Thursday, December 4, 2014

TEACHERS, RACISM AND THE FIGHT TO SAVE PUBLIC EDUCATION

This was originally published on Wednesday December 3 by emPower Magazine.

After the death of Michael Brown I felt the need to write a lengthy article to many of the members of the Badass Teachers Association. We had many discussions and arguments when the protests began immediately after his death, and most of the disagreement seemed to come from people having different understandings of words like racism, “reverse-racism”, and white privilege. In an effort to define what some of us mean when we use these words. I attempted to discuss them in a clear, easy to understand way that would help some people understand what was being said. Many people loved what I said and the way that I said it because it helped them to make sense of the conversations we were having. Others felt as though I was holding up my own personal beliefs as truth. I did not write an academic article, full of citations, but I did state that what I wrote was what I had learned from others who have studied race, racism, and oppression. And for some, my words just reinforced what they had already learned to be true.
Now that the grand jury verdict has been made public we are once again discussing many of these issues. But in the time since Michael Brown was killed and the grand jury failed to indict the cop who killed him, there have been more stories in the news about racism and the role it plays in schools across the country (see here and here). This story about the racism a young African American girl faced in school came out in October of 2014 and is one example of how some students experience racism from some of their teachers. But these discussions are typically not welcomed by many teachers. Some teachers feel as though these discussions are a personal attack on them because they are white and teach in schools that are predominately made up of students of colors. Others feel that they only speak to one incident and that most teachers are not racist because they do not see color. However, if you talk to many students of color you will hear that many teachers who claim to be colorblind can say and do things that are racist. Not all but many, and so what responsibility do we who claim to fight for public education have, when it comes to dealing with incidents of racism in our public schools?
Another line that I frequently hear is that, the issue of Michael Brown’s death, or Trayvon Martin’s death, does not belong in our group. Our mission states that:
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.
Our mission does not explicitly state that we deal with issues of racism and oppression but it also doesn’t state that we fight against the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Teach for America (TFA) and yet we include those issues in our fight. Like many organizations our mission has evolved to include diverse perspectives that affect some teachers but not all (not every state has adopted CCSS or has been flooded with TFA members). Nonetheless, we are constantly being told that we are moving away from our mission when we discuss an issue that most of the country is discussing.
So how do we as educators fight to save public education but not deal with racism that affects our students? I have also heard that some white teachers are accused of racism for telling a black student to have seat or to do their work. This statement is typically made to imply that the racism students are accusing teachers of is never true so why should we bring it up. Fair enough, some students do not know what racism truly is. They will accuse a teacher of racism just to get out of doing their work. Just like some students will tell a teacher that they hate them because they gave them a pop quiz or the failing grade they earned. Does that mean that we cannot trust students because some of them tell lies and make false accusations? Children are children meaning they cannot reason logically like an adult. When a child makes a false accusation of racism, I would hope any teacher, would use it as a teachable moment to have an honest conversation about what racism is and what it is not instead of just assuming that we cannot trust young people to know what racism is and is not. I have a black female friend who thought she was experiencing racism but was not sure. After she discussed the situation with me and we both reflected on it, we came to realize there was probably no intentional racism although the other person’s words made her feel uneasy. Even adults can have a hard time knowing if something is racist or not but we do not dismiss their experience simply because others have been wrong.
In a world where the history of our public education system was begun as a segregated institution and used to oppress others why are we unwilling to discuss how in many aspects our public education system still has yet to live it up to the ideal that it is a Great Equalizer for many of our students? Given the way black teachers were forced out and black schools were closed during the period of integration, why is it divisive to question how the lack of cultural competence in some teachers and schools may be the reason why we have a persistent achievement gap? I for one cannot make sense of the current situation that public education finds itself in without first understanding the history of public education. A field that was first dominated by men, but then saw a shift when men were needed to go to war, and is now predominantly white and female, has been under attack by corporate reformers. Would a male dominated profession be treated the same way? Probably not, but we need to understand the history of public education if we are going to fight to save it.
The same can be said for how public education has dealt with racism. A system that was hostile to educating children of color was forced to do so by changes in our country’s laws. In doing so, many of the teachers who worked with these students were not welcomed in the new integrated schools, and as a result, we have seen enormous disparities in the educational achievement of students of color. However, none of this can be attributed to a teaching force that lacks cultural competence. It is much easier to blame the students, their families, and their communities, then to take any responsibility for the current situation.
Teachers are very powerful in the classroom. No, they cannot be expected to alleviate the effects of poverty, but they can be expected to do their best to meet the needs of all their students in the relative short time they have. And meeting the needs of all students means developing cultural competence. Even if all the students in your school are white, they still need teachers who are culturally competent to prepare them for the realities of living in a globalized world. And if your students look like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, then teachers have a responsibility to help their students make sense of their tragic loss of life and what it means for them. Perhaps teachers do not want to take on this responsibility. But if they want to fight to save public education they need to remember that the responsibility is theirs. Saving public education means dealing with the racism from the past and present so that we have something worth fighting for in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. We are absolutely responsible, and to save public education, we have to take responsibility for creating learning environments, providing curriculum, facilitating dialogue, and teaching activism that empower students to reflect on, develop opinions about, and take action on all issues of vital importance, racism being at the top of the list. The fact that we have been dormant with our real mission has left us vulnerable to all these ridiculous reactionary attacks on public education, even though none of them are calling for what you prescribe. If we were doing it, we would have more power behind the very true assertions that our public schools are much better than people realize they are and that much of the problem is inequality of resources. Thanks for writing this. It is so good to hear. I don't know blog ettiquette, so I apologize if this is inappropriate, but this has been on my mind, too, and I tried to write about it, so if you get a chance, here you go: http://whatisarealeducation.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/if-public-schools-are-dying-ailing-or-thriving-so-too-is-america/

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