Saturday, January 1, 2011

Guest Post: Race, Class, and Self-Righteousness, Part III

re-posted from An Urban Teacher's Education.

I had it in my head that I was going to teach in a high-needs school. That's where I thought my talents could best be developed, where I could be part of the struggle for social justice, and where I could do the most good. Although I applied all over the country, I was really anxious about the possibility of teaching in New York or DC. Those were the districts I'd read the most about in terms of school reform, and they seemed like some of the toughest places to teach. I guess it was a combination of wanting to prove myself, wanting to develop my teaching in the districts most noteworthy for reform, and this feeling of responsibility toward those with less fortunate backgrounds who I felt were being systematically denied opportunities their richer peers are routinely offered. What's ironic, or perhaps entirely appropriate, is that I have so much distaste for the people entering teaching today who are just like I was. Perhaps I shouldn't feel this way, but I do - especially for those who intend to spend no more than two or three years teaching and then move on to something else.

What I've learned since my internship experience in Tennessee is just how intensely powerful the socio-economic factors that converge at the intersection of inner-city public education are and just how frighteningly unprepared new teachers are to deal with them (which is why it's so nonsensical to teach for two or three years). On the one hand, there are the agonizingly devastating effects of socio-cultural and economic poverty. I am continually astounded by the challenges so many of my students have faced in their lives (challenges the scope of which I will never deal with). Exactly how do you teach a child world history when she comes to you bawling that her mother just tried to commit suicide? How do you teach the child who finds out on the internet mid-class that her father murdered her mother and sister with an axe? How do you help the kid who comes to you at the end of the school day and tells you he has no place to sleep because he's been kicked out of his friend's house? Or the kid who tells you in a behavior reflection log that she can't concentrate because she spent the weekend drinking, smoking, participating in orgies with adults she met on craigslist, and being yelled at by her girlfriend for cheating, but that she'll try to do all of her work now?

Then there's race, stigma, and all kinds of other social bias that affect children disproportionately in inner-city schools. It's hard to continue a lesson on economics when one of your black students who has a lot of social credit with the other students yells at you to shut the fuck up because you're a racist son of a bitch and storms out the door. It's hard to focus on your work when your administrator implies that the reason there's an achievement gap in the United States is because white teachers shouldn't be working with black and hispanic children. It's hard to believe that anything you're doing is worthwhile when you see children from poor communities enter the world of affluence and stick out like sore thumbs - everyone feels awkward and is further inclined to stay within their comfort zones.

Combine these factors with the air of self-righteousness that too many of our young teachers and school leaders are entering education with these days, and I'm afraid you may just have a recipe for going exactly nowhere. What the public apparently believes inner-city schools are, what teachers do, and where students come from doesn't exactly foster an incoming teacher force that knows what it should be doing or how to get there. When I see young teachers on the 6 train grading papers while wearing watches and earrings their students could never dream of owning, I wonder how well they could possibly understand their students. When I see that Cathie Black has been congratulated by her wealthy friends for doing something honorable, I'm horrified by the lens with which they must understand society.

I guess I should ask who I am to judge. I certainly didn't understand the world that lay before me when I became a teacher. For too long, I held hope that enough hard-working people like me could really solve a lot of educational problems. But when I stepped down and contrasted the talking points coming from our educational leaders with the realities I see in schools every day (over the course of a few years), my hopes were shattered. Take out all of the bureaucracy, the politics, the systems, the professional development, and imagine someone like Arne Duncan telling the kid whose parents abandoned him that if Arne could just fire all the teachers at his school, he'd be on track to go to college. I think absurd is the best word.

After a mere five(ish) years teaching, it seems to me that most of us in the educational debate are not only talking past each other, but that our country's objectives don't align with the needs of the kids. NYC's DOE website says, "Children First. Always." I shudder every time I see it. I cannot imagine that Deborah Kenny's mission is really, at its heart, to serve children when a visit to Harlem Village Academies does little more than hype its success and provide pictures like this. Nowhere can a parent go to find information about after school activities, teacher emails, or curriculum. Instead, there are opportunities to donate, news stories about HVA's successes, and teacher profiles that, rather than provide information about teachers, tell us why HVA is a great place. From the top to the bottom, urban education is, sadly, often less about making differences in kids' lives than it is about advancing people's careers and egos.

What would I have done if I'd known this when I began my ignorant foray into urban education? I can't be sure, but I probably would have been less ambitious to take on opportunities in some of our most disadvantaged communities. I've learned that it's these high profile districts that too often make a game out of parading test scores around as if they were truly synonymous with "student achievement."

It's still clear that we are (quite obviously) intentionally denying a great many of our students opportunities that they should have. But I'm less optimistic about the ability of a few talented educators or even educational policy to make a difference in the system. It seems to me the problem is much more deeply embedded in the American ethos, and our republican/federalist form of government is in no position to uproot its ills. President Obama, or any politician for that matter, is in no position to be completely honest with the American voter.

"Listen, it's clear we have problems with our public schools, but that's really not as much the federal government's fault (or at least it wasn't until 2003) as it is your own. If you spent more time exercising your political rights in the name of equal opportunity in your own communities through volunteering, voting, and discussion, we probably wouldn't be in as much of a mess as we are. It's too bad that most of us are too busy running the rat race to have time for any of that."

Instead, Obama must promise us a plan from the federal government to fix our schools for us if he wants to secure votes. And that's just the opportunity hyper-ambitious people with large egos and wallets need to step into the policy arena, their goals far more often aimed at making money and gaining prominence than helping schools to improve from within.

After nearly five years, that's what I gather. Education is not a monolith, and I won't talk as if it were, but in many urban schools the incredibly powerful and destructive factors of social stigma, poverty, and self-righteousness are not the necessary combination for reform I envisioned when I was just beginning.


  1. ReflectiveEducator, thank you for sharing your story with us. I am still mulling over some of the issues you've brought up. There's a lot here!

  2. Suburban Chicken FarmerJanuary 3, 2011 at 10:36 AM

    I think a big part of the problem is that it is compulsory. No one likes being forced to do much of anything.

    It's always going to be a hard sell to convince your students what you've got is so desirous, so valuable, so necessary for success, yet looks and functions more like a prison than college campus.

  3. "If you spent more time exercising your political rights in the name of equal opportunity in your own communities through volunteering, voting, and discussion, we probably wouldn't be in as much of a mess as we are."

    Totally true, but you need to look at it from the parents' perspective too, and particularly from the working parents' perspective. We want to spend time with our kids! I mean, all I do is write a blog post every few days, and I feel like even that ends up stealing time from my kids. And if I did have a lot of time on my hands, would I spend it organizing parents and volunteering and attending meetings and lobbying for change and running for school board, etc., on the slim chance that maybe my kids wouldn't graduate from a completely unchanged school system thirteen years later? Or would I just homeschool my kids instead?

    I'm not trying to run down activists of the kind you describe; I admire them. I'm just trying to be realistic about the choices that parents face about the use of their time. I agree that a lot of parents could speak up more than they do. (It doesn't help that school administrators do everything they can to convey that resistance is futile and change is impossible.) But investing real time in activism and doing what's best for your kids are actually in tension with each other more than you might think.

  4. PsychMom back from a long wonter's nap........

    I read all three posts. Excellent writing. It's soul chilling to realize that more children experience school in the way the writer is talking about than in the way my kid does. Our children need to be fed first, loved and nurtured second ....and on some really good days perhaps educated in some formal way. But until we address the more basic needs, everything else is fruitless. I guess it's easier to understand the needs of starving (for food and protection) children when they're half way around the world, than when they're down the street.

  5. PsychMom again...that should be long WINTER'S it three times and it never popped out at me.

  6. Chris: I don't mean to suggest that people aren't busy. I completely respect the Herculean efforts that many parents attempting to bring home the bacon, spend time with their children, and maintain some degree of social life or community participation. But I also think a) that we generally put too much focus on money and work (as a society) and b) that there are plenty of people out there with WAY too much time on their hands who could be contributing to our communities. I just don't think the first thing that comes to most Americans minds when they have free time is: Hey- my community needs my help....