Letter to the Editor

Dear New York Times:

I’m dismayed by the Ethicist’s advice from January 10 regarding public schooling choices http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/do-we-have-to-send-our-kid-to-a-bad-public-school.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fthe-ethicist&action=click&contentCollection=magazine&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection&_r=0  in part because he accepts the assumptions that the letter writer makes in suggesting that something is “seriously wrong” with the neighborhood public school because of test scores. As a veteran public school teacher, I know that standardized test scores are only one measure of a school’s quality, and a questionable measure at that. Since the letter writer says the school seems “perfectly fine,” the Ethicist should at least be encouraging more questions: Are the teachers kind, caring, and empathetic? Is the student body diverse? Does the school serve a number of bilingual students? (We know, for instance, that bilingual children take much longer to achieve proficiency on standardized tests, yet bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit.) The ethics around school choice should be viewed with more complexity; to only look at standardized test scores as a measure of the quality of an education seems shortsighted.


The Most Important Teacher In My Life

I remember not starting to read The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home until the night before the day it was due. Around nine p.m. I made a pot of coffee and sat down with my coursepack-printed version of this out-of-print book. Staying up until three in the morning was standard for me, and I looked forward to the quiet of our living room on Lawrence Street. As I read, I became more and more agitated and more and more awake. The coffee was nice but not necessary. I devoured the book in one sitting, angry, excited, moved.

I remember the beautiful blonde wood and the echo-y, old feel of the Perry Building (I am almost certain that is what it was called) where English 319 met. I always loved having the chunk of time set aside at the beginning of class to discuss with a partner whatever we’d read, in part because I loved being able to go off exploring the building. LaShaun and I partnered up for that day’s discussion, and we sat on a sunny window ledge and talked. I remember the discussion was friendly, engaged, but I wasn’t yet starting to feel riled up.

It wasn’t until we all reconvened to discuss, that my hackles started to raise. I described the book in my journal as an “absolutely inspiring and totally frustrating” read. I wrote that it was “making me re-examine myself and my life” and “really shaking me up.” So then, here I was feeling so emotionally engaged with this book, especially because I had just decided to become a teacher, and I felt that we were “having this really…safe discussion of it. And I became so frustrated, and I raised my hand and voiced this in this totally inarticulate and frustrated and near-tears-voice-quavering way because it was this totally safe discussion about a book about revolution: we were sitting in our class in an expensive university, politely discussing revolution.” I wanted to “be all frustrated with everyone else, but I didn’t feel like I could. And I felt so safe, and talking about middle-class high school experiences—no matter how oppressive—was still really, really dancing around everything, and why weren’t we jumping into the the class issues and why weren’t we talking about being hypocrites sitting in a classroom politely discussing this book which, in not so few words, calls for revolution?”

Buzz’s response in my journal in part said, “Anywhere you are, there is work to be done, ways to deepen your commitments, connections to be made, anywhere…It’s important to be unsafe and to be secure in being unsafe…”

At the time, I felt grateful for these words, but I didn’t know how much they would continue to be relevant in my life and my work.

I became a teacher, and for years I struggled with not feeling very good at my work. I student taught in Detroit under a terribly racist master teacher, and I cried nearly every day because I knew that the little bit I was giving these poor Black kids wouldn’t ever be enough to undo years of miseducation and poverty. I taught in East Palo Alto, where I was fired at the end of my first year of teaching because I had given the kids too much freedom in publishing zines. I nearly gave up on education at that point, but so much of what I cared about felt connected to being in the classroom. So I found a good fit: a large, comprehensive high school in San Francisco where I am supported by my administration and inspired by my colleagues. It took me years to feel like I knew what I was doing, and even now I still feel like “there is work to be done.” I finally feel secure in all the ways I struggle as a teacher: I don’t feel like that struggle is indicative of failure but rather of engaging with all the big questions about what being an educator in this country truly means: How do I inspire true freedom in my students while holding them to authentically high expectations? How do I create a sense of righteousness within a discipline framework without becoming an authoritarian so that kids feel safe? And how do I help students feel secure in being unsafe in all the important ways?

I became a teacher very much because of Buzz, his courses, and Jonathan Kozol. Years later, I had a chance to meet Kozol at the Teachers For Social Justice conference that happens every year in San Francisco. I had him sign my book, my coursepack copy of The Night is Dark…, and when I told him it had been required reading for the most important teacher in my life, he knew right away who the teacher was who’d assigned it.

Dear New York Times

As a progressive educator of thirteen years, I agree with Hacker and Dreifus in “Who’s Minding the Schools” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/the-common-core-whos-minding-the-schools.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 ) when they conclude that teachers should be “allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.” That said, it’s not like the Common Core creates standards where none existed before; for my entire teaching career in California, I’ve been beholden to standards—state rather than national, but standards nonetheless. And, for the most part, I greatly prefer the Common Core standards to the California State Standards. The former are much more holistic and critical-thinking based than the latter. While the state standards were almost a checklist of facts the students should know, the Common Core standards approach learning more as habits of mind, ways to think and learn. This is a progressive approach to education. Yes, these standards are more challenging, but this is a challenge I welcome.


Out of the Cave

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic, he describes prisoners chained so that they are forced to face forward towards a wall of a cave.  A fire burns behind them and casts shadows onto the wall in front of them.  These shadows are all that these prisoners can see.  They don’t know the nature of reality—it remains out of reach, outside the cave.  They don’t even know that they don’t know reality—nothing in their experiences has ever led them to have to question what they assume to be true: The cave, the shadows, this is all they know.

Plato says, “They are like ourselves.”  To me, this suggests a paradox: If we are the prisoners, and I believe we are, how can we begin to understand that we’re the prisoners enough to even appreciate the rest of the essay and the ideas contained therein?  How can we begin to know how much we truly don’t know?  One way in is that we need to truly embrace this paradox if we want to be able to make any kind of meaning of this text and of the concept of Truth.  Otherwise we will simply continue to “see nothing of [our]selves but [our] own shadows.”  I would start by suggesting it’s important that we question everything we believe to be true, all that we take for granted.

One year when I was teaching this text to my seniors, one kid, D, in starting to grasp the idea that Plato presents that we truly don’t know what reality is, turned to another student and asked him, “What color is this paper?”  He answered, “White.”  Her response was, “How do you know?”  He looked at her puzzled; he couldn’t explain how he knew it was white; it just was.  Now this is a typical mind-fuck thought-experiment that I think everyone has engaged in at some point: How do I know that what I see as blue is really blue?  What if what you see as blue is actually my green, but, because we can never see through each other’s eyes, we think we’re speaking the same language about the same reality?  And how do we know that this reality that we’re naming is even Truth?  A particular rock shrimp exists that can see all kinds of colors humans can’t simply because of the physiology of their eyes.  The fact that these colors exist but we can’t see is only one example of the any number of truths out there that we simply have no experience of, which, naturally, doesn’t render them any less real.  While Plato’s allegory is not intended to be solely this kind of “mind fuck” thought experiment, I think that engaging in these kinds of exercises is crucial to starting to grasp his larger philosophy: How can we ever escape outside the cave if we don’t question the very nature of our existence?

Plato explains the prisoners’ dependence on language to define their reality.  He imagines them playing a game to see who is the quickest in naming the various shadows they see: “If they were able to talk to one another, wouldn’t they think that the names they used were those of the shadows that went by?”  I personally am a lover of language—I believe it helps us make meaning of our world, but I also understand that the mysteries of the universe may be more than our language can pin down.  I am reminded of this every time I think about a friend of mine who died several years ago at a very young age due to brain cancer.  She’d lived with cancer on and off for many years, and when she was in high school, she had surgery to remove a tumor that had grown in the part of the brain that processes language.  When she awoke from the surgery, her doctors and family discovered that she’d lost language ability.  I don’t mean that she didn’t have the physical motor skills to speak.  I mean that her brain lost the ability to make use of the symbolic representation of words, to make use of the fact that words—relatively arbitrary, abstract sounds—hold any sort of specific, concrete meaning that everyone who speaks that particular language have agreed upon.  She did regain language eventually; otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to tell me about this experience.  But at the time, her family was utterly terrified: their teenage daughter had been rendered speechless.  She, however, was anything but frightened.  She understood that they were afraid, but she wasn’t—instead a whole new world had opened up for her.  Because she was unhampered by language to negotiate her reality, she began to understand the true nature of the world.  She didn’t depend on the symbolism of a cluster of sounds to communicate the truth of what she saw (“This paper is white.”); instead she understood the essence of everything.  She began to see the energies of objects and of people; she said that colors become more vivid and realer.  She began to paint and communicate her truths through her art.

After I told this story to my students this year, one student came up to me after class to tell me about a YouTube video he’d seen of a lecture by a Buddhist monk.  The monk asks his audience what the true nature of a pen is.  If humans were to describe the pen, they’d say it is a tool for writing; but what would a dog say?  If the pen’s essence were truly as a writing tool, a dog would see a pen and begin writing with it.  So, does the pen’s nature as a writing tool or a chew toy live in the pen itself, or is its essence imposed on it by whoever’s perception we’re considering?  Obviously perception is everything.  And yet we humans go around most of the time behaving as though our perceptions are somehow the absolute Truth.

Eventually in Plato’s allegory, a prisoner is freed from his chains and forced to his feet out of the cave into the light.  This prisoner has to deal first with the discomfort of life outside the cave.  Not only is he shocked to learn that the world is not what he thought; it is bright and the light hurts his eyes.  Plato says, “And if he were forced to look straight at the light itself, wouldn’t he start back with pained eyes?”  And this is a Truth that many of us can relate to: If we’ve ever traveled outside our country—our world—if we’ve ever learned hard, painful truths, we understand this uncomfortable awakening.  In college, when I began volunteering in prisons and learning the reality of the prison system—how many people we incarcerate in this country, how our incarceration rates are absolutely determined by issues of race and class, and what life is like for those in prison as well as their loved ones outside the prison—I was upset, uncomfortable and pained.  The reality of incarceration was not a reality I’d ever had to experience.  As a white, middle-class woman, most of my peers were not part of this system: I’d never had to think about what it would be like to be locked up, what it would be like for someone I loved to be locked up.  I never had to fear police or the system in the same way that many who live in our country do.  This is not meant to be a discussion of prison issues per se—it is meant to illustrate a reality that lots of us, by dint of our birth, do not have to think about, while many of us, also by dint of our birth, think about regularly.  I was horrified to learn of this reality that I’d never had to think about, not only because mass incarceration is so heartbreaking but also because I’d always thought of myself as a fairly well-educated, intelligent person: Here was a Truth that had simply never occurred to me—I became suddenly and profoundly aware of how much I didn’t actually know.

Similarly, travel abroad can shake us up, make us think about what we take for granted as “real.”  A few summers ago, I took a group of students to Nicaragua on a three-week educational, service trip.  One of the outings we participated in was going to the city dump where people lived and worked.  They spent their days sorting through the city’s trash—its shit-stained toilet paper and other waste—to find anything that could be sold and recycled.  (For instance, one man approached us with a hand full of staples he’d collected.)  When we returned back to our hostel to process what we’d seen, many of my students broke down crying—how could people live like this?  How could my students have taken their own comfortable lives for granted?  How could they not have known this reality existed?

It should be obvious to us that so many realities that aren’t ours exist.  William Blake died penniless, his peers deeming him crazy because he saw angels.  Any number of other thinkers, known or unknown, have had similar perceptions or ideas about the world, and the world has had various reactions to them: deeming them either genius or lunatic (usually depending such factors as social status and “respectability”).  Various philosophers and prophets have seen a different truth than the one popular in their time.  Galileo understood the truth of the universe and was condemned as a heretic for his science.  Carl Jung’s exploration of the subconscious led to his own set of visions and voices, and the Buddha’s search for meaning led him to reject all that his life had set up for him.

The story of the Buddha is a particularly interesting one in light of Plato’s text.  The Buddha was a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a sheltered, secure, wealthy life.  His parents, wanting their son to be happy, kept him from ever leaving the palace so that he wouldn’t have to experience suffering; he was stuck in a cave—a luxurious, comfortable cave, but a cave nonetheless.  One day he did leave and encountered an old man.  He didn’t understand what he saw until it was explained to him that everyone gets old.  He saw a sick person and a corpse.  Again, he’d never experienced sickness or death but learned that people get sick, that everyone dies.  This all led him “out of the cave,” to question the nature of human experience, why we suffer, and this all, of course, led to his enlightenment after years of searching and mediation.

The term “enlightenment” is symbolically meaningful: Plato uses the sun as the symbol of Truth and enlightenment.  The prisoner stuck in the cave sees only shadows, and if he were to escape from the cave, out into the world beyond, it would take time to adjust, to truly see what lies outside the cave, to see in the full light of the sun.  Being able to look directly at the sun and take in its light is gaining true knowledge.  Plato says of the sun, “In the field of deep knowledge the last thing to be seen, and hardly seen, is the idea of the good.  When we see it, we see that it is truly the cause for all things, of all that is beautiful and right.”  Our conceptions of “good” may differ, but it’s clear that a connection between doing good in the world and Truth is very much a part of Plato’s text.

The connections between the Buddha’s story and “The Allegory of the Cave” don’t end with the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Some versions of the Buddha’s life maintain that he became a bodhisattva after his death—instead of transcending to nirvana, he chose to reincarnate again and again to help lead others to enlightenment.  He willingly allowed himself to be reborn into a life of suffering in order that others may not suffer.  Plato explains that the enlightened “may not keep to themselves up there [in the world outside the cave] but have to go down again [into the cave] among the prisoners and take part in their work and rewards…Everyone is to give to all the others whatever he is able to produce for the society.”

For me, Plato’s text is a call to action, a demand that we not only seek truths outside of our own sheltered caves, but that we help lead others to truth.  Perhaps the text appeals to me as a teacher—I believe in the collective sharing of wisdom (not that I feel I am Plato’s enlightened prisoner), and I revere those who have been willing to die for the Truth—for Plato tells us that the prisoner who comes back from above and tries to tell the others that all they see are merely shadows of truths would be laughed at, and then, “if [the other prisoners] were able to get their hands on him…wouldn’t they put him to death?”

We as a society generally feel comfortable in our caves—otherwise how could a maxim such as “ignorance is bliss” have held as firmly as it has?  Some of this is due to the discomfort described earlier—why face painful truths when we can be happy in our own unknowing?  However our staying inside our caves can have a much more insidious rationale: Many benefit from others not knowing the Truth: This was certainly the case for white slave owners and, later, white anti-integrationists.  It was the case in this country for men trying to keep women from voting and is still true for those modern-day corporations who would like us to buy, buy, buy without questioning the environmental devastation or child or slave labor involved in making their products.  If the powers that be can convince us we’re happier and better when we pursue being “cool” or “attractive” rather than noticing that we’re merely playing the “shadow game” described by Plato, then they benefit by being able to make money off of us seeking these manufactured desires.

Each movement has had its enlightened prisoner who has worked to lead others out of their cave.  Some of the obvious names come to mind: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech is so moving because of how squarely he looks an early death in the eye and declares he’s not afraid the day before he was assassinated, or, as one student wrote about in her essay on “Allegory of the Cave” a couple years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to be a leader of the citizens of Myanmar despite the attempts to silence her.  However, there are others of us who have perhaps gotten a glimpse outside the cave who may not be famous or popular: the teenager who defends someone who is being bullied or picked on, the church-goer who challenges their church’s homophobic doctrine, the man who speaks up on behalf of women’s rights.

I’m not an expert on Plato’s life or philosophies, and it’s obvious that these applications of Plato’s text don’t always correspond to the life Plato lived or the beliefs he espoused: He was, for instance, a firm believer in a divided, socially-stratified society; he did not use these teachings to speak out against slavery.  But the power of the text, for me, lies in the philosophical implications, and what good is philosophy if we readers don’t wrestle with it and try to make meaning of it for ourselves in our world today?

When to Choose

Today in my twelfth English and European Literature classes, I was lecturing on Frankenstein and the different religious archetypes the characters fit.  I think it’s a pretty interesting lecture because it draws on religious and mythical stories and philosophy, including Carl Jung’s ideas on the collective unconscious and the role that archetypes play in that concept.

However, students hear the word lecture (something that I very rarely do actually) and groan inwardly.  Today, in my sixth period, they groaned literally.  I found this rude, and I told them so.  (“If you came in with something you had to say to me that you thought was interesting and important and I groaned, wouldn’t that just be disrespectful?”)  Now, I realize that in some ways we were playing out the age-old teacher/student drama cliché: teacher asks something of students, students resist, call it “boring,” rebel, et cetera, et cetera.  I do sometimes, as a teacher, feel trapped in what feels like an unfortunate and inescapable typecast position.  This all is, of course, very hard for me because I try everything I can to have my pedagogy be about empowerment and liberty.  I don’t want to be an authoritarian, but I do want to provide my students access to powerful knowledge—in other words, it’s not just all going to be fun and games; though hopefully a lot of the intellectual wrestling feels fun!

One kid, a kid I normally really like, a kid who has had a somewhat recent revolutionary consciousness raising and, therefore, feels prepared and empowered to challenge and question much of my practice—a habit I often enjoy and encourage—raised his hand and argued that I shouldn’t force students to like Frankenstein the way I have been.  I pointed out that I would never force anyone to “like” anything, but I do expect them to at least think about it, and that I’d do my best to give them new, interesting ways into the text so that they could like it.

My students continued to challenge me in a fairly undelightful way, and I got frustrated.  I finally sat down and decided I wouldn’t go ahead with my lecture, and students could just fend for themselves.  After a time of me sitting grading papers, a couple of the kids apologized for their behavior; I asked if they wanted me to go ahead with the lecture, and the students all responded in the affirmative.  It ended up being fairly engaging: I’d built in places for the students to respond and discuss, and the class ended on a positive note.

At the end of class, the student who’d challenged me, I’ll call him Roberto, came to talk to me.  He apologized again, and then we talked for a while, and I was able to express some of what I think is a heavy paradox that, as a teacher, I struggle with all the time.  He said that I shouldn’t teach books like Frankenstein but should instead teach something more “age appropriate and interesting.”  I pointed out to him that I do assign “outside reading” for exactly this reason—they read three books throughout the year of their own choosing, books they are excited to read.  (Roberto read Che’s The Motorcycle Diaries as his first outside reading book.)  I also argued that there isn’t a single book I could choose to read that everyone would like and that, again, of course my intention and hope is that they would like Frankenstein and, barring liking it, I still absolutely expect them to think about and engage the book.  But finally, a more abstract point and what is at the heart of my conflicted feelings about student choice in the classroom is that I think value exists in reading books and other texts and engaging with ideas that aren’t necessarily our preference.  I told Roberto that I think this is the foundation of democracy; if we only ever read or think about ideas as our preferences dictate, how will we ever be true citizens in this messy, complex, pluralistic world we live in?  I think this is especially true for young people—there is still so much of the world for them to explore.  How can they already have an unmitigated sense of what is “worthy” and “interesting” to think about?

Yes, I want my students to love learning, and I do realize that much of the time what this means is lessons, activities, and texts that speak directly to them and their experiences, but I also think there’s something revolutionary about making connections between what might seem like disparate ideas.  It’s true that Frankenstein was written two hundred years ago, and I find myself arguing with all kinds of Shelley’s ideas—I don’t agree, for instance, that humans should never seek to answer the big, burning questions about the mysteries of life, that knowledge is too dangerous to pursue.  I’m not a Christian as Shelley was, and so I push back against her almost puritanical ideas about humans not playing God.  But they’re interesting to engage with: How far is too far when it comes to scientific tampering?  How can we use our knowledge responsibly?  What can a god-centered morality teach us about how to live well?  And I urge my students to grapple with these questions.  We also draw connections between Frankenstein’s monster and people in our society who feel like outsiders and therefore do terrible things—it’s easy to connect the text to bullying in schools, and we discuss the young men who shot up their school in Columbine, Colorado for instance.  We debate the death penalty since much of the book is concerned with revenge, and we consider the morality and responsibility of genetic engineering.  If they can see that a two hundred year old text still says something about our world today then maybe they’ll be more open to people who come from other cultures.  Maybe they’ll be less likely to see people as other than themselves.  Maybe they’ll be able to feel connected to the larger conversations that are happening in our world today.

All this as well as my own personal love for a wide variety of literature is why I still insist on teaching books that many students might not choose on first glance.  One of my own personal experiences with this was being assigned to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin during a summer program in college.  I was upset that we weren’t reading more authors of color, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin just felt like even more of an insult given what I thought I knew about the book from the various cultural references to it (e.g. Malcolm X’s referring to folks as “Uncle Toms”).  I do still find it unfortunate that our curriculum on New England Literature didn’t include more authors of color or, for instance, slave narratives, but that doesn’t detract from the huge impact that reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on me.  While I would never list it as one of my favorite books, reading it was probably one of the most impactful reading experiences I’ve ever had, probably because I didn’t initially think it was an important or relevant text.

All this is not to say that I don’t value student choice.  I am well aware that many of my seniors in high school have very clear pictures of the directions they want their lives to go in, and I would never second guess that.  I also wouldn’t insult them by saying they don’t know what is best for them.  I do, however, hope that they learn to be open-minded and able to be interested in a large expanse of ideas: to me, this is what makes for a rich, meaningful life.

It’s Because I’m Black, Isn’t It?

I was handing back finals in class the other day.  When I gave Mandy hers, her immediate reaction was, “C plus!?  Why’d I get a C plus?!  It’s because I’m Black isn’t it?”

I’m sure many public school teachers have, at some point, been accused of racism, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve had a comment like this directed at me.  It makes sense: Our students are grappling with questions about who they are in the world, what their world is to them, and how their words and actions can affect and shape it, and, frankly, race and racism are very real, palpable parts of our students’ lives.  Questions of race and politics are an everyday part of my job, explicitly stated or not.  I’d like to be able to say that I always approach these conversations with aplomb and empathy, that I always use them to open up larger conversations about the implications of oppression and privilege.  But in this case I just got mad.  Because here’s another reality of the lives of teachers: There are some kids we just don’t like or get along with.  Mandy is one of those kids for me.

I feel a little uncomfortable admitting this: When I was a brand new teacher, I always assumed I’d love all my students, and the force of my love and my dedication to changing their lives would be a push to inspire them to love themselves and to make change in their own lives.  And I really do work at loving my students, all of them.  I try to understand them and get to know where they’re coming from.  I try to start every day fresh; even if I had a negative interaction with a kid, I’ll come into class the next day with the intention of being friendly and “starting over.”

I really tried with Mandy.  She’d come to my class, an elective, recommended by her English teacher, a friend of mine.  Mandy had told me she wanted to be a writer one day, and so I had high hopes for her.  But our relationship started to sour pretty quickly.  When it did, I initiated a conference with her counselor mediating so that we could work towards some resolution.  When she voiced her concern—I was too hard on her—I looked for every opportunity for praise, and I tried to limit my comments on her pieces.  But no matter what I did, Mandy complained, mocked me, didn’t take my advice, talked back to me, didn’t listen. 

In many ways, Mandy is a very hard student to like.  Students even complained to me about her attitude in class.  That said, I’m not proud of my reaction to her accusation of racism being the cause of a grade she was displeased with.  Aside from the fact that anger is rarely useful (although I was able to elicit an apology from her), I do think there’s something to what she had to say.  I don’t mean that my grade was based in racism—I think my grade was fair, that her final really was C plus, not A, work.  But I can’t deny the reality race and racism play in our students’ achievement. 

I still remember very clearly a conversation that arose with my students during my student teaching in Detroit, Michigan.  I was in despair.  I’d just finished grading students’ final short essay tests on Oedipus Rex.  Students, uniformly, had done very poorly on the test.  It wasn’t because they hadn’t read Oedipus Rex.  I knew they had; after all, we’d read the whole play in class, since the school couldn’t afford extra copies of the book to take home with them. 

The problem was that these students, seniors in high school, had never been taught to write essays, not even short answer essays with topic sentences and supporting details.  My teaching this was new to them. 

I handed back their tests, their Fs.  Students were annoyed; I could hear the grumbling.  They didn’t want Fs; they were just trying to graduate and be done with high school.  “Ms. Falls, this is too hard. You give us too much work.  Of course we didn’t do well!”  I had been prepared for this, and I launched into my speech.  “This is not too much.  When I was a senior in high school, we were expected to write, not only these kinds of short answers but full essays.  My senior English final was a ten page paper.”  “But Ms. Falls, this is Detroit!” 

Indeed this was Detroit; the students had pinned down the exact problem: My high school had been a predominately white, middle-class suburban high school.  This was Detroit: One hundred percent of my students were Black and poor.  The high school had a twenty-five percent graduation rate.  One morning when I came to school, I saw a car crashed into the front doors of the building.  It had been shot up in a drive-by and was left, all bullet-riddled, to greet the students as they came to school.  And my students had made it to their senior year of high school without ever being expected to write full essays. 

Why had they never been expected to learn the same things I had been expected to learn?  None of the teachers at Henry Ford High School had ever used racial slurs to refer to their students; no one had ever said explicitly that they didn’t expect much of these Black kids.  But that was the reality.  These students had inherited the racist legacy of this country: Their parents and grandparents had come from poverty.  Likely their parents and almost certainly their grandparents had not even been allowed to go to college.  They didn’t have faith in the educational system; they didn’t believe that school was a path for them to gain power.  Why would they?  They hadn’t actually witnessed this in their lives.  Seventy-five percent of them, in fact, had already left the system.  And their teachers had gotten burned out trying to break through these barriers; they had given up.  Racism and poverty had become such a part of the system, that, for the most part, students and teachers didn’t see it, but here were my students telling me, “This is Detroit.” 

Twelve years later, San Francisco, California, for all its mythical liberalness, is a city that still embodies these realities of race and class oppression.  The city itself can be a very hard place for poor folks to live given the skyrocketing cost of living.  People of color, particularly Blacks, have been pushed out of the city or pushed into the ghetto.  The majority of my school’s Black students come from the projects all the way across town.  Many of them spend hours riding the city buses to get to and from school, and many of them feel disconnected from the school culture because of the distance.  Students who live in the projects often express to me that they can’t stay late at school for various events or extra-curricular activities because it isn’t safe for them to return home after dark.  And, like most other public schools in the country, our school has a divide between the scores of our majority population (in our case Asian students) and the scores of our Black and Latino students.

Mandy comes from a single parent family.  She doesn’t really know her father, who is currently in prison.  Her mom had her young and never went to college.  Despite all this, Mandy aspires to be a good student.  She wants to get the grades.  She has enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes, even knowing that they will be a challenge for her.  But the reality is that she’s not as strong a writer as her peers.  She sometimes struggles academically.  And I can feel for this struggle: She is often the only Black student in these honors classes.  Not only must she feel like she has to achieve for herself, but she must feel like she has to do well as a representation of her race.  Whether this is a conscious or unconscious drive, it must feel like a burden.  And her Asian and white peers must, consciously or not, weigh her too as the single Black student in the class.  Given this much larger context, it makes sense that Mandy would have a chip on her shoulder, that she would feel threatened by criticism.  My suggestions for improvement are just one more reminder that she’s not where she would like to be.

As a teacher, I struggle all the time with this larger context.  I don’t want to fall into the trap that many other well-meaning teachers fall into of not having sufficiently high expectations for my minority students, of behaving as though just showing up and trying is enough.  I don’t think this does any of my students a service, and I think this kind of patronizing attitude is just as racist as a “you’re not good enough” attitude. 

Further, as a white, middle-class teacher, I have to be aware of my own biases.  All teachers have an agenda, whether they admit it or know it or not.  How much of the values, ideas, and approaches I teach are such a part of this unequal society that I’m a part of that I can’t even see that they’re biased or oppressive?  How much of our oppressive culture gets passed along in any sort of institutional setting despite people like me who work from the inside to make change?

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to be a teacher who is at least conscious of all these dynamics that so many people aren’t conscious of.  I hear teachers I work with complaining all the time about students “playing the race card” or saying things like, “My best friend is Black, so I can’t be racist.”  (Or one White colleague likes to say, “I’m more African-American than my students because I actually grew up in South Africa.”): None of these approaches or attitudes actually change the real dynamics of race in our schools.  And our schools are simply a microcosm of society at large.  If we can’t productively talk about race and racism in the classroom, we won’t get very far in addressing racism in our nation.  I hope that the next time a student says something like what Mandy said to me, I’ll be able to engage better and start a conversation rather than getting mad.

Specialized Knowledge

Over dinner recently, a friend said something that, while slightly offensive and upsetting, is, I’m confident, a commonly held perception in this country today.  We were discussing another friend’s new job.  He is working an entry-level position for a computer software company, still learning the skills and the language of computer programming, and he makes one-and-a-half times what I make as a teacher of nine years.  In another year or so, once he has mastered the job, he has the potential to make three times what I make.  It was hard to conceal my disgruntlement over this.  I certainly am not angry with him, and I certainly didn’t go into teaching for the money, but I was trying to express to my dining companions how these pay differentials show a skewed sense of priorities that we have in this country.  My other friend began trying to defend these numbers.  Her argument was, “Well, computer programmers have specialized knowledge.”

She didn’t say it directly, but the subtext is that we teachers don’t have any specialized knowledge, hence the lower pay: Anyone can be a teacher.

Almost everyone in the United States has had the experience of being in school, of having teachers.  I know that when I was in school I barely thought about my teachers.  My middle school and high school years were so filled with my own angst: boyfriends and friends, stress over balancing grades and my part-time job and my social life, sex, and my own burgeoning sense of self and who I wanted to be in the world, that I never thought about my teachers except in that hour when I was in their class.  When they told stories from their own lives, stories of their spouses or pets or children, it was impossible to picture them outside of their personas in the classroom, impossible to picture someone calling them by their first names or talking to them about anything other than their subject area.  I feel lucky that I had excellent teachers, and I truly learned a lot from them, but they really did not exist outside school in any concrete ways for me.  I never considered what went into preparing a lesson for the day or the time it took to grade papers or tests.  And I think most adults who aren’t themselves teachers or who don’t intimately know a teacher still wear this same kind of veil.  Most people think, “I know what being a teacher is like.  I had teachers for twelve years.  Anyone can be a teacher.”  After all, how is it that the terrible adage, “Those who can’t teach,” has stuck?

Indeed, much of our current legislation around education is rooted in similar thinking.  Programs like Teach for America and other similar fast-track credentialing programs operate on the basis that all it takes to be a teacher is some strong common sense and a college degree, and teaching is often seen as a “stepping-stone” to something better.  People who have no formal training in educational theory can become teachers and will learn as they go.  How hard can it really be?

But the statistics on the revolving door of education, the high numbers of teacher attrition, suggest otherwise.  Teaching is a demanding job with no easy formulas.  The fifty percent of teachers who leave the profession within the first five years surely know this.  I, as a teacher of nine years who still struggles every day as a teacher, know this, and the implication that what I do doesn’t require any specialized knowledge certainly feels like a slap in the face.

I teach at a large urban high school in San Francisco.  We are a school with a decent standing ranked statewide and a pretty good local reputation.  We are not one of the top, elite schools, but I think, in this way, we are representative of what school looks like for many kids in this country.  The majority of our kids go on to college, most of them to local community colleges first; a good number go into vocational fields after school, and a small but not un-notable number of our students drop out.  We have a sizeable special education department and an equally sizeable advanced placement and honors track.  We have clubs and sports teams and problems with graffiti and the occasional fight.  The student body of my school is complex, and the realities of their lives that they bring with them as learners inform my work on a day-to-day basis.  And these facts are only very surface-level observations; trying to define the realities that make up the daily work of a teacher go far beyond any demographic descriptors.

Any teacher will tell you that the title “teacher” really encompasses a number of different roles: we are mentors, cheerleaders, counselors, conflict mediators, and students ourselves.  We are required, at times, to fill the roles of parents and friends, and then, of course, we must aid in subject mastery with inspirational, relevant, culturally responsive, varied, differentiated, accessible pedagogy. Perhaps the reason it’s so hard to see this as “specialized” knowledge is that this work is so varied and so complex.

In a typical day of teaching, I call upon a wide range of skills and knowledge, some learned in my English courses, some learned in my education courses, some learned through the reading I’ve done over the course of my life, some learned from being in the classroom teaching for nine years, and some learned from colleagues and ongoing reflection and professional development.  I may be lecturing on Romanticism, guiding my students in creating tragedies based on Aristotle’s writings, helping students write literary analysis papers by developing a thesis or expanding their analytical thinking.  I may be coaching students to read a Shakespearean soliloquy in a way that demonstrates emotion and their understanding of the text, or I may be facilitating a discussion on issues related to cultural assimilation that come up in our reading of A Raisin in the Sun, discussion facilitation being a demanding skill in and of itself, which I could write a whole paper on (How do I challenge reticent students to speak up?  How do I encourage confident speakers to open up space?  How do I ensure that all voices and opinions are heard?  How do I ensure that students are making meaning and thinking in deep ways?).  I may be expounding on finer nuances of vocabulary words; pushing kids to make inferences in their reading, or understand the symbolism or metaphor of a poem.  I may be reviewing rules on the uses of semicolons or how to do MLA citations.  I may be planning a lesson that takes into account the students who are noted as gifted and talented and the kid in the same class who is barely literate, or that addresses the learning needs of a student who does well with seatwork and her neighbor who can barely sit still for ten minutes.  I may be helping a student organize a binder.  I may be facilitating small group work or doing conflict resolution when groups come to an impasse.  I may be handling the daily homophobia of high school students in a way that doesn’t simply dismiss the offender but also makes it clear that intolerance is unacceptable.  I may be working one-on-one with a student who has only been in the country for two years or with a student who has severe cognitive disabilities (and, yes, I have had these students, often with an aid or para and often without).  I may be listening to a student who hasn’t eaten in days, whose best friend was just killed in gun violence, or who is simply anxious of graduating from high school.  I may be calling home or meeting with parents, guardians, counselors, or specialists to provide the services a student needs.  I may be writing letters of recommendation or writing referrals for misbehavior.  I may be working with a student teacher whom I’m mentoring, looking over lesson plans, trouble-shooting, or writing evaluations.  I am usually grading papers, trying to provide feedback that is meaningful and helpful to my students’ growth.  And I am usually doing all this, trying to ensure that I am holding myself to high standards for equity and fairness, that I am keeping my classroom student-centered rather than teacher-dominant, that I am allowing my students to use their voices and express themselves, and that I honor student experiences while still pushing them to go beyond their comfort levels.  I am reading the most recent literature on pedagogy or attending seminars or trainings, some mandatory, others voluntary.  I do all this to ensure that all of my one hundred and sixty students are joyful, empowered, successful learners.

And some days, I even feel successful!  I’ve built positive relationships with a number of students, some of whom I kept in touch with after graduation and now have real, adult friendships with.  I’ve had students tell me that, because of my class, they now love reading or realize they actually have things to write about.  I’ve even had a student tell me that my class changed his life and gave him the hope to go to college.  I’ve mentored student teachers who have gone on to have successful careers in education and who feel like they, too, are making a difference in the lives of young people.

My successes haven’t happened by accident.  They were not the result of simple common sense.  I’ve done a great deal of thinking about my pedagogy, about how to build in student choice, about how to build relationships with students.  I’ve had my share of failures and done a great deal of (sometimes tearful) reflection on what went wrong.

And I’ve worked really hard.  Especially in my first few years of teaching, I worked every weekend, developing my unit plans, grading, calling the families of my students.  I currently commute to work on public transportation, and, nearly every day, in my hour and a half round-trip on BART, I grade papers.  The pull to simply use multiple choice scanning machines or put a simple letter grade on an essay with no feedback is strong, and I sympathize with teachers who have over one hundred and fifty students and maybe even children of their own.  My sometimes seventy or eighty hour work weeks don’t feel sustainable, and I often feel torn between wanting to have more time for myself and wanting to provide as much support for all my students as I can.  It’s unfortunate that many teachers feel they have to choose between these options, and it’s unfortunate when teachers give up by leaving the classroom all together or by simply not seriously engaging in the real work of the classroom.  I always work through lunch, and I always have to laugh a bit when I get home and check my email to find that my friends who have office jobs have emailed me comics, funny stories, or YouTube posts.  When do they find time to do this while at work?

My work feels challenging and meaningful.  It certainly feels specialized to me.  But the other extreme of this thinking is equally discouraging.  Many excellent teachers make teaching look effortless, while, in reality their jobs are incredibly demanding.  While I want to be recognized for the work I do, I do not want to be a martyr.  The teachers who are doing excellent work should be viewed as professionals.  This means they should be paid equitably and seen as experts in their field.  It’s true that I didn’t go into teaching for the money, but if we want to ensure that our young people are getting the best education, we have to be serious about how we treat those who are providing that education.  Studies show that having excellent teachers is the number one factor in student academic success.

But teacher burn-out is real.  The workload is heavy, and the acknowledgement we get for the work we do is minimal.  The recent research I’ve done as a member of the Teachers Leadership Institute Policy Fellowship looking at causes for high rates of teacher attrition in San Francisco Unified School District confirms that teacher working conditions and workload are a key cause of teachers leaving the profession.  Nine policy fellows interviewed thirty-four San Francisco public school teachers who met publicly recognized standards for being considered excellent teachers.  The interviewees represent the full range of schools in the district.  From these thirty-four interviews, one hundred decisions to stay at a school site, move schools, or leave teaching or the district altogether were identified and analyzed.  We all worked together to answer the question, “What working conditions are necessary to attract and retain highly effective teachers in high-needs schools?”

Teacher attrition rates are incredibly high.  While certainly any job has attrition, and surely many teachers might, like other professionals, realize that the job just isn’t for them, this attrition has its costs.  Studies estimate the annual cost of teacher turnover to be more than $200 million in California alone.  Money is spent on recruiting and hiring new teachers rather than supporting those teachers already in the profession or funding school resources or infrastructure.  Further, high rates of teacher attrition exacerbate inequity in education and further the “achievement gap.”  High-needs schools have teacher turnover rates three times higher than high-performing schools in San Francisco Unified, and this is problem is echoed in other parts of the country.  The majority of new teachers get placed in high-needs schools, where they will have a much harder time developing their skills and will face the most difficult working conditions, thus accelerating high teacher turnover from high-needs schools.  We know that this constant turnover fractures the entire school community: Students lose the value of being taught by experienced teachers and teachers who know them; teachers lose the opportunity to build strong communities, and administration cannot build a stable environment with any solid institutional memory.  All of this leads to even more teacher turnover creating a revolving door of teacher retention.

In our interviews with teachers from a wide range of backgrounds, teaching assignments, and years of experience, teachers cited workload numerous times as a cause for low morale or even a desire to leave the profession or change schools.  Teachers describe the work as “insane and ridiculously unreasonable.”  High school teachers point out that they have up to one hundred and seventy students a day, and that grading papers and meeting all the students’ needs can be draining.  One teacher said, “How long can I do this?  [Other jobs are] not going to take me working fourteen hours a day.”  Another teacher, who says she always worked a lot at her other jobs, said that teaching required “just way too many hours to get done what you needed to get done. It was twice the amount of work than anything I’ve ever done.”  Another teacher at a low-performing school stated flatly, “[I felt like I had] been run over by a truck [at the end of each day].”  And finally, one teacher summed it up best when saying, “Even the best teachers can only do so much, and instruction and planning suffer when teachers are spread too thin.”  We have a real paradox in education in this country: We wouldn’t dream of sending our children to schools with less than excellent teachers, and yet we act as though anyone can teach.  We want the best teachers for our youth, but we refuse to recognize that we must fund and support excellent teachers, and we must create an environment where new teachers get to become excellent teachers.  This will not happen by magic or by simply complaining about our educational system today or about its teachers.

I have heard of various models for teacher workload that are provocative and compelling.  For the past few decades, education reformers have been comparing the United States public education to other countries’ approaches, and while these comparisons warrant a much deeper look and aren’t always relatable, different models of teacher workload are at least worth thinking about.  In Japan, for instance, schools are structured to provide more common planning time between teachers, and teachers teach sixty percent of the time while using that other forty percent to plan, analyze student work, and collaborate.  This is in contrast with American teachers who spend an average of eighty percent of their work day in front of students and only have twenty percent of their time for preparation and analysis of student work.

Another model that offers stark contrast to the reality of a teacher’s day is to imagine a performer.  Musicians, for instance, spend most of their working time practicing.  They use these non-performances hours to warm up, hone techniques, analyze their strengths and weakness and practice the parts that need extra work.  Imagine if performers worked like teachers.  They would spend eighty percent of their time performing in front of audiences, being on.  Of course their performances would be far from perfect; they would have no time to reflect or improve.

This is not to say that teachers should only teach twenty percent of the time.  I wouldn’t want this for the simple fact that I teach to be with students.  But I also realize that my work with students improves dramatically when I have time in my work day to plan to incorporate best practices or to look at student work to see what skills my students still need support with or what they’re doing well that I can build on.  I want to be the best teacher I can be, and this means that I can’t be frazzled, underslept, or unaware of my students’ needs because I have no time in my day to stop and process.

A number of other solutions exist that would ensure that teachers feel supported not overwhelmed and that would help guarantee that all students get to learn from excellent teachers.  Of course, many of these solutions, such as reducing class size or class load, do require funding, an unpopular reality given the current economic climate, but not all the solutions require extra money.  And, in addressing issues of teacher morale in the face of a demanding workload and low or dismissive public sentiment towards the profession, the solution is free: Support teachers and the work they do.  Recognize the excellence that does exist in our public schools.  (Of course, I’m not arguing that one hundred percent of teachers are excellent one hundred percent of the time, but we are also not the villains in the story that is being told about the “decline of American education today!”)  Get involved with your local school or your kids’ school.  Thank the teachers you know who are doing their demanding job expertly.  Talk about teachers like professionals who do indeed have a great deal of specialized knowledge.