Sunday, October 23, 2011

Parents, Teachers, Kids...and race?

The other day a Facebook friend posted the following article:
"What Teachers Want to Tell Parents" by Ron Clark
Some of you might remember Ron Clark.  He's a teacher who wrote a book, made it on to Oprah, and subsequently opened the "Ron Clark Academy," a private, non-profit middle school in the Atlanta area. I have nothing against Ron Clark or his school. I'm sure it's a wonderful place for those few students who are lucky enough to attend. But something about this article really bothered me.  

If you don't have time to read it, here's the gist: great teachers and administrators are leaving the  profession, or rather, being driven out of the profession by parents. Parents need to stop complaining and start respecting teachers more. Stop making "excuses" for your children. They need to get school work done no matter what's going on at home, or else they may wind up "25 and jobless, sitting on your couch eating potato chips." And please, says Clark, when a teacher tells you that your child did something wrong, do not turn to the child and say, "Is that true?" Says Clark, "Well, of course it's true. I just told you. And please don't ask whether a classmate can confirm what happened or whether another teacher might have been present. It only demeans teachers and weakens the partnership between teacher and parent."

Oh, and please don't ever question your child's grades. Whatever grade your child got, he or she deserved it. Period.

Ok, I'm a teacher educator, and I do understand Clark's side of the story. Teachers need parental support, that's absolutely true. But I'm also a parent, and I find that Clark has made a lot of presumptions that just don't pan out in my experience. Clark presumes that teachers are always fair, always kind, and always right. Sadly, this just isn't true. I've heard of many, many times when teachers showed bias, disciplined through humiliation, or were just flat-out wrong about a child. I know of a teacher who dumped the entire contents of a second grader's desk out in front of the whole class to show what a mess it was. That same teacher referred to the parents as "stupid" during a parent-teacher conference. Then there was the third grade teacher who insisted that most of her class had ADHD because they were so "chatty." On the other hand, in the very same school there was a first grade teacher who didn't believe in ADHD at all, even when a child's behavior said differently. There was the seventh grade teacher who silenced two talking boys in the class by saying, "Why don't you two get a room?" There was the sixth grade teacher who gave a student an A on a project. When the student modestly admitted, "My mom helped me," the teacher changed the grade to an A-. Aren't parents supposed to help kids with projects? These were not some renegade teachers, either. They were all well-paid, respected teachers in a white, suburban school district who held their positions for many, many years. 

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Now let me be clear:  THERE ARE A LOT OF GREAT TEACHERS OUT THERE. I believe that, and I hope I've had a small part in training some of them. But Clark's article suggests that teachers know better than parents. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children's code of ethics, respecting parents as partners is an ethical requirement for teachers. According to NAEYC, teachers need to: 
  • Appreciate and support the bond between the child and family
  • Recognize that children are best understood and supported in the context of family, culture, community, and society
  • Respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual (child, family member, and colleague)
  • Respect diversity in children and adults and colleagues
  • Recognize that children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of relationships that are based on trust and respect*
So when parents turn to their children and ask, "Is that true?" (one of Clark's "biggest pet peeves"), teachers need to understand that children have a right to tell their side of the story, and parents have a right to hear it. Yes, teachers are experts in some things, but parents are experts in knowing their children, and it is their responsibility to be their children's advocates.

And what does all this have to do with race? If you look at the picture of Clark and his students you'll notice that Clark is white and most of his students are African American. That tells me something. I don't doubt Clark's motivation, and I'm not suggesting that he's racist. But he needs to consider that he is a cultural outsider to some of his students and their families. He needs to be sure that his "expertise" and his view of parents as "prosecutors" are not based on his position of societal privilege. Lisa Delpit wrote a very famous essay on some things white teachers need to think about in teaching "other people's children."**  Delpit stresses the importance of white teachers recognizing that the classroom reflects a culture of power that often gives teachers the authority to establish their ideas as "truth," superseding the concerns, ideas, or feeling of parents. 

Parents are not the enemy. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Class Warfare?

Politicians say lots of things when elections are at stake.  Growing up with my parents' "they're all crooks" mentality has left me with a pretty cynical disposition toward such things.  In my real life relationships I try to be open minded and willing to see issues from a variety of points of view.  As an educator, I think that's important.  So, I don't usually pay much attention to all the little sound-bitable catchphrases that I hear from politicians and political pundits.  But this week I heard one that I just couldn't ignore.

People who oppose higher taxes for the rich are calling the idea "class warfare," which I guess means pitting the lower classes against the higher class as a political ploy.  You know, I'm not an economist.  Some people claim that higher taxes for the rich will eventually hurt everyone, because if this happens rich people who own corporations won't be able to create jobs that the lower classes so desperately need.  While I'll admit this line of reasoning doesn't make much sense to me, that's not what this blog is about.  I simply want to point out a different kind of class warfare that been going on for a very long time.

Last week I had a conversation with a young adult who is in a serious dilemma. This person works hard at a very important position.  Unfortunately, although the position is full time, it doesn't offer medical insurance benefits, and the salary is far too low for my friend to afford to buy private insurance.  Sadly, the person is experiencing some severe medical problems and needs to see a specialist. Without medical insurance, that's not going to happen any time soon (the person already tried to make an appointment and was turned down by the doctor's office).  So, my friend waits for the needed medical treatment while trying to navigate a cumbersome medical/insurance system, which is, as anyone who has been in a similar position knows, a full time job in and of itself.

What's the person's important job?  Child care provider, of course.  This individual provides nurturing, quality, full time care for other people's children every day, but like many, many other child care workers, isn't considered important enough to receive basic, timely, medical care.  This person is not a socialist, and is not looking for a "government handout," but, as one of the working poor, is just trying to make ends meet and continue to serve the community through this important and necessary job. Unfortunately, doing so is a battle.  So here's an example of class warfare that isn't making the airwaves.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Talking While White

I spent the day yesterday at the Collingswood Book Festival, trying to get people to buy The R Word.  While we didn't sell many books, I did learn a lot from the experience.  First, the people around me selling science fiction and horror novels were making a killing.  I started to think we should have put a vampire on the cover of The R Word, even though it's realistic fiction.  We could have explained the vampire as representing a metaphoric theme that runs through the text -- "Racism sucks the blood out of our society" or something like that.

Second, we discovered that there are a lot of Phillies fans in Collingswood, New Jersey.  Maybe instead of police detectives, I should have made my protagonist's uncles baseball players.  Or maybe they could have sold hot dogs at Citizens Bank Park.  In a moment of desperation I did say that The R Word stands for RBIs, but nobody seemed to buy it.  Oh well.

The crowd at the festival was mostly the browsing type, but several people did stop to look at our poster and ask, "Ok, I'll bite. [I knew we should have had a vampire on the cover!] What is the R word?"  When I explained that the R word is Racist, because my story is about a young, white girl who, through her friendships with kids of color, begins to think about race and about what it means to be white for the first time, most people ran for their lives.  Well, not really - this was a very polite crowd.  They nodded, broke eye contact with me, and slipped away as quickly as they could.  A few, though, made some interesting comments.

First, there was a white woman who listened to my spiel with a frown.  She nodded quite confidently and said, "Oh, I know all about this.  I work at [named school here that I'd never hear of].  I deal with this every day.  On the weekends I let it go."  At the last sentence she flicked out her hands in a washing-away kind of movement.

Soon after, another white woman walked by and picked up a copy of The R Word, studying the back cover. When I explained the story line to her she placed the book down on the table and said, "I work at [another school name I had never heard of], so I'm inundated with political correctness."  I tried to explain that my book was not about being politically correct, but about exploring an important topic with young people, but she would have none of it. By the time I finished my sentence she was gone.

The third interesting conversation I had was with an older white man.  When I explained the basic plot of The R Word, he nodded encouragingly.  "I know all about this," he said.  He then told of an experience from back in his high school days. He lived in a white neighborhood, but his high school was integrated, half white, half African American.  (I'm assuming those were the days of bussing, because he seemed about my age and my high school experience was exactly that).  Anyway, the white kids and the black kids used to joke around about dating, the joke being that they all knew it would never happen.  Then one day, an African American girl invited him to a party.  At first he thought she was joking, but when it turned out she wasn't he agreed to go.  He went to her house to pick her up, and when the girl's father came to the front door and saw a white guy standing there waiting for his daughter, he slammed the door in this poor fellow's face.  So this man knew all about issues of race, because he had been a victim of racism himself.  Luckily, though, a few minutes later the mom came to the door, apologized, and off the two young people went to the party where the teller of the story was the only white person present.  "Everybody was as nice as could be to me, though," he assured me.  "We wound up having a wonderful time."

Okay, I'm not trying to be mean here, or overly critical of white people.  However, I couldn't help but notice some common motifs that ran through these comments. The first two women, who worked as either teachers, counselors, or administrators at schools with high populations of color, found talking (and presumably reading) about race somewhat distasteful, and certainly not something they wanted to think about in their free time.  They got enough of "that" at work. They are faced with race every day, but perhaps they believe that a good educator must be colorblind, so they'd rather not think about it.  Some whites fear that just talking about race puts one at risk for being called a racist (there's that R word again).  Lots of researchers have found the colorblind approach in full force among school personnel.  Teachers and school administrators don't think about race because, after all, what does that have to do with education?  Education isn't about race, it's about working hard. Race doesn't matter, and anyone who says it does is "playing the race card." "I don't care if my kids are black, white, or pink with purple polka dots," I've heard many a white teacher say, "I treat them all the same." Now, if we were working from an equal playing field the colorblind approach might work.  But unfortunately race has mattered from the beginning of our nation's history and still matters today. Schools that take the colorblind approach have more, not fewer, practices that perpetuate racial inequity.  How sad for the students of color who attend the schools represented by these two women who view the topic of race as either distasteful or politically correct.

The last man I spoke to jumped right into the "reverse racism" argument that is also a common response when whites are confronted with the issue of racism. He seemed like a very nice, thoughtful, intelligent guy. He was certainly no Archie Bunker, and I'm not calling him or anyone else a racist. Just to prove how nice he was, he ended his story on a positive note --"See, African Americans are nice people, too!" Yet, when faced with the topic of race, the first thing he thought of was the one time in his life when he was treated unkindly by an African American. He didn't think of all the opportunity and benefits his whiteness had ensured him throughout his life. He didn't say, "Yes, I lived in an all white neighborhood because the realtors kept blacks out, or the banks wouldn't grant them mortgages.  Although my school was integrated, the presence of whites in the student body ensured I got a quality education. I slid easily into my first job, where I was promoted regularly, because I'm white." He referred to all of this in our conversation -- all except the being white part, that is. He didn't recognize how, along with his own hard work, his whiteness functioned to help him achieve. To him, it all happened very naturally. But he did remember that one time a black guy slammed a door in his face, and he felt it was important to share that with me, someone he had just met, to show solidarity with people of color. He'd been a victim of racism, too.

P.S. He didn't buy the book.