Tiffany Mitchell Patterson: Educator Reflection

Since 2020, the Zinn Education Project has hosted hundreds of Teaching for Black Lives Study Groups. Each study group receives copies of Teaching for Black Lives and a Rethinking Schools subscription for each participant, a year-long menu of workshops and seminars to choose from, and access to a network of social justice teachers across the United States. 

In 2021, participants in the Teaching for Black Lives campaign — study groups, online classes, and/or Teach Truth Day of Action — were interviewed to reflect on their experience.

Dr. Tiffany Mitchell Patterson, a teacher educator in the D.C. area. Listen to an excerpt of her interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

You participated in a number of ways, attending most of the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes, and you hosted two of them. Then participating in the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice study group, presenting Zinn Education Project lessons to your teacher ed students, and also engaging your students in the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. That’s lots of ways to be involved. Can you describe in just a few words the impact of the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online classes in your work as a teacher educator?

It was extremely powerful and impactful for students to be a part of the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online courses. During the pandemic it was a way to stay connected to teachers around the country — and the world, even — and learning histories that are often underrepresented and under-taught in the classroom. It also was a way to uplift stories and connect directly to scholars from books that we had read, or I had read, personally. So it was both a treat and it was also community — a way to enrich us both professionally and personally. For pre-service teachers, this series was really helpful for them to learn histories that they may not have been exposed to or taught before.

What impact have these classes had on you?

I’m an extrovert, and I felt really isolated during the pandemic, so being a part of this Teach the Black Freedom Struggle series allowed me to connect with like-minded educators and community organizers. It also gave me a chance to geek out from scholars that I have read before and whose work I love. I got a chance to really feel closely connected in how I can use their materials in the classroom. So it was really a joy. It was a lifeline during the pandemic, being able to connect to that work. It was soul-filling. It was an experience that allowed me to fill up my cup and re-energize me to continue to do the work, especially during the pandemic.

If you were speaking to a colleague, can you describe for them the benefit of the teacher study group?

The teacher study group was also one of those lifelines. It was a way to be in solidarity with educators that are like-minded, but also that community gave you ideas just about teaching. We were able to go through ways we can improve our practice. We were able to hear lessons from each other. We were able to dive in and hear from experts on how we can deepen our practice, particularly in Teaching for Black Lives. It was also fun and we were able to get together and see each other and build that community. I see that teacher study group as a space where you can connect beyond your school building with other educators and broaden your horizons and the work that you want to do in the classroom, particularly with Teaching for Black Lives.

Do you have any specific anecdotes from your teacher education students — ways that they have let you know that bringing in this material impacted them?

Absolutely. I think there was one student that just started devouring the sessions, and they said, “Wow, I had no idea. I had no idea. I had no idea. I’m watching them all and it became apparent.” And you have to understand where I was being a teacher educator. I was in rural Appalachia, where many of my students are coming from rural Appalachia. Many if not all my students for secondary social studies were white, so this history was particularly impactful because many of them had not heard about it. They had not known certain people. They didn’t understand the context of this long Black Freedom Struggle. It’s not just Martin Luther King, right? So, a lot of the misconceptions that young students have, college students have too, because they went through the K–12 system and didn’t get a chance to have those histories told. So when that student came and said, “I’m devouring them, I’m listening to them all” that one student, it’s like, okay, they’re going to go out and they’re going to do this work because now they know.

That leads us to this next question about the growing number of anti-history education laws around the country. Can you talk a little bit about that?

We know that with 2020 there came this kind of raising of public consciousness where people are saying, “Hey, you know what, maybe we really do need to try to be anti-racist.” Anytime we see this kind of progress in history, we also see backlash, and that’s similar to the Reconstruction era as well. Because I saw when I taught 6th grade and when I taught college, when students hear the truth they want to disrupt the status quo. “Hey, why didn’t we get taught this? What are we going to do about it? Because this is not right.” And there is a concerted effort to stop that. There was that concerted effort happening where I was a teacher educator, and we mobilized students and community members to mobilize against that. We’re seeing this more and more now.

We know this may be potentially driving people away from the profession. We know that there are now teachers that are going to do this and face consequences, as far as teaching the truth and teaching these histories, and are willing to risk that. But we cannot have this thriving democracy, we cannot re-imagine a new world, unless students are able to know the truth so that they can fight systems of oppression. And that’s exactly what the truth gives them. That’s why there’s a concerted effort to stop that. There is a fear of liberation; there always has been. But there will be educators that will continue to do this work, and that’s why these spaces are so important, because you need solidarity. You need to be with other teachers that are doing this, struggling together, so that you can sustain the movement against these new anti-teaching real history and anti-CRT — which they don’t know what CRT is — movement that’s taking place across states. And those states, in particular, really need to make sure to have this history taught.

Why should people who are not teachers or parents care about these laws?

It is really important because we’ll need the populace, we’ll need parents, people that are in community advocating for history to be taught in a very truthful way. What actually harms students is when these master narratives and dominant narratives that are taught, that a white male dominated predominantly – that’s the problem. And we really need students and we need the people in the communities to go to those school board meetings, to advocate for teachers, for students learning the truth, joining community organizations that are doing that work. It’s really important — even if we don’t have a school-aged child — to be in solidarity with the truth being told, because if we live in a very diverse world, we should be taught about diverse people — not just rich white men, which is currently in most curriculum now.

In your work you emphasize the need to teach Reconstruction. Can you say why you think the Reconstruction era is so important for students to learn about?

Teaching Reconstruction is extremely important for students to understand Black excellence and racial progress and also white supremacist backlash to that, and the response to it. It’s a way to teach both the diverse lives of Black people during that time and it’s also instructive in teaching how white supremacy works, which can help us to understand some of the things that are happening today.

Anything else that you want to add that we haven’t touched on? Any of your experiences, benefits, things that you appreciated about it, ways that you’ve seen it affect people?

I want to say quickly too, about Teaching for Black Lives and the Black Lives Matter at School movement, and what the Zinn Education Project and Teaching for Change and everyone is doing: It’s allowing us to see that Black people aren’t a monolith. Their histories aren’t. We’re acknowledging that all Black lives matter. We’re able to center their stories as the narrative and not as something that’s secondary or additive. It is the curriculum. We are here. And it’s powerful for all students.

Just like all groups should be, we should be learning about everybody and how powerful that is to understand who we are, where we come from, the things that we believe, that we’re all different. If you’ve got 100 Black people, you’ve got 100 different ways to be Black. So we have this shared ancestry and experience that there’s so many ways to express, and the beauty that’s within all of that.

Through rampant anti-Blackness and oppression we still thrive. We still set the culture, and it’s beautiful. We’re human. It gets at the heart of the humanity of Black people, and centering that in classrooms with students is so powerful. I’ve seen it be really powerful with students that have not really been around Black people. And they’ve only had certain narratives about it and how that was able to really disrupt some of those stereotypes that they had, and really encouraged them to learn a lot more. So, it’s really powerful work that’s happening and I’m just happy to be a part of it.