Jeff Duncan-Andrade grew up in Oakland, the youngest of seven children. He remembers one day when his mother sat him down, showed him a glass of water, and asked him if it was half full or half empty.

“My mom is good with the trick questions where it seems like there’s no right answer,” said the Oakland high school English teacher, who also teaches Raza Studies and Education at San Francisco State University, to the packed delegate hall. “She said how you choose to answer that question is how you will live your life.”

Duncan-Andrade, a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Studies in Education and the keynote speaker at the CFT Convention, related this to what the late Tupac Shakur, a poet, rapper, and actor whose parents were active in the Black Panther Party, had to say. He said his students still find the words of Shakur, killed in 1996, meaningful.  

“No matter what you think of him, I challenge you to find anyone with the reach to teach of ‘Pac in late modernity’,” he said, joking he could safely hide a $100 bill in a Shakespeare book in the classroom, but in a book of Shakur’s, it would be found quickly. “It’s not that they’re not interested in literacy — they’re not interested in literacy we’re giving them.”

Duncan-Andrade showed the audience a video of Shakur reading his poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete,” and said the message is the one his mother was giving him — and one all educators should pay attention to: We need to see students as glasses that are half full and acknowledge their struggle.  

“How absurd would it be if you see a rose in the concrete, and say to your homie, ‘Look at that rose in the concrete! It has damaged petals.’ But of course, we do this with young people all the time — we focus on the damaged petals and not how they’re straining to reach the sun.”

Pointing to a map of Oakland showing the killings that take place in the neighborhoods like the one where he teaches, Duncan-Andrade said inequality is literally making kids sick.  

“These kids have to deal with toxic stress,” he said. “They have worse PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] than soldiers.”

Talking about how it’s impossible to avoid stress (“You know who doesn’t have any stress? Dead people.”), Duncan-Andrade laid out the difference between regular stress and the overproduction of cortisone in toxic stress, saying that his students’ systems get exhausted from being on high alert all the time.

This is where teachers and school employees can have a real impact. “Medical research is crystal clear on this,” Duncan-Andrade said. “The single biggest protective factor in the lives of students experiencing stress is a caring adult at every institution. That means everybody has to be on deck all the time. It might be a custodian or the woman serving lunch or it might be a teacher.”

Duncan-Andrade ended his presentation with a video of comedian Dave Chappelle interviewing the late poet Maya Angelou. She told Chappelle about intervening when Shakur was arguing with another man on the set of the movie Poetic Justice. Later, Shakur’s mother wrote to Angelou to say she may have saved her son’s life.

Calling the way Angelou had spoken to Shakur about his worth a master lesson in pedagogy, Duncan-Andrade exhorted CFT members to be audacious and offer love and hope to students.  

“In 22 years of teaching, I’ve never had a perfect year, I’ve never had a perfect semester, I’ve never had a perfect marking period, and I’ve never had a perfect week or day or class period,” Andrade-Duncan said. “But I wake up every day expecting to.”