February 17th, 2021 – by Dr. Shaniece Criss
I smile every time I ride past the eight-story mural in downtown Greenville. It shows educator Pearlie Harris who served as the first black teacher at an all-white elementary school, which helped integrate Greenville County Schools over 50 years ago. On the mural, she is embracing children representing every creed and color, and I must admit that it is extra special to me because my daughter is right beside her. This great educator demonstrated the power of working for equity in schools. As a public health researcher and health science faculty member at Furman University, I understand the importance of the social determinants of health, with education and equity both making significant impacts on health and life expectancy. I admire the many educators that are willing to do the challenging, sensitive, and powerful equity work in their classrooms and community.
Equity work requires courage.
In an interview, Harris recounted teachers, parents, and students treating her with disrespect based on her race, but that her patient consistency, diligence, and enthusiasm resulted in eventual respect in her classroom (1). I can only imagine the courage that it took for Harris to enter the building each day. The classroom can reflect society, and the classroom can help students reflect a better version of themselves. Harris was able to change the trajectory of her first students and students over the decades by exemplifying the importance of human dignity. Today, teachers continue this work. I was heartened when I facilitated a Greenville Community Read discussion group as a Public Education Partners board member. Over 200 teachers and people who care about education came together to engage in difficult discussions to ensure that all their students have access to a welcoming, engaging, and equitable space to learn. This work takes observation, listening, interventions, and most importantly, courage. Courage to speak up, speak out, and take action.
Equity work improves education.
Without a doubt, I know that Harris’ presence at that school improved the education of students of all races and ethnicities. We learn from each other. We grow from each other. We need each other. Education is a great equalizer. When children have access to quality education, they have better opportunities for the future. Equity in the educational setting is so important for health that the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a policy statement about racism, including racism in schools (2). The relationship between the teacher and student influences school adjustment, academic outcomes, and aptitude test scores. Teachers have the powerful role as advocate for their students in their classrooms and within the school. In fact, students with a positive perception of school racial climate (from norms to curricula) have higher academic achievement and fewer disciplinary issues (3). Countless teachers demonstrate courage and love by actively working to cultivate an environment of acceptance and respect for all their students.
Equity work is a matter of survival.
Harris’ career exemplified the popular quote “to teach is to touch a life forever.” I would like to add that teaching can actually help extend life expectancy. Hundreds of studies have shown that increased years of schooling are linked to better health and longer life (4). Education creates opportunities for better health through higher earnings, reduced stress, social and psychological skills, knowledge and skills about healthy behaviors, and access to healthier neighborhoods (4). These findings demonstrate the need for equity in the classroom. If the educational setting does not disrupt chronic stress from racism, prolonged exposure to stress hormones like cortisol can lead to inflammatory reactions that predispose people to chronic disease (5). Having the courage to do equity work can impact more than day to day life, it can impact someone’s entire lifetime.
Let the mural of Pearlie Harris serve as a beautiful representation of the power of harnessing courage to move forward to champion equity in every environment.
Teachers – this blog is a platform designed to elevate your voices! It’s a space to share your tips for maintaining a sense of purpose and wellbeing in and out of the classroom.
We’re calling for blog submissions now! March’s theme is Learning through Challenges. This year, what’s something you’ve discovered – or rediscovered – about yourself, and maybe from the students you teach? How do you ask for help when you need it? Who or what helps you along the way? Submissions due by March 1st.
1) Aarts, H. Pearlie Harris, Progress, and Greenville’s Newest Mural. The Paladin [Internet]. 2020 Sept 16 [cited 2021 Jan 18]. Available from: https://www.thepaladin.news/articles/pearlie-harris-progress-and-greenvilles-newest-mural
2) Trent, M., Dooley, D. G., & Dougé, J. The impact of racism on child and adolescent health. Pediatrics. 2019; 144(2), e20191765.
3) Mattison, E., & Aber, M.S. Closing the achievement gap: the association of racial climate with achievement and behavioral outcomes. Am J Community Psychol. 2017; 40(1–2):1–12.
4) Zajacova, A., & Lawrence, E. M. The Relationship Between Education and Health: Reducing Disparities Through a Contextual Approach. Annual review of public health. 2018; 39, 273–289. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031816-044628
5) Cohen. S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Doyle, W.J., et al. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2012;109(16):5995–5999pmid:22474371