Last Thursday, I came home and cried for four hours.
Here's the short list:
- On Monday, the city installed metal detectors in my school
- Only five of my 18* kids are passing.
- My kids have not been adequately prepared for high school in the slightest, and my inability to shift gears down to where they're at this past week made them frustrated with me and made me frustrated with myself.
- I realized that my administration sincerely believes we will become better teachers if we stick to the Danielson Rubric, a ridiculous new set of guidelines that are being imposed across many states in spite of the fact that there is no study proving its efficacy. Meanwhile, one of the requirements of the rubric is to prove my efficacy...by using data. (Hint: my ability to regurgitate teacher-ese jargon does not help me teach my kids better.)
- de Blasio ordered schools to remain open during the worst storm we've had in decades, knowing full well that it would not be an actual instructional day, effectively stating that a school's primary function is to warehouse children. I'm pretty sure my master's degree is for history education, not childcare.
So I cried for four hours because it feels like there's no way to win: we all know standardized test scores measure nothing -- especially if I'm getting 17-year-olds who are reading at a sixth grade reading level. If the tests truly measured proficiency, they wouldn't have gotten as far as my classroom. But even that statement is problematic: my students may have trouble reading and writing but they're fucking brilliant.
But the system is not structured to support impoverished children. I should note that smarter people than I have discussed this topic -- specifically how the forces of capitalism have converged in recent years to keep the poor down -- much more cogently than I can here. But that's not what I wanted to write about anyway. I wanted to write about why I was crying. (I'm a pretty selfish person.)
The real reason I can't win is this: as far as most people are concerned, my job is to make the numbers look good. But I know that my job is to help my young people grow into their roles as young adults, to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments, to strive for further accomplishments, and to resist the cycle of poverty. And I've found that the only way to do that -- in my two years of teaching and my twenty five-ish years as a human -- is to love the Hell out of my students.
Last year I taught at a middle school in the South Bronx. I now teach at an alternative high school for students who have struggled in more mainstream environments. We also belong to the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of schools that have been granted a waiver from the State such that our students only need to take the English Language Arts Regents. For all four of their subjects, students are expected to write a 7 - 10 page research paper. I don't think you need raw data to acknowledge that kids learn much more about planning, revising, flexibility, perseverance, and content by conducting these projects than they ever could from a Regents exam. And most jobs aren't interested in making you fill out bubbles on for Scantron sheet. At least not yet. The students then have to defend their paper like a graduate student would defend their thesis.
I used to really hate meeting new people. One of the things I hated was trying to figure out how to come out to them if the subject came up. I'd walk around at parties with this pit in my stomach and if the subject of boyfriends came up I'd brace my shoulders and watch their reaction, shifting the weight on my heels in case I needed to make a hasty retreat. Now I feel that way about telling strangers about my job. Because their reaction -- always -- is "Wow. You teach history in the South Bronx? They must be hard to control."
Except now I brace my shoulders because I need to keep myself from slapping strangers. It's just not a good way to make friends.
My response depends on how much I like the person who's hosting the party, how close the other guest is to that person, and how much I've already judged them for their career choice. (Financial consulting? How fascinating!) But I like to tell them the story about the thesis defense I conducted with the teen mom, the dropout, and the tough-looking basketballer who would make naive people cross the street. They each wrote papers about the effects of teen pregnancy and dropout rates in different countries. Though they were in the same class they hadn't realized that the other two had written about similar topics. We had an excited, hour-long conversation about the effects of poverty on education, what kinds of further research they would do if they had the chance, comparisons between their findings, and how young mothers really do need supports that society just isn't willing to give them. The conversation concluded with the two students turning to their classmate, whose baby just turned two, and telling her how proud they were of her for doing so well in spite of the extra stress she experiences as a mother.
Yeah. Kids in the South Bronx are drug dealers and prostitutes, just like you saw on The Wire.
That honesty, that tenderness, doesn't magically appear. Can you imagine a classmate (not a friend -- a classmate whom you kind of know) of yours in high school telling you that they were proud of you? It doesn't matter where you grew up or what kind of school you went to -- I'm pretty confident the answer is no.
The real difference between my first school and the one I teach at now isn't the age group or the lack of standardized tests. It's the presence of love and humanity. Throughout my entire first year of teaching I was constantly told "You need to show 'em who's boss" or "You need to be in control." Less helpfully, some of my colleagues referred to the students as "animals." No matter how these veteran teachers phrase it, the underlying message was authority comes from domination. Only then can you teach.
That's not how authority works. That's never how true authority works. That's not even how we conceptualize authority to work in this country. Right now I'm teaching the Enlightenment. My kids -- you know, the unruly hoodlums -- were fascinated by the idea of the social contract: authority only exists with the consent of the governed. You're letting me sit here and talk at you about the Enlightenment because you trust me to give you something important. They nodded. You've all been in classrooms where the teacher cannot or will not give you something important, and you've seen what happens. They laughed.
I've always wanted to be a teacher. (Actually, when I was in Kindergarten I wanted to be a veterinarian. But my path was set for me pretty quickly.) I can point to dozens of teachers who encouraged me, who made kind gestures, who helped me realize that I do have something important to give to the world. I knew early on that that "something" was to continue to pass the buck of humanity that they had given to me. In high school I understood that my good luck with teachers wasn't luck at all: when your parents can afford to spend an exorbitant amount of money on private schools, you will get the best education money can buy. And my rubbing elbows with the 1% somehow ignited a streak in me that Enlightenment folks would have derisively called "leveling": the idea that everyone should have equal social status, equal opportunities, even if that means classes should be abolished. (Fun fact: few of the Founding Fathers actually wanted a popular democracy. Thomas Paine actually forced their hands to create one by writing Common Sense. And that's why he's my home dog.)
I didn't really know what to do with that impulse until I read Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of Freedom in college. My understanding of Freire is limited, and one of the essays in Education and Capitalism (linked above) critiques the common interpretation of Freire's works (including mine), but I wanted to share my main takeaways from the book:
- To educate is a political act and you simply can't hide from that. Even if you try to maintain a "neutral" classroom you are effectively shutting down any kind of political discourse, which ultimately sends the message that what you learn in school cannot be applied in adult life.
- Your job as a teacher is to mold students as active citizens. But don't mold them into your active citizen. Let them believe whatever they want, but force them to defend that opinion. And do not withhold your own opinion (see above.) Just don't force it on your kids.
- This last one I'm still working on, but Freire envisions a classroom where power and learning really are shared between students and teachers. I won't go into much more detail than that because it's not what I want to focus on here.
Teachers will never, ever be successful if our aim is to educate for content or for tests. The things we teach can never be divorced from the fabric of our lives. If I teach the French Revolution as a Thing You Need to Know for the Test then it will -- at best -- live in my students' memory as a Thing That Happened. If I teach it as an example of people putting ideas (the Enlightenment) to action, it might raise the possibility of doing the same with other theories about how humans should live. If I teach it as an example of people struggling against an unjust government, then it might raise the idea that people could, in theory, do the same thing today, assuming the government was unjust enough. If I teach it as the inspiration for revolutions that irrevocably altered the history of the countries they and their family are from, if I show them that the Enlightenment is not just a bunch of dead white dudes but very much a part of their own cultural heritage, if I teach it as a struggle to gain specific rights that are by no means guaranteed in our country today -- especially if you are a person of color -- then we've gotten somewhere. Then I'm teaching them something that's important, and then they sit still long enough to listen and think. Then I don't have problems with classroom management.
We can't teach if we stick to the test and stay neutral.
We can't teach if we think we have to control or dominate our students. I can't teach with that mindset because students won't learn with that mindset. My former colleagues, you will get nowhere fast with that mentality. I heard you blame the students and their parents for their behavior. You never blamed the system that let you live in the suburbs but forces your students to live in squalor. There's a lot to blame there, certainly. But when you assume that 25 - 30 minds and hearts and souls we hold in our hands for 45 minutes a day can only be taught if they're in a constant state of fear and resistance, there's only one person to blame. And that's yourself.
If I am honest with my students about sharing power in my classroom, if I am patient and understanding of the difficulties they face outside of school, if I stay firm when they try to wheedle their way out of work (they are, after all, human and teenagers at that), if I value the (positive) things they do outside of school, if I encourage them when they face difficulty in school (they are well aware that they are reading and writing below high school level) and if I show them that I'm a person, too, then they will try to find value in the important things I want to give them. But only because I've put the effort into valuing what they do. That's relationship-building. That's love.