My First Year Teaching
(Excerpt from Justice by Design: Guide to Creating Curriculum for Social Justice by Ian McLaughlin)
In my first year of teaching, I had the privilege of working with Kayci as her Special Education case manager. She was in the 12th grade when I met her. She had a traumatic brain injury from asphyxiation at birth, and her file stated that most likely as a result of the brain injury she scored in the developmental disability range on tests of cognitive ability (in older terminology, this would have been defined as Mental Retardation). Her mom, a single mother who struggled with substance abuse, was a fierce advocate for Kayci. When I asked Kayci about her father, she generally noted he was an asshole and often left it there. She identified as a biracial Black and White woman. She had dreams. She wanted to be a veterinarian. I mean, both she and her mother asserted how her entire life her dream was to become a veterinarian for small animals. She took the two advanced placement classes our school had to offer seniors: Statistics and Anatomy and Physiology. In general, she was a very hardworking and focused student.
One day she came into my office crying after having spoken with a county counselor. The counselor had told her to give up her dream. The counselor did not know her. She looked at Kayci’s paperwork and said someone with her disability could not become a veterinarian. The counselor said her best option for postsecondary education was a trade school of some sort—probably cosmetology (note: I am not disparaging cosmetology here or trade schools, but Kayci had no interest in these).
Kayci was broken up after this meeting, and so she came to me. We had only known each other for half a year at this point, but there was trust between us. Kayci mattered to me, and I believe she felt this. She didn’t ask for anything when she came to me. She just needed space to share her grief.
Over ten years later, I can still remember the moment. I remember it because I thought her story was my story. I was told by the teacher I trusted most in 12th grade, Mr. Sternstein, “College isn’t for everyone, Ian,” despite my dreams to complete college. I knew at the time my teacher’s words had come from a place of love because of my personal challenges as a person with learning disabilities in school, but I also knew that he was wrong. College was for me, despite my learning disabilities—dyslexia and ADHD. I went on to graduate from Landmark College, a two-year program for students with disabilities, motivated to prove my former teacher wrong. I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree as the only person in my department to graduate with honors that year and as a published author. I then graduated from my master’s program with a 4.0. Now I both teach graduate-level courses and coach adjunct professors teaching preservice teachers. I know from personal experience that Mr. Sternstein was wrong about me. And I thought Kayci’s story was my story.
We both had dreams. We both had disabilities. We were both told in so many words that because of our disabilities we could not achieve our dreams.
I told Kayci, “Forget what the counselor told you! She is wrong! You can achieve any dreams you want. But know that when you have a disability, it means that you are going to have to work three to five times as hard just to scrape by. It means you are going to need to join every study group and spend every spare minute in the library to get by with Cs, but if you keep up that mentality, the Cs will become Bs, which will become As—and I am proof that you can do this. Because this is my story.” I told her about my high school teacher’s words and my educational path.
Kayci was reinvigorated. She already worked hard in school, but she worked harder. Her mom who I often spoke with thanked me time and again for believing in Kayci and sharing my story with her. She said the counselor’s words had broken Kayci down, but my words brought her back.
Kayci got into a small private liberal arts college that had fantastic support for students with disabilities as well as for first-generation college students, which Kayci was. I thought with that program and Kayci’s drive, she could make it. She could reach her goal of becoming a veterinarian. Because her story is my story…
Kayci never made it to that small liberal arts college though; they did not offer enough financial aid. In addition to her financial aid package, she needed to find just over $8,000 more dollars to start the program. Instead, Kayci went to the local community college where she could attend for free and work part time. Eventually, over a decade later, Kayci did not reach her dreams.
Kayci’s story was very different from mine. Hers lacked the privilege I was taught to be oblivious to in my story. My family could afford to send me to two private colleges for five years to obtain my bachelor’s degree. Prior to that, I went to a private high school in New York City, which had a high level of rigor—my Cs there represented much more rigorous work than As at the public school where I taught Kayci. I am also a cisgender White man, so the doors kept opening for me regardless of how many spelling errors or past failures I had. The privileges I was granted as a White man with disabilities from a socioeconomically stable family in New York City are not universal.
Kayci’s story was not my story.
Why Justice by Design?
Because I wish I was more intentional about supporting Kayci to reach her goals. I believe Kayci’s counselor was wrong to crush her dreams and that I was right to reinforce them with words, but I failed to reinforce her dreams with understanding and action. I wish I would have talked to Kayci’s counselor. I wish I would not have taken Kayci’s mother’s misplaced trust in me for granted and instead been much more critical of myself. I wish I would have told Kayci that working hard on assignments well below grade-level rigor will not prepare you for your dreams—we are setting you up for failure here. I wish I could have told her, “I’m sorry. Let’s change that. Let’s work on going above and beyond, because you can go above and beyond what we are working on here, and you need to if you are going to achieve your dreams.” Justice by Design demands high expectations.
I wish I had understood what high expectations were and that we need to do more than have high expectations; we need to tell the truth. I wish I had understood more about the truth of intersecting systems of oppression. Justice by Design requires honesty, authenticity in tune with our realities, and an intersectional analysis of the world to harness the transformative power of education.
Why Justice by Design? Because I can’t go back and repair the harm I caused Kayci—Kayci and countless other students. I can’t go back and repair the hurt caused by reinforcing the myths of meritocracy, the soft bigotry of low expectations and false narratives rampant in our society. I can’t go back, but I can support future educators in not making my mistakes. Justice by Design is meant to interrupt educators in making the mistakes I made and continue to make and, instead, build opportunities for hope.
Throughout the narratives in this book, you will read a plethora of my failures from my first teaching jobs to my latest endeavors. I constantly work to reimagine my perceived failures as opportunities for growth. Justice by Design was born as much from my successes as from my failures. So, this book was not written from the perspective of a master educator with all the answers. I am not, and the answer will not be found in these pages. What is located in these pages is authentic and strives to open the doors to both personal growth and social justice.
Why Justice by Design? Because I have two Latina daughters, and I want their teachers to be better than me. I want them to have access to all the opportunities I deprived my female students of color, like Kayci, because I lacked the tools, personal reflection, and beliefs inherent in understanding how to develop a curriculum oriented toward social justice. Because I was oblivious to my ignorance. Because I did not know what I did not know as the system intended.
Why Justice by Design? Because it is the responsibility of White people like myself to work toward disrupting and dismantling White supremacy. It is the responsibility of men like myself to disrupt and deconstruct patriarchy. And it is the responsibility of the beneficiaries of capitalism like myself to disrupt and demolish exploitative capitalism. Justice by Design strives to tear down the intersectional White supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Why Justice by Design? Because it is part of my personal healing from the disease of colonization. Make no mistake, while colonization literally brought about the genocide of native people in the Americas, and ultimately led to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people today, it is also a disease for us White folks, a disease that eats away at my personal humanity. My loss deepens every time I view those who are different as others, every time I treat those who are different as others, every time I fear the other, all disconnecting me from my brothers and sisters, from my ancestry, and from my own body. Writing Justice by Design has been medicine to me. Writing curricula using the tenets of Justice by Design is medicine to me. It requires me to think, act, believe, feel, and reconnect—writing this centers me and breathes balance into my being.
Justice by Design is meant to support healing.
This excerpt is from Justice by Design: Guide to Creating Curriculum for Social Justice by Ian McLaughlin. Ian McLaughlin is a faculty member in LDA Minnesota’s Institute for Special Educators and this excerpt was printed with permission.
 The idea of teaching less, down, or for remediation is often referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (Bush, 2006).
 A reference to bell hook’s term; see page 85 for a brief description.