Dr. Brett Solomon is a Child Studies professor and Director of SCU’s Future Teachers Project. Dr. Solomon’s mission is to, “educate, guide, mentor and support the next generation of ‘fire starters.’” She writes about the “pre-school to prison pipeline,” as well as social justice and cultural competence.
In this episode, we cover the topic of her new blog, how to make a difference in systemic issues like mass incarceration or racial injustice, her teaching advice, and how she seeks to support and mentor her students to become the next generation of “fire starters.”
Selected Interview Highlights
Gavin Cosgrave: You recently started a blog titled, “Solomon Chronicles: Reflections of an African American mom, wife, child advocate, and professor who's trying to stay sane during insane times.” Why did you start a blog?
Brett Solomon: The main purpose of the blog is for me to share my voice unapologetically. As an academic, we’re trained to write academically and anything we put out is edited and reflective of our research. I just felt that as an individual working with students as well as personally as a mom of two kids growing up, the blog is a reflection of my thoughts and experiences and little anecdotes.
GC: How has having children affected your teaching?
BS: Before I had kids, I was very academic and by-the book, and I would work with parents on parenting strategies and feel completely insecure about being called out. I was never called out and was very transparent with talking about what was considered to be best practices or strategies we can work towards.
Now that I have children and living in the bay area where there are only 3% African Americans, the filter has been, “how can I provide my children with a less stressful and less racially-challenging environment?” They’re the only African American kids in their classes. They’re always the only ones, so I’m always hyper-sensitive that, for example, if their hair is different, that doesn’t mean people can touch their hair. I’ve had to arm them with our culture and history and why it’s not okay to say certain things and act certain ways.
GC: Mass incarceration and racial disparities are such gigantic issues that they can be overwhelming. What advice would you give to a student who feels powerless to address these issues?
BS: Get to know individuals who are impacted by the problem. If we’re taking about the school-to-prison pipeline, then get to know the kids who are kicked out of school. What is that about?
Often times we see a behavior in a classroom and respond to the behavior, but there’s a person and experience behind the behavior. If we take a step back and look at factors contributing to tardiness or disruption or falling asleep in class, you often start to see that the kid is caring for other siblings or doesn’t have a quiet place to study or has parents who are on drugs.
It’s about understanding factors that contribute to the overall problem. If it’s about DACA and immigration, get to know the experiences. Maya Angelou has a quote, “If you know better, then you do better.” I pose that to my students: “Now that you know about a problem, what are you going to do about it? What change are you going to affect?”
GC: You use the phrase “fire starters” to describe what you want your students to be, so how do you encourage that in your teaching?
BS: I feel as if my role as a professor is to spark interest, so if I’m just the little spark, then I want my students to be the fire that take an issue, topic or challenge and tackle it from all angles. St. Ignatius said, “go forth and set the world on fire,” and there’s a real social justice theme behind the phrase “fire starters.”
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the school that was just impacted by the mass shooting, they’re fire starters, they’re trying to affect change for gun control so that schools don’t see this type of mass shooting again in our country.
In my classes, we provide our students with the knowledge base and some experience, but with that we expect them to go forth and set the world on fire. That’s why you’re here at Santa Clara University. That’s what makes us different.
GC: At Santa Clara, everyone chooses to be here to some extent, but in high school and junior high that’s not the case. How can junior high or high school teachers create fire starters if a student is apathetic and doesn’t want to be there?
BS: It really boils down to relationships. It boils down to the teacher knowing and genuinely caring for each and every one of their students independent of their context. If a child reels welcomed, cared for, valued and respected by a teacher, they’re going to want to be motivated to learn. If small successes are celebrated, then that student will be further encouraged.
If the student wants to be there, the actual learning is less important than whether the student feels comfortable and safe. The learning will come.
GC: In Silicon Valley, the cool job to have is in technology, so why should students become teachers?
BS: Nobody would be where they are in Silicon Valley or anywhere without teachers. We need teachers and we need good teachers. People say that they want to teach if their Plan A doesn’t work… If your Plan A doesn’t work, figure out your Plan B, but that doesn’t mean you’re downgrading yourself to teacher status.
Just like children grow up and want to be doctors, lawyers or astronauts, there are kids who grow up and say, “I want to be a teacher” and it’s often because of they’re encouraged and influenced by a teacher they have.
GC: What are you most proud of in your career?
BS: I’m most proud of my mentoring of students, and of the Future Teachers Project. These are students who come from urban and underserved schools who want to return to their home schools and communities and become teachers. To date we’ve had over 100 students who have come through the program and we just celebrated 20 years of existence. Those students are the fire. It’s been an absolute pleasure to direct the program and mentor those students.