toward our students as a pedagogy (beyond the prevailing idea of lesson planning, delivering certain curricula, or using particular learning strategies), there are undeniable shifts that would occur in education.

I believe most educators care about their students, but there’s certainly some who have become so bogged down in the system that they’ve forgotten the “human first” mantra. Minor’s work does a great job at reestablishing this mode of thinking and helping educators realign their principles. He states,

One thing is clear. The kids are not my enemy. Eve when it feels like they are gleefully sabotaging my attempts at teaching (fifth period, every day, every seventh-grade classroom in America), they are, in myriad ways, simply responding to the things in their world in the best way they know how. All of the children in our schools, even the behavioral outliers, are simply trying to cope with all the input that home, school, hormones, and the world are handing them.

And We Got This isn’t just about philosophy, there are various strategies and diagrams for disrupting classroom norms. Minor suggests simple, yet effective protocols such as taking time for classroom meetings, where students provide quick feedback for the class. These aren’t always formal — sometimes just in passing in the hallway — but they have powerful ramifications for student voice:

A class meeting does not have to be a big production. As our schedules get packed with more and more stuff, they shouldn’t be. Instead, we can work them into other structures, transitions, or even content. These class meetings exist for the explicit purpose of maintaining community. Kids want to be powerful, and these meetings function as a site where that power can live and grow in a democratic way.

Based off these meetings, Minor reflects and changes his classroom environment. Of course, this isn’t always going to be in-line with what the state or school mandates. Given how all this ties together, We Got This provides multiple guidelines for teachers to follow. Nothing is prescriptive — but a pedagogy is considered when going about one’s day:

…teaching is not monologue, it is dialogue. And after hearing what kids have to say, I’ve got to do something.

Participating in that dialogue requires us to kill the assumption that children and their understanding of the world are flawed without us. We know that quite the opposite is true. We are in this profession because we believe they have the answers.

Many of these ideas are mapped out through beautiful design. Keeping a “comic book superhero vibe”, Minor presents all these ideas through a Marvel/DC-style lens — showcasing graphs, diagrams, and panes of what to do in certain situations. Especially noteworthy was the “Guide for Saying No” — a flow chart demonstrating how to take marginal risks to push (or avoid regressive) institutional change.

Being a disruptor is easily one of the most important jobs of an educator. It’s up to us to create a system that all students benefit from. As Minor explains,

For me…disruption starts with these actions:

// Question the rules, policies, procedures, practices, and customs that define my classroom culture.

// Identify any groups in my classroom that consistently benefit less from the way things are.

// Change the way I do school so that the kids who belong to those groups have more opportunities to succeed.

And to clarify, Minor is referring to the systemic oppression that is reflective of our societal problems:

Racism, sexism, ableism, and classism are systems. They are the rules, policies, procedures, practices, and customs that govern a place and lead to consistently unequal outcomes for specific subsets of people.

…understanding that systems don’t change just because we identify them; they change because we disrupt them. This is a choice. Change is intentional. Allowing the system to run as it always has is also a choice — one that denies many students access to the opportunities that we have pledged our careers to creating.

The “call to action” nature of We Got This is inspiring. Not only are we receiving direct advice to use in our classrooms — we’re being reaffirmed that these fights are worthwhile and possible. If Minor is doing this, why can’t we? What would it look like if every educator stepped up and demanded change for their students?

Though it may feel like it, the supervillain here is not testing or mandates or any of the other things that we often talk about. These are significant problems, but they are simply underbosses — the large regional crooks that keep our attention away from disrupting the foundations of the myriad barriers that stymie our progress. The true masterminds — the real enemies — in this dystopia are the business-as-usual attitudes, binary thinking, and inflexibility with which we have been conditioned to approach these problems. These things have robbed us of our power and of our curiosity. Without them our revolutions die before we can even think to start them.

We Got This is a fresh take on critical pedagogy that’s approachable for the everyday educator. Its visuals, accessibility, and narrative-driven framework introduces the concept for educators unfamiliar with equitable democratic classrooms, and offers further support for those who are pushing this line of work. It’s not alienating nor demeaning to those who have lost their way. As a result, this book is just as great a gift for a jaded instructor to an exhausted, but beloved educator. Read this!

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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