When asked why she is an advocate for equity in her school and in her community, Zanthee Schwarzmann, a rising high school senior, responded with four simple yet deeply meaningful words: “Because I have to.”
Take a moment to really think about those words.
For millions of students across the country, curriculum and classroom environments do not reflect their lived experiences, their community histories, and have not considered their needs. There is an added weight placed upon their shoulders to go above and beyond what should be expected of a student to push school environments to include them. On top of studying, extra curriculars, and social life, students from systemically underserved communities — BIPOC students, students experiencing poverty, students with learning differences, English-language learners, and students who have recently immigrated — often find themselves in the position of teacher. They must choose: fight to carve out a place for themselves and those who share their identity or continue to be underserved.
“I have to be the one to do it. I’ve taught so many of my teachers about the correct language to use when referring to people of color. I’ve taught my peers and I’ve talked about so many different things that my teachers did not mention in their classes.”
Students from systemically underserved communities often bear the burden of teaching those around them and with those lessons often going unheard.
This experience isn’t new for Zanthee. From a young age, her family has prepared her with the tools necessary to navigate these spaces. “My mom taught me about what microaggressions were and how to recognize them when I was in elementary school,” said Zanthee. “She knew that it was very important that I was able to recognize it. In order to help prevent stuff by calling people out. She made sure that I knew these things that aren’t talked about that much, so I would be able to understand the context.” And now Zanthee is taking on this mantle, starting and participating in clubs on campus that foster equity and inclusion, and looking for opportunities outside of school to grow, learn, and connect.
“My neighbor, who goes to Stanford, knew I was native and she let me stay at her house for the AISES [American Indian Science and Engineering Society] conference. There were a bunch of native people from sciences and there were different conferences they put on teaching about their work and their experiences. It was pretty fun. I got to explore the campus and got to meet a lot of people.”
Zanthee acknowledges that her work has led to growth in her school.
“The teachers eventually learn and I’ve definitely seen an improvement in their behavior over the five years I’ve been at my school, and that feels good because I know it’s because of me.”
It is powerful to see a student not settle and push their surroundings to be better and do better, but it is also a wholly unfair responsibility to place on students’ shoulders across the country, to say the absolute least.
In the current state of education, systemically underserved students have to be hyper-aware of how systems and often the people around them are not considering them or their circumstances. Instead, the system often defaults to the perceived “norm,” which excludes many, if not the majority, of students. And so without other options available, they must take on the role of teacher and guide for their administrators, teachers, and peers.
Zanthee sees a path to a brighter and more equitable future, but believes significant shifts must occur:
- I want more teachers of color.
- I want more education opportunities for both teachers and students about racism and history and how to notice when people are being offensive and how to call people out.
- I want to have better responses to bullying and being able to notice when the bullying is rooted in racism and sexism and having better ways to report and talk about those things to administration.
Zanthee, and millions of students like her, need education systems to depart from entrenched mindsets and behaviors, replacing them with inclusive systems that honor all students’ history and humanity. It starts with seeing students fully and doing reflective, personal work to understand underserved communities. Only then can we design learning environments that welcome and challenge every student — optimal spaces that fully support each student and ensure that all learners can thrive.
Zanthee is serving on New Teacher Center’s Education Equity Commission and Student Advisory Group. We’re grateful for her dedication and leadership.