As usual, I started thinking about current events and something I am working on, this time a diversity training/workshop. I was greatly disturbed the incidents at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I have been working on my own political satirical comic strip so I was initially worried about how someone might take offense to something I may say. But then I realized that I am not, nor do I create, things that are intentionally hurtful. People lose the ability to think about whatever your critique is when they are so clouded by anger in the way you’ve said it. I thought back to Voltaire’s quote—“I hate what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” I even thought about your “ride or die” friend who could just be cool so no one has to ride or die. I even thought about celebrity so-called apologies, where you hear the disdain in the “…if I offended you…” part of the supposed apology. I never condone violence or murder in any way. Period.
I also believe that we shouldn’t be hurtful just because we think we can.
And thinking you have that right is more damaging that not exercising that right in the first place.
A few months ago, I went to a diversity talk for my son’s possible future kindergarten. The speaker began by saying how dangerous the Bay Area is in terms of discussions about race because there are so many liberals that we think we get it and therefore get in our own way when it is time to actually get it. I applauded and laughed for a while, even after the room calmed down. I have been doing diversity training in the Bay Area for a long time so this wasn’t a shock to me. You go to the South and people will say, “yup, it’s jacked up out here.” Same in the Midwest, East…just about anywhere but in the Bay…and the Bay is probably one of the more segregated places that I have ever lived! So in thinking about this diversity training, I wanted to come up with some givens to start the presentation and in that, I thought of some things that I have read and some things that I have talked about with friends and some things that I just thought of from my typical over-thinking and came up with Top Five Ways Liberals Have Ruined Education. (Just a quick disclaimer: I count myself in as a liberal somewhere between sitting in a tree for months to protest consumerism and attending anti-war rallies, more left than the folks I am talking about here in terms of larger political ideology.)
5) Not So Great Expectations: When we talk about the achievement gap, educators somehow interpret that to me that students of color or low-achieving students simply can’t achieve. It is really the oddest views that I have encountered because isn’t the basic premise of teaching that your students are teachable? So consciously or not, teachers will accept less from these students, schools will provide alternatives that are less than admissions requirements or even their own graduation requirements all under the guise of students need to feel success rather than be challenged. Do you think that student didn’t notice that she was never asked to write an essay or that no one called her out on her crappy homework or that she took five semesters of Office Assistant and still earned a diploma or that they sat in bonehead math for the last three years?
Students are teachable and can achieve to the extent that you believe in them and in your own teaching ability to get them there.
4) Mothering: This is one of my pet peeves. I have seen teachers pull kids aside and have daily heart-to-hearts with their students, behind closed doors, going way over the line, in my opinion of the role of authority figure in the classroom. A student once told me about her advisor who said “I know you don’t have a real mother at home so you can count on me to be that for you.” The student’s grandmother promptly cussed out that teacher. My favorite was a teacher who figured out students were stealing cash from her purse. Instead of locking up her purse in the locker that the school provided, she went to the ATM each morning to get more cash and left her purse in plain sight each day. The students continued to steal from her and she rationalized it by saying, “they must really need it so I’ll keep doing it.” When I asked the students, they shrugged and said, “if she wants to give it to us for whatever reason, we’re going to take it.” Liberals have read plenty to say that family life for students is dysfunctional and liberals view themselves as the one to fix it. Teacher ego, I call it.
That hour per day that you spend with a student in a room full of other children? Not the same as a parent. That handful of cash isn’t going to end systemic poverty. That connection that you are building? It’s as an authority figure, as a teacher. It shouldn’t be as a friend.
There are many dangers, but the largest is the one I mentioned in (5): if you are so busy kissing ouchies, can you still toe the line to those high academic standards? Research says no.
I realize that this may come with a lot of disagreement, but I believe this is the dangerous place that created charter schools and federal organizations that place teachers without teaching experience in classrooms for a short period of time. Pedagogy doesn’t matter. Content knowledge doesn’t matter. Only compassion does.
Don’t get me wrong—I care tremendously for my students. But I leave family decisions to families and recognize that high standards and communicating effectively with caretakers is the best type of mothering I should be doing in the classroom.
3) What’s Good For The Individual: Part of earning one’s liberal card is reading that Peggy McIntosh piece about white privilege. I’m not mad at it; it serves a good purpose. One of the more interesting points that list makes is when we look at the individual versus the group. We see individuals more often with White people: This person achieved this or that person did that. But for people of color we see one person’s actions as indicative of the group: This person did that so all of that group does the same. This is why the one person of color in a setting is an authority on all people of color. Or the research we have seen on stereotype threat where students of color experience high levels of anxiety during test-taking because they fear they will fulfill a stereotype of a bad student.
The reason I think about it this in terms of other aspects of education is because liberal teachers are constantly talking about that one kid they had that one time, the one that all of their great methods worked for and how it must be the thing to do.
While again there are many things wrong in this thinking, the one I choose to focus on is that when we are thinking about the achievement gap and all things wrong in education, we are thinking about systemic things, not individual things. Systemic things, i.e. racism. The ways little Johnny was able to circumvent and live with racism isn’t your concern; your concern should be placed in the observers of those interactions, the ones who will grow up to either continue to support or dismantle racist systems.
Low expectations and mothering really suck for little Johnny and he will go on to look for inappropriate relationships at work and continue to produce mediocre work while these teachers continue to churn out the same student based on that model regardless of how the world is changing around them. But the same can be said for the students observing those interactions who will continue to think means to rectify historical inequities are undeserved and unfair to them. When we talk about ending some great social ill, we look to the victim first and only, and forget that should we address the perpetrators, the victim wouldn’t exist in the first place.
2) I Am Here Too: You may have noticed that each of these are linked to the previous point. The same goes for this one. Liberals are offended by the mere notion that they don’t understand some element of racism. When I have worked in urban communities, people are quick to want to hear your opinion and expertise. In those liberal communities, as soon as there is discussion about something that may be unfair or a possible –ism, the response explaining why they still get it is always some version of: “oh no, I’m not like them. I voted for Obama!” My favorite is the ultimate Bay Area liberals’ sign of acceptance into people of color world—having mixed children.
I am not judging—I have a mixed child myself—but it seems difficult for the most liberal of teachers to accept that there are just some things that their liberal card didn’t allow them access. And at some point, they have to turn over the reigns to someone who knows by experience.
1) That Bad Childhood: There is a scene in “Notting Hill” where all the dinner guests are around the table competing for the last brownie by giving their biggest sob story. The saddest story wins the brownie. In my classes, I sometimes call this phenomenon The Oppression Olympics. Unlike the scene, we shouldn’t all compete for who had it worse. I’ve had students completely devastated and overwhelmed by an incident that another student will brush off. We can’t all compete because the ways to measure these occurrences are so different. The same goes here. Once liberals in education are done talking about that one kid that everything worked, or mothering the next kid, they go here for their expertise: “Well, I may not be a person of color, but I grew up in a poor neighborhood so I get it.” My response most times is that I am a person of color and I didn’t grow up in a poor neighborhood so exactly what is it that you get?
In this category I also think about the co-opting Bay Area liberal. There are so many that enjoy working in communities of color, to the extent that they co-opt. It has to be one of the most frustrating things because at the end of the day, when you are done dancing to the great music, and eating the great food, and practicing the language, you won’t be deported, you won’t be denied an education, and you won’t have greater chances of being incarcerated.
Thinking further out again, I believe this lends to the current model of bad multi-cultural education. When there is a lack of understanding of the systems that create the oppression, not only can we not dismantle it, but we can’t teach it either. So liberals will do the chips-and-salsa version of reaching students of color: they spent a day or so talking about Cesar Chavez or Harriet Tubman and they can check that box. They have officially included a great person of color in the conversation. But I don’t believe that is all that we meant when we said students of color need to see themselves in the curriculum (in the past versions of multi-cultural education). I understand that to mean something different: Do students of color see success in your class structure? Are they counted out before they began? Do you assume they will be the worst before they started? If they slip, are there structures in place to catch them? Will your class help them recognize their passions? Will your class get them closer to recognizing their dreams?
Returning to those givens at the start of my presentation:
Your students are teachable and can do only as much as you expect them to do.
Your student is your student.
Individuals do not represent the group but individuals create the systems.
You don’t know what you don’t know but someone else does.