When we introduced you to Kolbe in the Who is Kolbe blog, she shared her deep love of her profession as an educator. As we head back into another school season, we wanted to dig a bit deeper into what getting an education looks like today. In this blog, Kolbe, shares her history and how it fueled her passion for education access for all.
KOLBE RICKS: EQUITY IN EDUCATION
Growing up, working in education was never one of my dream jobs, and maybe that’s because I was homeschooled starting in 2nd grade. Yes, a homeschooler is now a teacher. It’s strange I know. My mom was also a teacher, so it might be in my blood. How did I get here? Let’s talk about it. I grew up in a town of 2,000 people an hour south of Houston and 20 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. It was a strange experience growing up as a biracial kid in a rural area, feeling safe in some places, and feeling bullied in others. There were many awkward situations growing up: strangers constantly touching my hair in stores, I would get called names (oreo, zebra, etc.), my so-called friends who had never met my dad would crack jokes about how all Black fathers are absent. Our church did this horrible event where people could bid on teenagers to do chores as one of our fundraisers and thankfully my mom did not let me be a part of that! So while I had a lot of privilege growing up, I also had instances of experiencing microaggressions and racism. Overall, my family on both sides kept my brother and I grounded, spent plenty of time with family on both sides, and I never felt “less than” because of the immense family support we had.
My dad is Black, my mom is white and they had opposite experiences growing up. My dad was in segregated schools up until high school when his high school class was one of the first to desegregate in his part of southeast Texas. I am so fortunate that he had the passion to pursue his own education and that my mom was a school teacher before they got married. My dad’s profession made it possible for my mom to use her experience as a teacher to homeschool my brother and I full time. If we hadn’t grown up in a rural town, my brother and I likely would’ve gone to public school, but the schools in the area weren’t equipped to properly serve and educate us in the way my parents wanted. So Mom took over, and starting in 2nd grade, she pulled me out of school and started teaching me herself. We did a variety of things, spent lots of elementary time doing school with another family (my play cousins), middle and high school I did co-op classes (we had a uniform and everything for one day per week), then my last couple of years of high school were all dual-credit at the local community college. In between that I did dance, music, sports, all my friends were in public school, and they were so great I didn’t feel weird about anything within my friend group at all.
As soon as I got into a public school as an employee, there were definitely moments of shock at just how poorly funded our schools are. Now, 7 years later, absolutely nothing has changed. Teachers are still having fundraisers and using their own money to stock their classrooms, kids are still being deprived of meals for having a negative lunch balance, and language barriers make it intimidating for parents to try to reach out to the school; the list goes on and on. The switch to virtual learning during COVID-19 made it even more noticeable to the general public how the lack of funding, access, resources, and leadership is harming our students. So many families rely on their children getting breakfast and lunch at school, seeing the nurse for basic health needs, and after-school programs to serve as childcare until one or both parents/guardians can get home from work. This also put older students into a tough position, they became caretakers for the youngest in their families or the elderly relatives who live with them, or they took on another job or more hours to help support their families. Caretakers and guardians scrambled to try to get in contact with teachers, the school rushed to work out a system to check out technology to the students most in need (spoiler: it’s all of them, the school should provide to technology to all students regardless of income level if they are expected to do their assignments via technology).
All of us educators were thrown into virtual learning without much or any warning, and this is absolutely not the way we wanted things to go. It was just a triage of how to get kids working quickly and making the best out of a terrible situation. I spent days making more than 70 phone calls and starting at least 10 text messages threads every day trying to get in contact with every single student, plus some of my students from previous years. We Zoomed and played games, I answered questions about assignments, shared that I had worries just like them in the uncertainty of what was going on with COVID-19 cases in Dallas, we took a virtual field trip to Paris and recreated paintings of the French masters. Others had to create a priority list of students who needed a laptop or tablet, or a hotspot. If a student didn’t have access to the internet and a device, the option was usually a packet of work mailed to the house. I had many students who didn’t complete any assignments at all because their home life wasn’t set up for a work from home situation.
How can we ever say that the school system is functioning when so many of America’s children don’t have access to these opportunities?
Some things that I know matter and make a difference are: community, communication, and access. Community. What does that look like? A familiar supportive face and name go a long way in helping to build a bridge between home and school. I can’t tell you the amount of messages that I’ve gotten from parents and students simply because I was the one person at the school who they knew and had proven to be reliable to them. It shouldn’t be that way, families should be able to reach out to more than just one or two teachers. Communication is crucial. The school has to have a way to get information to all the interested parties (spoiler alert: that includes community members, not just parents of enrolled students), and a way for those interested parties to contact them and actually get a response. Finally, access. Access to technology and an internet connection. Access to materials like textbooks, literature, markers, hand sanitizer. Access to meals. Access to healthcare. Access to sports, clubs, academic teams. How can we ever say that the school system is functioning when so many of America’s children don’t have access to these opportunities?
This is my passion. I know how much I’ve been able to achieve because the opportunities and experiences that were afforded to me and I am passionate about making that possible for all students. I don’t want my experience to be unique. It’s imperative that all students have these same opportunities to explore, learn, grow, and feel safe. The forced move into virtual learning due to COVID really highlighted how poorly funded our schools are. School is much more than a building that provides education and this pandemic has made that more clear for a lot of privileged people who never had to think about exactly what services schools provided in the before.