This February, my students are joining their peers across the country to celebrate Black History Month.

They saw the movie “Selma”, shared their personal stories and have been asked to discuss the history of race in this country and its implications. I know that these are crucial lessons, because if I teach them honestly, as they learn about the struggle of the past, they’ll begin to recognize it in their own present — when a cashier squints suspiciously when they walk into a store, when they turn on the news and see another person who looks like them lose his life to senseless violence. These lessons are anything but history.

My students know this well. I have seen them harassed by cops multiple times, unprovoked. There are sometimes shootings outside our school; classes are routinely stopped for drug searches; the internet cuts out; we’re short on teachers; our textbooks are falling apart. My kids are aware that these are not the conditions of more affluent and wealthier schools in our area.

In the face of these realities, we have no time to waste. This school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are minorities. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.

While the “whites only” signs of the ‘60s have been taken down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, no less damaging assumptions. A successful black lawyer hears whispers of affirmative action. A young black boy on a corner is seen as “lurking,” while his white peers “hang out.” A black college student is asked to give “the black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.

I joined Teach For America because I used to be ashamed of where I came from. My family struggled, and nobody around me was the textbook definition of success. The statistics told me I was poised to drop out of high school. But then I came to Georgetown, where I learned the true meaning of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s words: “Go forth and set the world on fire.” The mandate stands as a challenge and a call to action for every Hoya. We have been privileged with tools that have prepared us to take on the challenges of today. We must work for a better tomorrow.

Since becoming a teacher, I now have hundreds of little brothers and sisters who know they can call me, text me and see me whenever they need support, guidance or someone to listen to them. I’ve helped students get to college when they thought it was never an option for them. I’ve held mothers and fathers as they’ve cried with joy that their sons and daughters were the first to graduate from high school and attend college.

We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. Fixing the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as act on the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.

As teachers, we can play a central role. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.

Justin Pinn is 2013 graduate of the College and a corps member with Teach For America-Miami. He teaches chemistry at Miami Central Senior High School.

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