It has taken me 44 years to realize how limited my world view is — and how that impacts my teaching.
I went to Disney World this summer and stayed at the Boardwalk Inn — I saw a sea of white faces.
I went to Myrtle Beach, SC and frolicked on the beach with other white tourists.
I went to a national gymnastics competition in Savannah, GA and cheered on white kids in pretty unis.
I volunteered at the Auburn Great Race and counted how many non-white faces I saw run, bike, or paddled by — three.
I send my children to a school where they see 99% faces that are white, just like them.
I frequent an urban YMCA in Auburn, NY and see very few non-white participants.
I have one non-white uncle married to my aunt, and one non-white Godfather (a Mohawk).
I have no non-white close friends.
I have worked with only 3–4 non-white educators in my twenty-three-year teaching career.
I teach in a school that is 79% white.
I am educated and hold very democratic egalitarian views, but I do not know what the hell I am even talking about because I live in a white world. Membership in this white world makes my life drastically different than 21% of the student body that I teach. Is it no wonder that the Tatianas and the DeShawns have challenged me over the years? I have no concept of how my non-white students adapt, learn, strive, struggle or exist in my white world. When I teach them about civil rights do they see me as a fraud? Do they see me as another well-meaning white female teacher telling them fairy-tales of democracy, freedom, and justice? Do my non-white students gather together at lunch tables during the refuge of their only free period where they choose to sit with whom they are most comfortable chatting about how their white teachers don’t “get” them? Or, are my non-white students silent because the racism is subtle? Do they accept the reality of the world they live in or does their anger simmer?
When my non-white students see images of Charlottesville, VA does it confirm or surprise? Do they wonder if their teachers hold such beliefs?
When I Googled “white teachers,” the search revealed:
The search results demonstrate the disconnect between white teachers and students of color. I feel the need to educate myself further. My teacher training and professional development have never discussed the racial and cultural divide that is growing in classrooms across our nation. I am sure my lack of training in this topic is due to many factors, including the predominance of white teachers, the systemic racism, de facto segregation of neighborhoods, and the naive belief of white teachers that we have no bias.
I wish I could finish this post with some nice conclusion, but the truth is that my colleagues and I have a lot of work to do. We have been ignorant and removed from the pain of discrimination based on race. We have comfortably lived in our white world far too long.
I teach Global History to tenth graders in New York State. That means that my tenth graders are mandated to take (and pass) the New York State Global History exam every June. That also means that my teaching is judged based on how well they do on that exam.
Global history is a survey class covering from 1750 to present day. I am not mandated to teach current events, but by omitting pressing concerns and happenings the content becomes disconnected, irrelevant, and static. The study of the social sciences is really the analysis of cause and effect, a thousand times over. If it was a neat time line one could plot on on a college-ruled loose-leaf paper, I would not want my job.
Although stopping to discuss current events is often draining and time-consuming, I continue to begin each school year with current world topics. As the year progresses, I continually engage my students to learn about the world in which they inherit.
I naively began the 2016–2017 school year with the discussion of Syria, Iraq, India and the 2016 presidential election. I did not anticipate that current topics would permeate my teaching more than any other year previous in my twenty-three-year tenure. I could not predict that I would discuss things like executive orders, walls along our borders, and inappropriate sexual discussions made by political candidates. I would never have guessed that I would have immigrant students crying in my suburban classroom about fears of deportation. Nor, would I have told you that I was remotely considering that a student would place a Confederate flag on his truck and taunt other students. Never in a million years, would I have suspected that two students would discuss how they saw Hitler’s nationalism and exclusion as a positive, or that one of those children would go on to inform another student, who was born in Nepal, that foreigners should get out of America. No, I was flabbergasted–that is not how my school or my classroom operates. I was unprepared for the blatant extreme nationalism, racism, xenophobia, victim accusing, Islamophobia, and sexism that the students exhibited.
For the most part, however, I ended 2016–2017 feeling like I was on an extremely important journey with my students. It was my responsibility to give them forums in which they could speak their minds, disagree, fact check and digest this brave new world we are living in. I had to call out a few students, give others safe spaces to discuss unpopular ideas (even when I personally disagreed), and ultimately model integrity, inclusion, and pluralism. I felt lost in a big ocean of civil discourse with adolescents that looked to me for instruction. It was exhausting, compelling, maddening, and inspiring. Mostly, I was tired.
I have three weeks until I begin my journey with a new crop of sophomores. I feel better prepared. However, discussion of current events in living rooms or classrooms opens up cans and cans of worms. Obviously, I am hesitant to digest big issues like racism and threats of nuclear war, but if not me then who will lead my students? Who will give them space and time to read many sources of information in order to synthesize and reach their own conclusions? If I don’t offer topics with a historical lens, who will allow them to make historical connections to today’s problems?
So, I will risk being labeled another “liberal” teacher and try again to show the students there are many sides to all stories. I will demonstrate that all news has the potential be “fake,:” and that sensationalism and yellow journalism are not new. I will have difficult discussions about men named Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and yes, even Trump. That is what I do. I am a social studies teacher.
When you believe in public education, but that same system is underserving your own child.
I am told she is a nice kid. She does her homework. No behavior problems. She earned a 92% overall average for the 2016–2017 school year — making honor role and missing high honor roll by tenths of points. I should be pleased, but my kid might as well be invisible. She does not have special needs, nor is she gifted. She doesn’t qualify for the advanced track, nor does she need anything exceptional besides quality instruction. She is the vanilla comment that teachers give: is a pleasure to have in class. She is obedient, compliant, hardworking, and on the cusp of reaching her full potential. What would it take for her to reach excellence? Will it be hard work, or simply time? Or is this it? Has she peaked, at twelve? Is she just a pleasure to teach? Do I need to accept her where she is, or do I explore this nagging feeling that she has more to show?
I cannot ignore the feeling that she (and others like her) are being underserved.
Entering seventh grade this upcoming school year, my daughter is now officially tracked. She will never take advanced math and science, she didn’t make the cut. She needed to have earned a 93% overall average in both subjects. She earned an 89% in math and a 91% in science. Science was partly due to a huge mistake she made preparing for her final exam. Her math average was due to her elementary experiences. Accelerated humanities courses have yet to be offered.
I am an educated parent. My children are well-fed, read-to, well-traveled, advantaged. I am a fucking high school teacher. However, I didn’t see the letter in the envelope sent home in her first five-week report card (where she earned a 100% in science that first quarter). That missed letter explained the game, set the bar. I did not know that the 93% was the coveted grade until April — months too late. My daughter is competitive. If I had seen and read the letter, I would have told her the goal. She, being who she is, would have done everything in her power to earn the 93% in her math and science classes. She already has her upcoming season’s state swimming numbers memorized — she is a motivated, competitive person. I blame myself. I am sure my own public school and adjunct college teaching schedule hindered my ability to pay attention to details like letters in my sixth-grade daughter’s first five-week report. I missed the mark. I wonder if I was the only parent who did? I wonder how many of my own student’s parents have had similar experiences?
She finished third grade without mathematical fluency. I recall shopping at Costco that spring when she could not tell me what 4×4 equaled. I tried to get her help in third grade and none was offered. That school year, we actually spent $200 to learn that she did NOT need eye glasses. She continually complained that she could not see the board. We thought her eyesight was to blame, but it was a literal statement. She could not see the board because the room was cluttered and her seat was at a severe disadvantage to see the extremely small space the board held on the overly decorated classroom wall. She actually lost an entire year of learning. My daughter continues to have very little fluency in her math facts and in her spelling.
I spoke with the administrator, but only after my daughter had finished the third grade. I was a coward. Because I was hesitant to rock the boat, an entire year was lost for my kid. I didn’t know how to cross that line and call out a fellow teacher for malpractice.
By fourth grade, I welcomed a fresh start. The year began well until her long-term substitute teacher was replaced by the “real” teacher back from a leave. The long-term substitute teacher listened and tried to get my daughter help in math, but there were too many other more needy children. My daughter was not needy enough to merit help. During the last week of school, every female in my daughter’s class was given some sort of award or acknowledgment while sitting in the school auditorium or back in their classrooms. My daughter came home defeated sans any paper with a declaration of her doing something award-worthy. By the end of elementary school, it was evident that my kid was deficient, but not special in any way. She was in need of remediation, but not as much as others. She was lost, unseen.
In fifth grade, she was placed with a wonderful, caring teacher who saw her. I will be forever grateful to her fifth-grade teacher. However, there were frequent behavior issues presented by a few students. My daughter improved but continued to be instructed in an environment filled with peers who presented more needs than she did. It was more of the same issues in previous years, but it was better.
Sixth grade was the most positive year. My daughter finished the year strong with a 93% average. She learned a great deal. Her teachers were dedicated, warm, and extremely competent. However, my daughter did not enter with all of the information needed — she missed both the needed prerequisite instruction and the rules of the advanced placement game. She learned, she improved, but when I respectively requested that she be allowed to try the accelerated science class, which would have allowed her to take the NYS Regents exam one year earlier, my request was denied. I was told that it was unfair to allow her to accelerate when there were other students who scored near or above her scores but were also not recommended for accelerated science. The school had to draw the line somewhere. The line is drawn. Now there are a small group of kids (in a class of about 70 in a small, rural school) who are being sent a message: try your hardest kids, but you will never be accelerated in math and science. What will become of this small group? How will they learn to perform at a higher level? Will they become more or less motivated? Will they resent their more accelerated peers? Will they learn more because they will take their courses at a slower pace? Will they score higher on their NYS Regents exams?
Bottom line, my kid is coachable. I see her in the pool and on the volleyball court. She listens to her instructors, she implements changes and she improves. I am one of her most important cheerleaders, coaches, and teachers. I am biased. I am relentless. I am pissed. I dropped the ball. I am frustrated at her current public school system. I am concerned that choosing to live in a rural district was a mistake for my kid. Maybe a big suburban district, like the one I teach in, would see her potential? I am worried that she is hearing the inaccurate message that she is not as smart as others, and therefore not capable of reaching anything but where she is. I am concerned that all of the student’s fates are being set at only twelve years of age. I am unhappy that as a parent I held no real sway. My knowledge of my own kid did not matter.
I was told not to worry. I was told that my daughter will be fine. Fine. Not excellent. Not challenged. Fine. I am told to accept mediocrity without giving my daughter a chance to attempt any other track than average.
So, I ask myself if I should continue to fight for the survival of public education? If my own privileged child has been invisible, what about other people’s children? How have I failed my former students? Who have I ignored these past 23 school years? Who’s baby did I deny a chance? How does this personal experience instruct my own teaching in my last ten years in the profession? How can I challenge students to reach their excellence and graduate their best intellectual selves?
Maybe, anytime I am inclined to use the report comment number 24 (is a pleasure to have in class), I should assess my relationship with that student. Hopefully, this experience will make me less complacent and more willing to challenge my not so gifted, but not so needy students.
As for my own kid, my husband and I have told her that she is required to continue doing her best and that if she happens to earn higher than a 93% in every class next year, that would be her sweetest career comeback.
How teacher’s issues are at the heart of the resistance.
Public school teachers see America every day. When teachers get loud, it is for good reason. On Saturday, July 22, 2017, about 1,500 unruly teachers marched on Washington D.C., and many others did so in cities across the United States. This intersection of public school teacher’s protests with the issues in the larger society are both significant and telling. Make no mistake, teacher’s issues are everyone’s issues.
Teaching has traditionally been a low-paying, low-status, female-dominated profession. It is also family friendly employment. Often well-educated women have selected teaching in an attempt to gain a life-work balance which coordinates with family schedules.
It is caregiving work.
It is physical labor.
It is mentally draining.
It is challenging.
It is underfunded.
It is under-appreciated.
It is extremely rewarding.
These descriptors parallel with housework and stay at home parenting — that is not a coincidence.
When speaking at the March For Public Educationon Saturday, July 22, 2017, Bob Bland, co-president of the Women’s March and CEO and Founder of Manufacture New York (MNY), expressed that public education is where all other issues in American society intersect. Intuitively, this has always been apparent, but with the existence of public education currently in jeopardy under the Trump and DeVos agenda, the support, investment, and discussions about the future of public education are crucial.
To kick off the rally before the march, a few brave kids sang the patriotic Woody Guthrie Song, “This Land is Our Land.” The Washington Monument was next door and it was sweltering.
These cute carolers reminded the attendees that the march was about students.
It is cliche and overused, but public school teachers always put children first. All children. The banner on the stage at the March For Public Education did not say teachers matter! Instead, the banner read: support our students. Public school teachers do not choose the zip code, the possible family issues, or the socio-economic status of their students. Rather, public schools open their doors every school day to America.
Public schools are the bedrock of American democracy. Every patriotic citizen should be clamoring for the best public schools for every student in the United States.
Another issue facing America’s students is college affordability. In her speech at the March For Public Education, student activist, Joseline Garciadiscussed the topic, stating:
“Within the past 20 years, tuition at private universities has gone up 179%, and a staggering 296% increase at public institutions. In 1963- 1980s, a university student could work during their summer break to pay school; today we are at a point where a student has to work a full time minimum wage job for an entire calendar year to afford maybe the average of tuition. This means that it is almost impossible for any student to graduate without taking student loans. Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. That is more than credit card debt which is $620 billion. The student debt crisis has slowed down the financial growth in our consumer-driven economy by preventing many from investing in homes, cars, businesses etc due to the fact that they’re still paying off their student loans decades after they’ve graduated.”
Garcia, the daughter of immigrants, was able to fulfill part of the American promise of higher education. However, many of our nation’s college graduates struggle to reach middle-class status due to their debt burden.
“Make no mistake: Trump’s attack on public education is racist at its heart.
Although all public school students will be hurt by Trump’s cuts, minority and low-income children will suffer the most. Because it is minorities and low income families who are most dependent on public schools.”
Vouchers, school choice, scholarships, competency-based education, personalized learning all have at their root a fear of white students being exposed to the perceived dangers of non-white students.
Ultimately, the promise of integration held with the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education has failed to be achieved. Resistance to integration resulted in the white flight from urban areas, the underrepresentation of non-white teachers, and the present day school choice movement.
Although people love to champion Brown vs. Board of Education, one of the biggest negative impacts was the firing of teachers during the merger of white and black schools. Jose Luis Vilson discusses a major impact of Brownwhen he writes in his article “The Need for More Teachers of Color”, published in the Summer, 2015 edition of American Educator:
“For instance, when the Supreme Court began to mandate that southern states comply with Brown v. Board of Education, more than 30,000 black teachers and administrators were fired to ensure that white teachers kept their jobs.”
Dr. Paul Perry began his speech at the rally for the March For Public Education with humor, proclaiming that he was raised by gay men before being raised by gay men was cool. He went on to explain how during his time as an English teacher he felt compelled to protect children who were part of the LGBTQ community, stating:
“When I was teaching, I had a student named Angela who had two lesbian moms. While in my classroom, I kept her safe from any bullying. But Angela had to walk down the halls and eat in the cafeteria too. I wasn’t always there to look out for here and no protections were in place to ensure she was safe in her identity as the child of LGBTQ parents. Learning takes a backseat when youth don’t feel safe. Students like Angela get shifted around from school to school because we’re not looking out from them through our laws and practices in schools.”
With regressive bathroom bills in North Carolina and proposed in Texas, protecting the rights of students is imperative. Public schools need to be safe places so that learning, not intimidation, transpires.
Students with disabilities enter classrooms across the country. Some disabilities are extremely noticeable and others might be subtle. Regardless of the spectrum of abilities, under IDEA law all students are required to receive an education in the least restrictive environment possible.
Leslie Templeton, pictured above, spoke passionately about the need for funding the IDEA mandate, stating:
“The government is suppose to fund 40% of the bill when it comes to funding special education programs but falls short of that by more than 17 billion dollars, funding it only 16%-17%. We owe it to our students with disabilities to have it fully funded and have services provided to every and all students, no matter what public school they go to, the color of their skin, their native language, and the type of disability they have. I ask you to stand for public school special ed, thank you!”
Betsy DeVos’ glaring lack of knowledge concerning educational law and programs was apparent in her confirmation hearings. Many Americans might not see special education and disabilities in general as a major issue, but Leslie Templeton pointed out that public dollars are impacted, stating:
“It’s one of the reasons I became a disability and education advocate, to demonstrate that we matter. Yet we are disproportionately represented in prisons, especially within female prisons were 40% have at least 1 disability. Also, a staggering 50% of people shot by police are disabled.”
Either way, taxpayers will “get what we pay for.” Our financial investments expose our values as American citizens. The proposed federal tax cuts to Medicaid will disproportionately affect students with disabilities — therefore, healthcare is also an intersectional issue.
Nativism and assimilation have been strong forces in the history of the United States. Since 2016 presidential campaign, chants to build walls and kick certain residents out of the country have impacted classroom and living room conversations alike.
Sanaa Abrar, representing a network of immigrant families and youth called United We Dream, and an immigrant from Pakistan herself, called out a chant at the March For Public Education: “Here to stay!”
When bullied or called out because of her religion and foreign beginnings, Abrar recalled the words of her mother:
“They want you to be angry.They want you to walk away. Don’t do that. Educate them. Make them better.”
At the March Abrar did just that — she educated the listeners to a plight facing many students in public education. Many students worry about family member’s immigration status.
Abrar praised educators for creating environments for her and others:
“And you know who also supported me along the way? Educators. Educators who created safe spaces for me to be me!”
Abrar’s experience is not isolated. I recall having a student in tears this school year because she feared that her parent’s citizenship ceremony would be postponed or canceled. I wrote about her story and highlighted the difficulty of teaching in an extremely polarized and unpredictable climate in my piece entitled I Was Born on 9/11/2001.
Immigration, religion, difference, and the creation of “other” significantly impact teaching and learning. Classrooms are often places of refuge for many students and the current political rhetoric greatly impacts the manner in which classmates interact.
Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) represents 1.6 million teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, healthcare professionals and higher education faculty members.
Teacher unions, and unions in general are much maligned but rarely given credit for the higher standard of living and working conditions that unions have doggedly promoted.
Ricker signaled crucial labor issues facing teachers and all workers, outlining the AFT’s goals:
“Equitable public education; meaningful inclusion; testing sanity; The kind of school funding that supports the schools our students deserve; and the right for all workers to organize!”
Ricker went on to explain that the national political agenda is trickling down to the local level like acid rain by outlining the negative impact of the Trump and DeVos agenda:
“Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump want to take a meat cleaver to public education. Their budget is cruel to kids and catastrophic to public schools. They plan to cut $9 billion from our schools to fund massive tax breaks for the rich while also peddling failed privatization and voucher schemes.”
Furthermore, Ricker called for a collaborative approach to collective bargaining by citing her work as the president of the St. Paul Teacher’s Association:
“There, we pioneered a new way of bargaining — a collaborative, community-engaged way. I made it my mission to tap on what I call our wealth of solidarity…We held listening sessions across the city asking, what are the schools our students deserve? Who are the teachers our students deserve? What is the profession those teachers deserve?…Rather than just asking for support, we sought our common interests and worked alongside each other and we’ve accomplished great things: reasonable class sizes, culturally relevant curriculum, high-quality professional development, access to art, music, world language, physical education, a school nurse for every school, librarians, counselors and social workers.”
The March For Public Education was a turning point for public school advocacy. Although teachers are not natural activists, they have been summoned by national events and local disparities. The problems did not begin with the current political administration, and they will not end when Trump leaves office. However, teachers will not be silenced. Teachers will resist. Teachers will take back education from the privateers, the corporations, the politicians, and other false prophets. Public education is a right and it is integral in a free and open society.
Click the link below for a post where you can locate links to all of the speeches shared, or click on the person’s underlined name above to reach their words.