Friday, July 5, 2013

Find Your Sass (A Few More Words on the Name Badass Teachers Association)


There has been a fount of discussion about the name, “Badass Teachers Association.”  The multitude of those who have come to this group embrace the name.  Many have defended it saying that teachers have been polite for too long; teachers have tried to play by the traditional rules of etiquette and civility.  The teachers who know they belong, who have yearned for a group that understands the grief, frustration, and anger they feel, realize that there is little that is more heinous and vulgar than the draconian corporate takeover of public education (ever wonder why the wealthy business people and politicians send their children to private schools that do not administer high stakes test that the rest of our children endure?).  On September 11, 2001 Reuters released a citizen’s video of a plane hitting the second of the World Trade Center towers.  On that day, before the video was edited, you could hear the camera operator or someone nearby uttering a curse word.  That word was later removed.  A friend of mine waxed, “Really?  They censored the word? Is there anything more vulgar than what we are witnessing in the video?”

We’re now at a point in public education that what we are witnessing is far more vulgar than any words that teachers could possibly use to define themselves.  Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Koch Brothers, Arne Duncan, Barrack Obama, Michelle Rhee…these people are doing blasphemous things to our schools and our children.  They are robbing teachers of their love of and commitment to creativity and relationship building.  They are stealing meaningful childhood experiences in art, music, and physical education away from our children, in an effort to ensure that our students are “college and career ready.”  But we all know that to be ready for life, for its beauty, pain, depth, and challenges, that rote memorization, galvanic skin response, and learning to take tests are not the answer.  Not even close.  In fact, these things are so far from resembling what we should consider education, that we should all be up in arms.  We should all be cursing at the powers that are enforcing this sort of deformation on our children and teachers.

I want to quote at length some passages from Bill Pinar’s 2004 book What is Curriculum Theory?  In these words, Pinar explains the origins of the word “sass,” and how the language and attitude of sass empowered enslaved black women, for whom the only source power was the use of language thrown back at those who sought to control and dehumanize them.  It’s important, because it’s what we teachers are learning to do now.  We can’t win by their rules, because their rules are made so that we end up losers.  I leave the original references in so that readers can find the sources if they need to.

What possible defenses could black female slaves employ to defend themselves and their children from white abuse? ‘Sass’ and invective functioned as verbal weapons (Braxton 1989).  Derived from West Africa, sass is associated with the female elements of the trickster, a concept found in Gates’ (1988) discussion of African mythology and Lemelle’s (1995) discussion of contemporary African-American men…Webster’s Dictionary defines sass as talking impudently or disrespectfully to an elder or a superior, as in ‘talking back.’…In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl…whenever Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent is her pseudonym) is sexually threatened, she uses sass to defend herself (Braxton 1989).  Through sass she ‘returns’ a portion of the poison the master has injected into her…In this way sass protects something of her self-esteem, partly by increasing the psychological distance between herself and her white master (Pinar, 43-44).  Recall that, in speaking of Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), Joanne Braxton (1989, 16) observed that ‘language is her first line of defense.’ (Pinar, 250)

We teachers have found ourselves in a position in which we are being forced to act against what we know is best for our students and communities.  We have been harassed for too long.  We all know now that the greatest factors influencing students’ academic achievement are outside of schools.  Level of income is now the number one predictor of student achievement.  We know that teachers are amazing, worthy, and valuable; but they are not to be the whipping posts for those who know nothing about education.  They are not to be treated as pawns in billion dollar deals.

When the rules are stacked against you; when the very system ensures that you will fail (100% pass rate for all students by 2014, anybody?); when your value as a human is given no heed; when you are forced to take medical leave for the stress and anxiety you experience in your school, they only way to start is to find our teacher voices and use language to return some of the poison that the masters have injected into us.  I’m very hesitant to make analogies to slavery, so I want to be clear that I’m not saying that teaching now is the same as slavery.  But it’s a dehumanizing and disrespected field.  If you think the word “badass” is vulgar and off-putting, please take a moment to look around and see the vulgar state of education “reform” around us.  No word can be as vulgar as the money interests that heap abuse on both teachers and students. Badass Teachers (BATs) aren’t badass because they came to play nice.  Badass Teachers are badass because they are starting with the language, the words, that will transgress the rules that have been thrust upon them, without so much as an invitation to table where education is being discussed.  It’s time to find your sass.  It’s time to be BADASS.

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