Most every time that I have done a teacher training I have used “Mascot,” the second chapter in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, if not explicitly, at least by inspiration. In the chapter Mr. Ostrowski tells elementary school Malcolm that he should not aspire so high as to be a lawyer, but rather he should be something more “realistic” for a Negro, such as a carpenter. Despite Malcolm having high grades, he is immediately rejected and credits that incident as changing his motivation in life from successfully integrated to a life of crime.
With regards to teaching and education, the link about the impact of Malcolm’s teacher’s words is obvious. We know teachers make positive and negative impacts in our lives all the time. Ms. Tung told me she knew I could do better in the fifth grade and Ms. Gaines echoed that sentiment in the eighth. My third grade teacher told me that I was awarded The Gift of Blackness Award, because “despite my color, I still played with the other children.” My mom never ran track but trust she broke some land-speed record getting up to the school that day. The point is, regardless of their intentions, teachers carry major weight.
With that said, that is not why I use that chapter. I use it to discuss the messaging that we provide students under the guise of teacher altruism: we are teachers so we supposedly know best about everything, right? But I don’t think it is about the occasional rogue know-it-all teacher.
Somewhere along the way, schools started making decisions about who deserves their efforts.
Starting with Mr. Ostrowski may have been an error because we can all look at ourselves and our practice and immediately say that we are not that person. But how often have we put less than our best effort in a lesson because we assumed the students just wouldn’t get it anyway? How often have we graded some papers faster than others because we already had a grade in mind for that student? How often have we made excuses about all the issues that student has regarding their own learning rather than those regarding our own teaching? How often have we rejected feedback for fear it would expose more about our own biases and pedagogy than we are willing to admit?
Most every school that I have worked in has a mission statement with wording along the lines of creating learners who participate in a democratic society. Every. Single. One. Yet the same school will say that we are not preparing students for college because, in some iteration—not all students are college-bound. Why not? Why does the school get to make that determination? And more importantly, shouldn’t we prepare students for the stars, open more doors, and allow them to make choices based on the options they have available rather than the ones we didn’t make available?
I will admit that I watched “Mona Lisa Smile.” And worse, I was taken by a line towards the end when Kirsten Dunst’s character graduates from college and says now she chooses to be a homemaker. It was so different from the things I’ve heard high school graduating seniors say in my teaching career:
-I don’t even know how to write an essay. How would I go to any college?
-I don’t have money to go to college anyway so what’s the point?
-Is someone going to tell me when I’m supposed to apply to college?
I was shocked. In their entire time, hadn’t anyone described the process or put in some effort to teach them college-readiness skills?
I was troubled a few weeks back when I heard a report on NPR about high school students opting to go directly into vocational training rather than earning even a high school diploma. I was first disturbed by students making life-decisions at the age of 14. Worse than that were the reasons young people opted to get vocational training. One student said something to the effect of not liking to have to listen to someone for so long as an hour and getting easily distracted by her peers. She chose to learn to be a hairdresser and I was truly worried for her future clients with a stylist with self-professed focus issues. So I wondered, in her school career, when was she Mr. Ostrowski-ed?
I thought how different it would be if on graduation day, she had a few college acceptance letters in her hand, some letters detailing her funding packages for these colleges, and then she decided her passion was hairdressing and she would like to pursue that through vocational school. I thought about how different her life would be if that was a choice she was making after finding her passion rather than by default. Her calling rather than her regret.
Ms. Tung really never talked to me much. I was a pretty shy student and never really heard much either way from teachers. When Ms. Tung died a few years later of lung cancer, I think I was sitting in some advanced mathematics course once again relying on a good memory rather than good study habits. I vowed to be a teacher then. I had been Ms. Tung-ed and hoped that I would eventually open enough doors and inspire some students who would one day talk about being Ms. Hoy-ed. And I commit to that promise each day.