Friday, December 29, 2017

White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters by Steven Singer

This is one of those stories that’s been bothering me for a while.

I won’t say it happened recently or at my current district, but after teaching in the public school system for almost two decades, you see a lot that most people never hear about.

So it was almost Christmas break and my middle school students were shuffling in to homeroom.

One of the girls turns to me and says, “Mr. Singer, am I okay to wear this?”

Hold up. I teach English.

I am not a fashionista or even particularly clothes conscious. So this question took me by surprise.

In the split second it took me to comprehend what she was asking and focus my eyes on the girl, I was expecting she might have on something too revealing or perhaps had an inappropriate slogan on her shirt or a marijuana leaf.

But no. She had on a simple blue long sleeve sweater with a red Superman symbol in the middle.

I was about to say that what she was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but then I remembered the dress code.

It was a new directive from the school board, and it was – frankly – a horror show.

We used to have a perfectly fine dress code that only made students refrain from clothing that was dangerous, inappropriate or sexually explicit. But then someone on the board heard about a neighboring district that modeled itself after a private school academy – so they had to do the same thing here.

It was beyond stupid. Only certain colors were allowed. Only certain kinds of clothing. No designs on t-shirts. And on and on.

I frankly paid no attention to it. But administrators did.

Though they rarely punished students for being late to class, improperly using cell phones or dropping an f- bomb, they swept through the building every morning to make sure every student was undeniably in dress code – to the letter.

And if a child was wearing a verboten item of clothing! Heaven forbid! That child was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day unless a parent brought a change of clothing.

The same students would sit in “The Box” for days or weeks while their education was in suspended animation because they just couldn’t figure out which clothes the school board considered to be appropriate. (Or more likely they wanted a vacation from class.)

So when this girl – let’s call her Amy – asked me about her outfit, it was a pretty serious question.

And a difficult one.

Normally the Superman symbol would violate dress code, but I remembered that since it was only a few days before the holiday break, as an extra treat, students had been allowed to wear an “ugly Christmas sweater.” It was either that or conform to the usual dress code.

So all around me children were wearing fluffy red and green yarn creations sporting snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas.

But Amy was wearing a big red S.

By any definition, that’s not a Christmas sweater, and if the administrators wanted to take a hard line on the rules – and they usually did – she was out of dress code.

I told her what I thought. I said I had no personal problem with it and wouldn’t report her to the principal, but if she had a change of clothes, she might want to consider using them.

She didn’t.

And even if she did, it was too late. An administrator barreled into the room and proceeded to examine each child’s clothing.

Amy took her backpack and put it on backwards so that it covered her chest and the offending S.

Even that didn’t work.

When the administrator got to her, he asked to see what was under her backpack. She sighed and showed him.

But miraculously he said, “Okay,” and moved on.

Amy and I both breathed a sigh of relief. She was saved and wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in our school’s version of prison.

Before we could get too comfortable though, the hushed silence was broken when the administrator started screaming at another girl in the back of the room.

“That is not in dress code, and you know that’s not a Christmas sweater!” he screamed, cords standing out on his neck.

“How many times have I told you, but you think you can get away with anything…” and he continued to yell at her as she stomped out into the hall and presumably her locker.

And as she left, I saw that he was right. The girl he was yelling at – let’s call her Jada – was not wearing a Christmas sweater. She was wearing a plain gray and white flannel shirt. I don’t know how or why, but I guess that violated the dress code.

And for this offense she spent the day in in-school suspension.

I guess that’s not really Earth shattering, but it really bothered me.

It just seemed so unfair.

Jada was by no means a perfect student. But neither was Amy.

They both frequently broke rules and did pretty much what they wanted. They both could get an attitude, be catty, and mean.

However there was one distinguishing difference between them that immediately jumped to your attention – the color of their skins.

Amy was lily white. Jada was chocolate brown.

Now I’m not saying this administrator – who was white, by the way – was a virulent racist. I don’t know what went on inside his mind or heart.

In fact, I’d always thought of him as a fair-minded person who did his best to be impartial and treat students equally.

However, here was a case where he got it dead wrong.

Did he let Amy go because she was white? I don’t know. Did he come down on Jada because she was black? I don’t know.

My guess is that he was moving in a fog. He went to at least half of all the homerooms in the building checking each child to make sure they were in dress code. For some reason, when he looked at Amy, what he saw didn’t set off alarm bells. When he looked at Jada, it did.

Perhaps he remembered that Amy’s dad was a local cop and he didn’t relish having to call the police station to tell the officer that his daughter needed a change of clothes. Perhaps when he looked at Jada he was reminded of all the times she had been written up or defiant.

I say again – I don’t know.

However, there is little doubt in my mind that this is an example of white privilege – in action if not in intent.

The administrator gave Amy the benefit of the doubt because of her whiteness and came down on Jada because of her blackness.

This may not have been at the forefront of his mind – it probably wasn’t – but I believe that somewhere in his subconscious, racial attitudes and preconceptions played a part in this snap decision.

If I had taken him aside and mentioned it to him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. But probably not since I was just a subordinate.

Perhaps later after school over a few drinks he might have thought better of it.

White people make snap decisions about people of different races based on these same shadowy, unexamined racial preconceptions.

That’s white privilege. People like me and Amy get the benefit of the doubt, while people like Jada and the majority of my other students don’t.

I’ll say one more thing about dress codes.

I accept that they are necessary in a public school setting.

It’s difficult to teach if students parts are hanging out, if they’re displaying coded messages on their chests, have advertising or rude statements on their clothing.

I once reported a girl for wearing a shirt that said “WTF.” She didn’t realize that I knew what the acronym meant. Another time I reported a student for wearing flip-flops. They were dangerous because kids could trip and fall but also the incessant slapping of plastic against heels drives me bonkers.

But other than that, I rarely get involved in dress codes.

Frankly, I think too strict a restriction on what students wear and too stringent enforcement of such policies does more harm than good.

It’s the school equivalent of broken windows policing. Instead of lowering crime by cracking down on the little stuff, too punitive severity in a dress code teaches kids that rules are arbitrary. Moreover, it creates fear and distrust of authority figures.

And – intentionally or not – it is a mechanism for enforcing white privilege.

Anytime I’ve had to oversee in-school suspension, there have been a disproportionate number of students of color in there for dress code violations than white students.

I know that’s not scientific, but it’s the data that I have.

In fact, I strongly suspect that discipline based on dress code enforcement is rarely reported to the state or federal government because it would show a major uptick in discipline against black students. It would further prove that minorities are written up more than white kids and get more strict punishments.

Standardized dress is as bad as standardized tests. We shouldn’t demand all our children dress alike and conform to a nonsensical norm.

Ugly Christmas sweaters, indeed!

The New Working Class Teacher by Aaron Michael Baker

Originally posted at:

Teachers have long been listed as part of what is called the “professional class.” Similar to the “middle class,” the professional class is the long time standard-bearer of capitalistic virtues and is often defined in contrast to both the upper or ruling class and the lower or working class. The shrinking demographic of the professional class of American society and the rapidly growing income inequality between the ruling and the working class is epitomized by the economic policies of the Trump presidency. The professional class is typically identified by three characteristics: 1. Post-secondary education 2. Presence of salary based pay and 3. Significant workplace autonomy. The increasing inability of teachers to enjoy lives that exhibit these three characteristics has given rise to what can accurately be described as the new “working class” teacher.

There are festering teacher shortage crises in numerous states where teacher pay is below regional averages. In Oklahoma, for instance, the teacher shortage has led to dramatic rise in both alternative certifications and emergency certifications. While all three forms of teacher certification in Oklahoma currently require a bachelor’s degree, the decline in university trained teachers with education degrees fits neatly into the long-term plan of corporate education reform to make the teacher obsolete in favor of technology. Great teachers can and do arrive at the classroom through all possible paths, but there is a direct connection between the educational requirements for a profession and the value our society places on that profession. As teachers become less valuable in the U.S. and more replaceable, they begin to withdraw from the professional class.
Teaching requires countless hours of attention beyond the school day and the classroom. There are always games to attend, papers to grade, and lesson plans to create. For this reason, teaching has always been, and for the most part continues to be, a salary based professional. However, corporate charters and even some traditional public school systems have implemented merit based pay, which is always accompanied by a lower base salary. It seems only a matter of time before some corporate machine like XQ or Teach For America begins touting the virtues of hourly based wages for teachers. In the meantime, many teachers turn to a second job for supplemental income. These second jobs are almost always hourly based and often minimum wage. A second job has the potential to be a healthy distraction for overstressed teachers. But a second job for teachers also has the potential to create a recipe for disaster, an untenable career ending burnout situation.
It seems only a matter of time before some corporate machine like XQ or Teach For America begins touting the virtues of hourly based wages for teachers.
Thanks to a bevy of standardized tests resulting from No Child Left Behind, teacher workplace autonomy has been on a steady decline for decades. Online textbooks, assessment tools, grade books, and academic games masquerade as teaching aids but ultimately function as corporate attempts to infiltrate every aspect of the teacher-student relationship. The end game of corporate education reform is for teachers to function as mere monitors of computer guided student progress. Until then, traditional classrooms will continue to enjoy a certain level of autonomy simply because, as of yet, billionaire reformers are not lining up to provide an actual physical presence in schools. Zuckerberg and Gates want the money, not the actual time spent with students. Teachers who are not allowed to teach will not feel like teachers and will find more fulfilling work. This process has already begun.
Oppression is built into the very existence of the working class, but there is nothing wrong with being working class. The working class makes the American machine run. The ruling and professional classes rely on the working class far more than they are willing to admit. The uneasiness in the teaching profession has to do with expectations. Aspiring teachers rightfully expect to be treated like professionals upon entering the classroom. Furthermore, college graduates should be able to enter a workforce that will provide the salary necessary to pay off acquired student debt. Increasing college costs and below average teacher pay is a hard sell to the next generation of teachers.
Oppression is built into the very existence of the working class, but there is nothing wrong with being working class.
To be sure, teaching is not poverty, not yet. Teacher pay in a state like Oklahoma, while certainly a gross injustice, is not the same as abject or generational poverty. Teachers at schools with high percentages of students from low-income households would do well not to think that their stagnant wages afford them a sense of economic solidarity with their students. There is no teaching “vow of poverty.” Using such a phrase to describe underpaid teachers is an offense to those living in true poverty. Likewise, given shifting societal attitudes toward education as a profession, the statement, “You knew what you were getting into,” does not apply either. Preservice teachers truly do not know what they are getting into. The future is uncertain, but at least one fellow education blogger and Badass Teacher, Steven Singer, is optimistic. We may soon be able to turn the tide in the fight against corporate education reform and restore the profession of teaching to its once highly esteemed position.

What’s the Buzz? A Crown of Gadflies! Top 10 Articles (by Me) in 2017 by Steven Singer

We made it, Readers.

What a monstrosity that has been so far!

Republicans have stolen more than $1 trillion from our pockets to give to their mega-wealthy donors in the form of tax cuts. A 3-2 GOP majority on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed Net Neutrality. And the party of Lincoln endorsed and funded a child molester for US Senate – though he thankfully lost.

We’re in new territory. Politics has always appealed to the best and worst of our natures: Good people who really want to make a difference and sniveling cowards willing to do whatever their sugar daddies tell them. But unfortunately our world has increasingly rewarded the latter and almost extinguished the former.

However, don’t lose heart. The cockroaches are all out in the open. They’ve become so emboldened by the words “President” and “Trump” voiced together that they no longer feel the need to hug a wall.

All it would take is a good boot and a series of stomps to crush them forever.

Someone get me my shoes.

In the meantime, I sit here at my kitchen table recovering from a turkey coma preparing for a nostalgic look back at everything that’s happened here at Gadfly on the Wall in the past year.

It was quite a 365 days! Most amazing was the publication of my book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” from Garn Press. It’s a thorough reworking and “Best Of” this blog over the last three years.

Sales have been strong and reviews are starting to come in. I am absolutely floored when I get messages from people I admire telling me they got the book and appreciate this or that. It’s been my lifelong dream to publish a book, and now I’ve done itThe New Year will involve lots of promotion – hopefully I can get decision makers to read it!

Other than that, it’s been a busy year blogging. I wrote 118 articles! That’s about one every three days!

And people have been reading them.

I’ve had more than 364,000 hits – about the same as in 2016. This puts the total views over the 1 million mark at more than 1,216,000! That’s quite a landmark for a blog that’s only been around since July, 2014. And it doesn’t count all the readers I get from articles reposted on the Badass Teachers Association BlogHuffington, the LA or other sites.

I’ve also gotten 1,510 more people to follow me for a total of 12,845.

I’m so honored that readers still like coming to this site for news and commentary. As long as you care to enter those virtual doors, I’ll be here, hunched over my computer, pounding away at the keys.

So without further ado, let’s take a look back at the top 10 articles from this blog that got the Inter-webs humming:

10) Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

Published: May 10, 2017 Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 3.38.28 PM

Views: 4,320

Description: At the end of every school year we get Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s nice. Educators get free donuts and cookies, a pat on the head and then the rest of the year we get all the blame for society’s problems without any additional funding, repealing terrible policies or even acknowledgement of what the real issues are in our schools. It’s a sham. Someone had to say it, so I did. Thanks for the snack, but it takes a village, folks! Get off your butts and take some responsibility!

Fun Fact: Some people, even teachers, were really upset by this article. They thought it was ungrateful. Don’t get me wrong, I am truly appreciative for any crumb the public wants to give us, teachers, but I’m not going to let it pass as if that counts as true support. Salving your conscience isn’t enough. We need true allies to get down in the mud and fight with us. Otherwise, it’s just an empty gesture.

9) White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Published: Dec 22 Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 1.02.56 PM

Views: 4,324

Description: This one’s hot off the press! It describes a situation at one of the schools were I’ve taught over the years and how dress code policies can support white privilege. They’re the broken windows policing of academia, and we need to put much more thought into them before laying down blanket restrictions.

Fun Fact: Some readers took exception to this piece because they thought I didn’t do enough to stop a wayward administrator despite the fact that I never said what I did or didn’t do. Some even complained that it was dumb to simply acknowledge racism and racist policies and actions. I don’t know what world they’re living in. White folks voted for Donald J. Trump to be President. We’ve got a long way to go, and acknowledging everyday prejudice seems a worthy goal to me.

8) America’s Founding Fathers Were Against School Choice

Published: Feb 16 3551131_f520

Views: 4,483

Description: The entire premise of school privatization goes against the founding principles of our nation. We were born out of the Enlightenment, not the profit motive. Our founders would look on in horror at charter and voucher schools. Though they aren’t perfect, only truly public schools embody the ideals of the Revolution. True conservatives and true patriots would support that system, not strive to blow it up for personal financial gain.

Fun Fact: Some people took issue with an appeal to the founders who were not exactly perfect. It’s true. In practice many of them did not live up to their own high ideals. However, who does? It is the ideal that matters, not the clay feet of our forebears.

7) Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

Published: July 24 Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 10.35.30 AM

Views: 5,800

Description: Teen suicides are up – especially among middle school age children. At the same time, we’ve been testing these kids into the ground. More standardized assessments – and these are unnecessarily more difficult to pass Common Core assessments. This is exactly what happens in countries that put such emphasis on testing – they have a higher suicide rate. It’s no wonder that this is happening here, too. Policymakers want us to be more like Asian countries? Be careful what you wish for!

Fun Fact: This article infuriated the good folks at the Education Post. Peter Cunningham had his flunkies attack me on Twitter complaining that I was an angry white dude making undue correlations. Yet every other explanation for the fact of increased middle school suicides was merely a correlation, too. Proving causation is almost impossible. It is just as reasonable – even more so – to conclude that testing is having an impact on the suicide rate as to intuit the cause being increased reliance on social media. The big money folks don’t want us making the connection I made here. All the more reason to believe there is truth behind it.

6) School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Less.

Published: Oct. 6 fake1

Views: 7,880

Description: School choice is a misnomer. It’s school privatization. It has very little to do with providing more options for parents or students. It’s about allowing big corporations to avoid public school regulations and profit off your child swiping your tax dollars. School choice is merely a marketing term.

Fun Fact: I must have really pissed someone off when I wrote this one because it caused Facebook to block me for a week. No matter. Readers liked this one so much they shared it for me all over. Why was I targeted? It could be personal since charter school cheerleader Campbell Brown is literally the arbiter of truth at Facebook. Or it could be the social media site’s attempt to bully me into spending money on advertising. Either way, their attempted censorship didn’t work.

5) Dear Teachers, Don’t Be Good Soldiers for the EdTech Industry

Published: Sept 3 FullSizeRender

Views: 8,358

Description: As teachers, we’re often expected to use new technology in our classrooms. However, we’re rarely involved in the decision making process. We’re rarely allowed to decide which technology to use and sometimes even how to use it. Software packages are just handed down from administration or school board. However, the EdTech Industry is not our friend. More often than not it is unscrupulous in the ways it is willing to profit off of our students through data mining, competency based learning and a variety of privacy threatening schemes. It’s up to us to be brave enough to say, “No.”

Fun Fact: I was surprised by how much the piece resonated with readers. So many other educators said they felt they were being bullied into using apps or programs that they thought were of low quality or downright harmful. Sure, there were some who called me a luddite, but the fact remains: we shouldn’t be using technology for technology’s sake. We should be doing so only to help students learn. That requires us to use our best judgment, not follow orders like good soldiers.

4) Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

Published: June 23 26948475_l-too-much-data

Views: 12,459

Description: Administrators love to gift teachers with tons and tons of data. They bury us under reams of standardized test results and expect us to somehow use that nonsense to inform our teaching. It’s crazy. We already collect authentic data on our students for 180 days a year in the classroom in the course of our teaching. Yet they think these mass produced corporate evaluated snap shots are going to somehow change everything? That’s not how you help educators. It’s how you abdicate any responsibility yourself.

Fun Fact: This one really took off especially on the Huffington Post. Many readers seemed to be truly surprised that teachers felt this way. No authentic educator gives in to being data driven. We’re data informed but student driven. And if you want us to do something else, you don’t have the best interests of the kids at heart.

3) PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

Published: Feb 2 thumbnail_teachers-sick-719435

Views: 17,702

Description: This was another tone deaf proclamation from the Republican majority in Harrisburg. It was pure meat for the regressive base in gerrymandered districts that if passed they knew would never be signed by our Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. It turns out the backlash was such that they didn’t even have the courage to put it to a vote.

Fun Fact: I never expected this one to be nearly as popular as it was. Usually articles about Pennsylvania get a few hundred local readers and that’s it. But this one infuriated everyone. How dare lawmakers propose this! Don’t they know how many bacteria teachers are exposed to!? Do they want us to come to school sick and spread the disease to our students!? I’d like to think that the article had something to do with this terrible piece of legislation disappearing, but I have no evidence to support it. However, I can say that it will probably be back when they think no one is looking, and it will still make me sick.

2) U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

Published: Jan 29 surprised-kid-investor-050213

Views: 23,841

Description: Everyone says public schools are failing. I call bullshit. It depends on how you’re evaluating them, and – frankly – we’re not being fair to our American education system. Sure. There are plenty of ways we can improve, but there’s a lot we’re doing right, too. In fact, many of the things we get right, few other systems do around the world. We excel in our ideals. If we just had the courage of our convictions, our system would be beyond the moon! Even as it is, we have much to celebrate. And other nations would do well to emulate us in these ways.

Fun Fact: I’m quite proud of this one. It’s the only article in the Top 10 here that was included in my book. For the definitive version, you’ll have to go there. Some sections received major rewrites and clarifications. I think the published version is much better. But no matter which version you choose, I’m proud to have an answer for all those out there spreading the myth that our education system is an irredeemable mess. They want us to get rid of the good and replace it with more bad. I say we keep the good and build on it.

1) Ignorance and Arrogance – the Defining Characteristics of the Betsy DeVos Hearing

Published: Jan 18 betsydevos-png-crop-cq5dam_web_1280_1280_png

Views: 28,670

Description: Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing was an absolute horror show. It’s even worse when you consider she was confirmed by the Republican majority in a tie vote that was broken by Vice President Mike Pence (that still sends shivers down my spine). Here was someone who knows next to nothing about public education except that she wants to destroy it. She wouldn’t commit to protecting students rights even those under the umbrella of special education. There’s more I could say but I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Excuse me.

Fun Fact: I’m honored that so many readers turned to my blog for commentary about this. It was a moment of shared horror that hasn’t weakened much in the subsequent months. We’re all just waiting for sanity to return but at least we can do so together. We’re all in this side-by-side and hand-in-hand. We can defeat the Betsy DeVos’ and the Donald Trump’s of the world if we stay strong. It could happen any day now.

Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups

This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles (like the one you just read from 2017) and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look. Here are all my end of the year articles since I began this crazy journey in 2014:


Worse Than Fake News – Ignored News. Top 5 Education Stories You May Have Missed in 2016


Goodbye, 2016, and Good Riddance – Top 10 Blog Post by Me From a Crappy Year



Gadfly’s Choice – Top 5 Blogs (By Me) You May Have Missed from 2015

Screen shot 2016-01-02 at 11.01.09 PM

Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 12.57.49 AM


Off the Beaten Gadfly – the Best Education Blog Pieces You Never Read in 2014

Wonderfull illusion art painting

Top 10 Education Blog Posts (By Me) You Should Be Reading Right Now!


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!