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What Should Teachers Know About How Mass Incarceration Intersects With The Classroom?

Our guest today is Whitney Q. Hollins. She is a special educator in the NYC DOE, a Research Assistant at We Got Us Now and a doctoral student at C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center.

Whitney and I do advocacy work together and what struck me most about her when we first met was her sharp mind. She’s a critical thinker and the topic that stirs her up most as an educator is the plight of children with incarcerated parents. If you read my blog, you know that this, too, is a topic that hits very close to home for me, too. I became even more intrigued by Whitney’s beautiful mind and asked her for an interview. She agreed. The following is what ensued.

Vivett: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. What do you want the readers of New York School Talk to know about children with incarcerated parents?

Whitney: 2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. As educators, we need to learn how to best support this “invisible” population in order to provide them with the best educational outcomes possible. Many educators are unaware that they have students with an incarcerated parent in their classroom. When we as educators become more knowledgeable in area of mass incarceration and its collateral damage, we become better pedagogues. I strive to provide insight into how mass incarceration intersects and affects the classroom and how we can best service all students.

Vivett: Bravo! I couldn’t have said it better myself! In your opinion, are all educators equipped to do this work?

Whitney: Yes, but some more than others because not all educators are the best. It’s sad, but it’s true. The best educators are lifelong students. We must collaborate with those who have the lived experience of parental incarceration in order to become better pedagogues. Pushing back against the traditional student-teacher dynamics, we must view children as meaning makers and experts in their own experience.

Vivett: Where does teaching fit into all of this?

Whitney: For me? I think I’d like to be someone who work with educators. Or even those who are becoming educators. Yes, I’d like this issue to come up in teacher prep programs. Overall, I’d like the stigma to be decreased. I’d like to frame parental incarceration as a form of parental separation that doesn’t carry any more stigma than divorce or military service. Whether their parent is in the military and people are always telling them how brave their parent is or if their parent is incarcerated, both children are still missing a parent and dealing with those struggles. One child shouldn’t be supported while the other is made to feel ashamed.

Vivett: Implicit bias must be addressed prior to a teacher entering the classroom. Definitely a core pre-service class. On behalf of my readers and I, thank you for sharing your knowledge and your time with us.

Schools, outside of our homes and religious institutions, most deeply inform who we become and how we view life. The conversation that Whitney brings to the table is so relevant because it sheds a much needed light in a segment of our student population whose needs are being unmet. In the myriad of equity in education conversations, the impact of mass incarceration on the millions of students that both traditional public and charter public schools serve is, with the exception of a few pioneers, inaudible. Why is that? That’s a serious inquiry for which I continue to seek a serious answer. The State of New York touts a desire for all of its students to be college and career ready, but how is that truly possible when the basic needs of safety and security and belongingness are not being addressed for so many? Our schools are falling short. Our schools are shirking their responsibility to the students entrusted in their care. I’m grateful for teachers like Whitney who are pushing these issues to the forefront and holding the system accountable.

What do you think?

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