Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Growth of a Movement: Lessons Learned During the First Year of the Badass Teachers Association

Originally published on Wednesday July 23 by emPower Magazine

On June 13, 2014 the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) celebrated its one year anniversary. As a member and administrator since the first few weeks, it has been truly amazing to watch this organization grow. The co-founders had no idea that a Facebook group titled Badass Teachers Association would have grown to include over 50,000 members and become a grassroots movement that fights for teachers and public education. The mission of BATs made it clear who we were and what we were about:
“Badass Teachers Association was created to give voice to every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality through education. BAT members refuse to accept assessments, tests and evaluations created and imposed by corporate driven entities that have contempt for authentic teaching and learning.”
BATs is for teachers. Teachers who are routinely silenced through neoliberal privatization policies. Teachers who are expected to perform miracles for students living in extreme poverty, speak English as a second language, and have special needs without adequate resources and support. BATs became a safe place for teachers to be heard, to network, and to demand change.
As I reflect back on this past year, it is truly inspiring to see what can be done when teachers refuse to be scapegoats and demand change. Although we have had many successes over the past year we have also made some mistakes and learned some valuable lessons on how to manage a fast growing group through social media. One of the things I learned, was that although we might all be badass teachers we were and still are a very diverse group of individuals. We come from all over the country and world, work in different settings, belong to different political parties, and have a variety of beliefs on many issues. It might be part of human nature to believe that people who share the same profession also share the same values but diversity in all forms is what makes us human.
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The rapid growth of BATs took all of us by surprise. The founders and admins had been in many social media groups before but none of them had as many members as we did in our first 2 months. The admins spent countless hours each day admitting new members and monitoring conversations. We immediately voted to ban posts that contained spam and were racist, sexist, and homophobic. We also did not allow posts that disparaged either political party, attacked teachers, parents, administrators, or students. We learned that these conversations were quick to become divisive and the last thing we wanted was to see this group implode. Discussions on changing the name also became a distraction so we deleted these posts and encouraged people who did not like the name to leave the group. These actions led to accusations of censorship, but for those of us spending 10-15 hours a day having the same conversations it was the best way for us to keep the group growing. As an online social community we had the right to dictate what our purpose was and what conversations we would allow to take place within our own group. As we tried to capitalize on our growth it was imperative that we did not allow contentious issues to divide us.
Our stance against conversations that divided us soon divided us. Members wanted to discuss any issue they thought was important while other members did not agree that those issues were pertinent to our mission. When conversations took a turn for the worse they were deleted. These conversation topics varied, but included topics such as race and racism, the pledge of allegiance, guns, and sex education. Since none of these topics were directly related to our mission we thought it best to discourage them from taking place in our group. The founders even created affiliate groups focused on specific topics where members could discuss these issues with others who also wanted to discuss them. Nonetheless, some felt as though we were silencing their voice and although it was not our intention, we did, and for that we apologize.
During the past year, the founders and administrators have understood the need to allow difficult conversations to take place. Although we continue to monitor our group and keep a list of topics that are banned, we know that conversations about race and racism are something that all teachers need to have. In light of the Trayvon Martin verdict, we agreed to allow these conversations to progress and only delete comments that were racist and insulting. I remember reading through the posts and comments the day after the verdict. Although none were out right racist many were coded in colorblind language that blamed Trayvon for his own death. But these were in the minority. Most of the comments were respectful and acknowledged the lack of justice in the verdict. I was impressed by the thoughtful responses of many BATs who were quick to call out those who advocated being colorblind more than I was dismayed by the posts of those who were blinded by their colorblind beliefs.
My point in reviewing the history of BATs was to give you some perspective of where we came from and how we got to where we are today. As a result of earlier decisions, we have been branded by some as a racist organization that silence’s the voices of teachers of color. I am a teacher of color and I have never had my voice silenced in BATs and often I am asked to share my voice on issues regarding diversity and privilege. My experience may not resonate with what others have experienced but as I said earlier, we made mistakes in the past and we are in the process of learning from those mistakes. Does this mean we are perfect now? Does this mean that all members of BATs are culturally competent educators who believe in social justice education? Unfortunately it does not. We have over 50,000 members, and although we would like them to agree with us on every issue they do not. When the founders and administrators decide on an action to promote or a position to take, we can be sure that some of our members will not agree. From taking a stance against the Common Core State Standards to supporting Cuomo’s prisoner education initiative we have lost members who do not agree with us. Not everyone who disagrees with us leaves. Some stay because they continue to believe in what BATS stands for even if they do not agree with us on every issue. Others stay and ignore the conversations they do not like and focus on the ones they do.
On June 26 a member posted an article from the Washington Post titled, Student: My School District Hires Too Many White Teachers. The author made a valid point that students of color need to have teachers of color. Does this mean that all white teachers who teach students of color are ineffective? No it does not. It means that all students, especially students of color, need role models who are the same race, share the same culture, and come from similar communities. Anyone who has been through diversity training can understand why having black teachers would be good for black students. But for some of our members, the mere suggestion that there are too many white teachers, was taken as an insult to all the white teachers who teach students of color. Some immediately argued that there are not enough teachers of color. This argument fails to acknowledge the many teachers of color who have been pushed out of schools to make room for the mostly white Teach for America members, in places like New Orleans and other urban communities. Other members argued that the race of a teacher does not matter if the teacher is a good teacher. I have had good black teachers and good white teachers, I have also had bad black teachers and bad white teachers, but to assume that race does not matter is a luxury that only privileged people can engage in.
Again, what surprised me about the comments was the fact that most of them supported the author’s
points. Many members argued that although they were white, they understand that their students would benefit from having more teachers of color in their school and in their district. But when another member chose to write a blog about the conversation, she did not include any of the supportive comments. She took screenshots of about a dozen posts and used these to argue that the organization was not doing enough to rid themselves of members who have racist tendencies. She claims that none of the administrators or founders responded to the comments that denied the importance of race but many of our members did and so did I. What I find most troubling about her account is that she used the few statements to taint the entire conversation. We cannot force our members to replace their colorblind beliefs with cultural competency. All we can do is educate them and hope that in time they learn to accept and appreciate diversity, not be blind to it. But in order to educate people we have to let them be honest and say things that we are not going to like. That conversation provided an opportunity for our members to discuss the need for a diverse teaching force. Many agreed that this was an important issue, some did not, and others learned something. That is how you grow as an organization. By giving people the space to learn and grown. We would love for every person who joins the group subscribe to a social justice philosophy, be culturally competent, and have a strong understanding of privilege. But in reality we understand that not all of our members are ready to engage in this type of work. What we can do and what we will do is provide a space for our members to explore these issues and fight to save their profession.
Another way that you grow is to admit when you made a mistake. In the blog, the author eluded to the fact that BATs does not have a good track record when it comes to working with people of color. She has argued that she knows of some people of color who felt as though their voice was silenced. The founders and administrators acknowledge that mistakes we made in the past and in an effort to rectify those mistakes have issued the following apology:
The founders, general managers and moderators of the Badass Teachers Association, have, in the wake of conflicts that occurred recently, decided to implement a process of healing and self-scrutiny that we have been talking about for weeks, but is frankly long overdue. To that end, we would like to offer our sincere apology to those members who were either pushed out, marginalized, or banned from BATS for trying to initiate a conversation on our pages about race, gender, and privilege. We would also like to invite them to return to the group. They can do this by sending a private Facebook message to Marla Kilfoyle, Love Light, Priscilla Sanstead, or Mark Naison. We are sincerely sorry for stifling much needed conversation on these issues and making sincere fighters for equity and justice feel marginalized.
This apology is needed because in our attempt to keep conversations focused on our mission, we were complicit in silencing the voices of teachers who wanted to discuss issues of race, racism, and privilege. We hope that this apology will be accepted so that we can begin to repair the damage caused by our earlier decisions. We have grown over the past year and we have learned many things. We will continue to fight for all teachers to have a voice in education policy and leadership. We will continue to engage our members to examine the effects of privilege, racism, sexism, and all types of oppression on our students, their families, and communities.
On Monday July 28, we will speak truth to power as we rally in the plaza of the Department of Education from 10 am to 5 pm to protest the devastating policies of the U.S. Department of Education. “BATs will demand such things as ending federal incentives to close and privatize schools, promote equity and adequate funding for all public schools, and ban all data sharing of children’s private information.”
The time has come for teachers and supporters of public education to stand up and make their voices heard. Education is in danger of becoming a commodity, privatized and sold to the highest bidder. A privilege for those who can afford it rather than a human right for all. If you want to support teachers and public education we ask that you add your voice to the fight and join us at the rally!

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