This blog post was originally posted here on Fellow Chris DeRemer's personal blog
I live across the street from my school and many of my students live in the blocks surrounding my home. I see them after school, on the weekends and throughout the summer and the decision to be both an educator in and member of this community has been a choice that I have never regretted but one that I think about often. It is clear to me that though I am acquiring the language of east Denver and though I can navigate conversations around violence, poverty and inequity within my school and my community I will never truly know what it means to live as many of my students do nor will I ever pretend that I completely understand how life works in this community for them. It has become apparent to me that my students and myself share the same street name but we live in very different neighborhoods. My neighborhood is one of proximity to amenities, rising home values and a future full of choice for my own children while the neighborhood my students live in is often underserved, over policed, lacking access and increasingly expensive. While my two-story victorian stands tall as it gains value the subsidized one story row homes on each block continue to deteriorate and what were once neighborhood haunts for minority residents have become modern meeting places for Denver's growing affluent. This tension impacts me both at home and at work.
I am not merely talking about about my role in the gentrification of my community or of the urban renewal taking place throughout Denver and across the country which are topics that are so in vogue right now rather I am talking about how as an educator I can live the life of privilege while watching those without become increasingly marginalized in this very community. My students and I engage in conversations about privilege and they always wonder what barrier for them is the least imposing obstacle for me. Is it my finances or my ability to get loans? Is it my access to college education that was granted because of the high school I attended and not because of academic merit? Though those two examples often come to mind I tell my students that the most remarkable aspect of my privilege is the ability to opt into or out of the conversations of inequality and the work as an advocate for disenfranchised residents of my very own community. I can be as fierce as I want to and push hard on the walls that retain power or I can feign my commitment to my students and their families because, at the end of the day, I will get mine and I will be able to maneuver however I so choose regardless of if my students succeed or fail. This is not a moral dilemma because I know the correct action is to push on the power that maintains privilege but it is a moral reality in which I can stop at anytime and live my life away from the difficult realities that face my students and their families each and every day. The privilege to opt into this work also gives me the privilege of getting credit from those who can't imagine working in "that neighborhood." This is my case in point - I can live in the most desirable neighborhood in the most desirable city in the nation and still be congratulated for working with those that the community has often pushed aside. This tension is both outrageous and real.
I will soon face my students again, my extended family really, and I will continue to support their dreams with very literally everything I have and I will promote the idea that their effort will move them forward but when I walk out the doors of the school and cross the park that separates my home from my office I am not so sure that those same promises will hold true. There are barriers that exist that are invisible to me and all too real for my students and that are far more imposing than a competitive GPA, qualifying test scores or a bevy of extracurricular activities. There is a community just outside the doors that I am a paying member of that operates with the held belief that test scores, degrees and achievements is not a guaranteed admission to the club. The tension I feel as an educator in my community is both someone trying to break down traditional power structures and as an individual who maintains those because I simply live in this community and my privilege as a resident has unquestionable gravity.
Educators have the goal of creating better students, communities and societies. We work towards this goal by delivering content, holding students accountable and setting expectations that we ourselves could not have met as a teenager. That is what makes us great at our work. I have always been told that education is the great equalizer and that is can provide any future to anyone who has the determination to get there but I now believe that the "any future" part is not always true because any future means that those with the power are willing to give up what they have been given. Am I as a teacher and resident of the same community willing to give up my privilege by providing a world class education or will I subconsciously withhold the passwords of privilege from my students because I am unwilling to fully give what I have been granted? I believe this tension is what drives my work because I don't actually think any instructional moves matter in a classroom if they are not directly addressing the problem of social inequity. I have devoted the last 10 years to the work of pushing on social barriers and I hope to spend many more decades in this work but I hope and pray that when I walk out of a school for the last time I know that students and communities have greater access to what they deserve than they did when I walked into a school for the first time.
Chris DeRemer has spent the last nine years as an educator, teacher coach and curriculum specialist and is currently a teacher and Dean at Manual High School in Denver. Chris has spent time in the Adams 12 School District, at Logos International School in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as well as in Denver Public Schools. He received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Colorado at Boulder and lives in Denver with his wife Leanne and his son Hayes.