Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wait! I'm a Radical Educator?

When I started teaching, I had a radically different understanding of public schools and their purpose than I do today. Back then, I believed that great public schools could be the great societal equalizer for otherwise disenfranchised people in our society (I say much more about that in this post). And so, in this post, I'd like to discuss how that view has changed, and why I no longer believe schools can serve that purpose.

I want to start by telling you about a student I once taught. (Here, we'll call him Guillermo.) Guillermo had long, dark hair that usually covered his face. He was tall and lanky and normally wore black pants and a black jacket to school. When he spoke with you (or, more often, sat while you spoke to him), he would keep his head down. I can't remember a time that we made eye contact. After a long day at school, he would arrive late to the last period of the day with various colors all over the skin of his arms and hands. His friends had used markers to write their phone numbers, pictures, or messages on him.

Many days, Guillermo slept through class. Although he rarely spoke back to me when I asked him about his life, I had the distinct impression that he wanted to do well in school. To be fair, I believe every student wants to do well in school. But there was something unique about Guillermo's behavior that made me think that. For one, he was in school virtually every day. I caught him, on multiple occasions, asking other students what he was supposed to be doing when he didn't think I was looking. He always brought a pencil. And even though he never turned in work, I saw him occasionally writing on paper during work time.

A few years after I had him in class, I learned from our school counselor that the reason he slept in class so often was that his mom had relocated their family about twenty-five miles from our school. She wanted them to have an uninterrupted education, however, so she had them take public transportation from the temporary housing she'd found to our school, which required Guillermo to wake up at 4am to catch the bus. After school, he would hang out with his friends in the courtyard until the bus home arrived (around 5pm). He would return home around 7:30, help out with chores like grocery shopping, and fall asleep around 11 or 12.

Getting to and from school wasn't the only challenge Guillermo faced, though. His father abandoned his mother and siblings when he was four years old after some years of verbal and physical abuse, and his mom wasn't able to afford a regular housing situation on her own. Although I didn't learn about these facts until after he'd left my classroom, it made a lot of sense. Guillermo was a student who had suffered the loss and abuse of a father, and the emotional instability of a mother. On top of that, he struggled with the same challenges that teenagers who don't face such tremendous trauma deal with on a daily basis: hormonal changes, fitting in at school, and finding an identity.

I'm telling you about Guillermo because it's so very important that people who don't work in high-needs schools understand what the lives of the people who attend them are like. Of course, nobody else had Guillermo's unique situation; but most students living in material poverty experience a high degree of what one might call emotional poverty as well. It's not just about not having money for food and housing; it's often about not feeling the love, support, and stability needed for social-emotional health.

The challenges students face range vastly. There are students who live with two parents who are both unable to work due to disability; students who never knew their parents and grew up in the foster system; students who fight their parents' drug addiction; and students who have been routinely abused since the time they were born.

If I'm not careful at this point, I might be accused of attempting to foster a sense of pity for youth who grow up in poverty and trauma. But our reality is that, in many communities, trauma stemming from abuse and neglect are a way of life.

This reality, when fully grasped, suggests strongly that the primary purpose for school, particularly for tremendously disadvantaged students, should not be preparing them to compete in the marketplace, as I often feel our society believes it to be. Furthermore, the policies advanced in our country that are designed to make students competitive job seekers often do far more harm than good for students like Guillermo.

In one famous study from the 1980's, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children of professionals amassed a vocabulary that included 32 million more words than did children raised in poverty by THE AGE OF 4!

When you enter kindergarten at such a profound deficit in the skills and knowledge public schools assess young people for, it can be both difficult and debilitating to find that your teachers, and perhaps some of your peers, consistently judge you to be a failure. Compound that with the reality of what's going on at home for you with your parents and family, and the real inspiration is that so many students persist in school.

While we might, with extended school days and outstanding teachers, find ways to make up for the deficits of skills and knowledge our culture believes to be important to competition in the marketplace, it is a tremendous task.

What I finally realized, in my ninth year, is that it's not one that I support. That's right, I said it, I DO NOT SUPPORT NARROWING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP - at least not with school alone.

Let me clarify a little. What we mostly mean, as educators and as a society, when we talk about narrowing the achievement gap is finding ways to get students of color to score as well on standardized tests as white students do. As Hart and Risley's work suggests, skills and knowledge essential to performing well on standardized tests (like vocabulary) are not easily gained, particularly when a student's social-emotional issues (and perhaps hunger or lack of safety) stop them from focusing in school.

Does public education have a history of doing disservice to poor children of color in our country? Absolutely! Is it because they haven't closed the achievement gap. Actually, ironically, I would say schools continue to disservice students because they're so hellbent on closing the achievement gap.

Schools leaders who focus on closing the achievement gap often do things like eliminate art, music, social studies, recess; and, instead, spend lots and lots of time analyzing student performance on math, reading, and writing tests in an effort to improve those skills. Are these skills important? Certainly. But this kind of schooling comes with grave costs.

It's high time education policy acknowledges that we live in a tremendously unequal and unjust society that creates the problems we see in schools before students ever even arrive there. Students need to feel safe, to feel loved, to eat, to sleep, and to have friends before they can engage in learning. When students don't feel safe or loved or are hungry, they don't learn very well, if at all. Because the students who often don't have their social-emotional needs met in and out of school are the same students who are on the bottom end of the achievement gap, force feeding math and language down their throat becomes terribly inhumane.

Visiting the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco last month, I was delighted to hear one of the staff members say, "I'd rather have a student come to us, drop out their sophomore year, and go on to be a good person than graduate with a 4.0 and go on to be an asshole who doesn't know how to deal with other people."

Students who have to spend the vast majority of their day doing reading, writing, and math instruction geared toward helping them pass tests lose valuable opportunities to practice myriad other skills and learn vast amounts of other knowledge that are so critical to being human and participating in society. Why don't we spend more time teaching students about interpersonal communication or nutrition or personal finance in public schools? Why do we still cling to a curriculum that is so outdated and bareboned?

When you put people and animals in environments that do not stimulate them, like solitary confinement, they start to go crazy. It feels like that's what we're doing to students with our curriculum.

It forces one to ask questions: Why are we doing this? Why do we support a system of public education? Is it to ensure all of our kids can participate in the economy? And if it is, for whose benefit? For theirs or their employers?

The truth is, making a shitload of money isn't a universal value. When I asked a handful of my students last month if they were considering going to a four-year university when they graduate in June, all of them looked at me like I was crazy. "Why not?" I asked. "It'd be a phenomenal opportunity."

"Yeah. Probably. But my family comes first, and they need me here, with them right now" one of them said.

It reminded me that I come from a family and culture that puts great import on individual success. Different people and cultures will define success differently, and our public schools must be a place that accommodate those differences, particularly regarding how we talk to students about their post-secondary life and aspirations.

So what should the purpose of schools be for students like Guillermo and the family he belongs to?

In low-income communities, schools should serve as centers for civic dialogue, healing, and humanity. While learning the basics like math and language should certainly constitute some of what goes on in schools, our primary effort should not be to stress everyone out trying to bring underprivileged students' math and language skills up to par with their counterparts in affluent communities. Because, the truth is, those skills are not the only skills in life that matter. And so they shouldn't be the only skills that determine whether you receive a high school diploma.

Rather, schools should spend much more time serving students by identifying their strengths, helping grow them, and using the buy-in that's created by that work to motivate them when they work in academic areas in which they're less able.

Ultimately, schools are places we can go to take a glimpse into what our future society will look like. Since that's the case, it's imperative that the adults who work in them (and who create policy for them) are guided not by a desire to mold children into the model employee, but rather by love for the child. CHILDREN SHOULD FEEL LOVED IN SCHOOL.

And that's pretty much when I realized I'd become a radical - when I had that thought in my brain, and I realized I agreed with it. Because there are so many more conventionally minded people who would read this and think that I'm soft, that school is naturally the place where preparation for the marketplace should be front and center, and that individual competition in pursuit of monetary success is the appropriate way to live.

I can only respond by noting that Guillermo desperately needed a school that understood and accommodated for his unique needs. His six-period day packed with notes and homework and math tests did not do that. And we never reached him. He dropped out when he turned sixteen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Complex Problems; Simple (and Harmful) Solutions

Public education seems mundane an issue enough. Schools, teachers, kids, learning, life-preparation, etcetera, etcetera.

International relations, astrophysics, calculus, or third-world economics all sound so much more complex and potentially interesting.

To listen to public opinion, this must be the way many people think. If Haley Sweetland Edwards' recent piece in TIME is to believed, David Welch is one glaring example. 

Since it came out, the article has unleashed a fury of backlash from educators across the country. Sadly, too much of the counter-narrative (i.e. the narrative resisting the corporate reform of public education) often comes across as vitriolic. It includes ad-hominem attacks and equally poorly reasoned, ignorant charges.

Both sides over-simplify the issues at hand.

One example of such over-simplification is evident in Edwards' piece here:
"It seemed crazy to Welch that teachers in California receive tenure–permanent employment status designed to protect them from unfair dismissal–after less than two years on the job and that principals are often required to lay off the least experienced teachers first, no matter which ones are the best. It seemed even crazier to him that in some districts it takes years and tens of thousands of dollars to fire a teacher who isn’t doing a good job. Welch remembers asking a big-city California superintendent to tell him the one thing he needed to improve the public-school system. The answer blew Welch away. The educator didn’t ask for more money or more iPads. 'He said, ‘Give me control over my workforce,'” Welch said. “It just made so much sense. I thought, Why isn’t anyone doing something about that? Why isn’t anyone fixing this?'"
To read the article (after this quote), one gets the impression that, armed with a single insight from one superintendent, Welch went on to finance a tremendously costly lawsuit aimed at stripping California teachers of due process rights. 

I should hope that Welch did more research before making that move. If you're going to use your tremendous personal means to influence democratic institutions in ways that only a small sliver of extraordinarily privileged people have access to, it might behoove you to spend a significant amount of time gathering information from as many different stakeholders as possible before doing so. I hope Edwards just left that part of the story out. 

In the part of the story that I hope Edwards left out, I wonder if anyone suggested to Welch that superintendents should not necessarily be trusted as the eternal protectors of students' well-being and development. I wonder if anyone pointed out to Welch that superintendents often have personal agendas. And I wonder if anyone talked at length to Welch about the standardized test movement in this country and how it often plays into those agendas.

The article portrays Welch as having made an elementary mistake. He assumed that public education can be understood and treated like private industry. It's a mistake made time and again by well-intentioned wealthy philanthropists, and most eloquently captured by The Blueberry Story

In my experience, there are a number of different types of superintendents: the teacher's superintendent, the administrator's superintendent, the people's superintendent, the state's superintendent, and the superintendent's superintendent. 

Just like in business, the people who move up the pecking order at district offices typically have career ambitions. Too often, those who climb the ladder to the position of superintendent aspire to continue up that ladder. Sometimes the goal is to take state or national directorship roles, or possibly go into highly-paid consulting work.

The more noxious elements of NCLB and Race to the Top have guaranteed that central to the strength of the rungs on the career ladder for superintendents is performance on standardized tests and other one-dimensional measures of student achievement. 

Administrators oriented in their work primarily by the career ladder naturally have an interest in giving a majority of their attention to the appearance of their schools according to these one-dimensional measures. 

Ironically, and particularly in low-income districts (where we are ostensibly most concerned with the quality of pubic education), this attention to looking good often inspires compliance-oriented work on behalf of teachers and principals. This, in turn, takes time away from dedication to thinking through the hard issues around achieving quality for their particular students. 

If Welch had called me, I would have coached him through his thinking a little further before mounting any lawsuit. I would have agreed that it makes sense to give district leaders control over their workforce when those leaders are incredibly intelligent, compassionate public servants deeply attuned to the needs of their particular communities. I would have suggested that his money might be more meaningfully spent dismantling the choke-hold standardized testing currently has on education politics. Maybe try sorting out the details of labor-management challenges later on.

The challenge of providing truly public, truly equitable education is tremendous. 

Referring to the fight over education policy, Edwards notes: 

"It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses. And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions–judicial and otherwise–made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes."

It seems antithetical that much of the movement in public education policy is spurred by privileged individuals, many of whom advocate against the public part of public education. This is not only a problem because public problems should be solved publicly, but also because the individuals with the money clearly don't understand the breadth of the problems.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Developing A Spiritual Hazmat Suit

Two weeks ago, I attended the Teachers 4 Social Justice Conference at Mission High School in San Francisco.

In the morning, I participated in a session led by a woman who'd taught for some years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The title of the session was something like "Self Healing for Education Professionals."

Describing her time as a teacher in LAUSD, our facilitator told us about a time an internationally renowned African healer visited her school and mentioned to her that upon entering, he felt immediately that he'd stepped into a "energetically radioactive" environment.

If you've spent any time in public schools, particularly schools that serve large numbers of students who deal regularly with poverty, trauma, substance abuse, and institutional racism and discrimination; I think the notion of "energetically radioactive" might resonate with you. Particularly if, along with these factors, you also struggle with poor administration.

Our facilitator mentioned that, in order to work in these environments, it's important for educational professionals to develop what she referred to as a "spiritual hazmat" suit.

Toward the end of my tenure as a public school teacher in New York City, I began experiencing what doctors would later tell me were panic attacks.

One day in May of 2011, I was sitting alone in my apartment typing on my computer and, out of nowhere, I felt a streak of pain shoot through my forehead. A few seconds later, my heart rate shot through the roof as if a bear had jumped out of the closet. However, NOTHING had happened. I began doing deep breathing to calm down whatever in my body was happening, but it didn't seem to work, and I dealt with a tightened chest and high heart rate for the next few minutes.

The stress of working 10-12 hour days with an hour commute to and from work, combined with a lack of exercise and sleep, and relatively inadequate diet, had me showing up to work with bags under my eyes and tremendous irritability.

Students who experience trauma at home don't need to spend their days at school with teachers and counselors who don't have a strong hold on their own lives. It leaves us less compassionate, less capable, and less able to deal with the hard problems that show up at our schools on a daily basis.

I now think of my experience in NYC as the first step on my journey toward creating my own spiritual hazmat suit. I've strengthened it over time through the development of balance in my own life, meditation, proper diet, exercise, and (most importantly) regular sleep patterns.

When you begin teaching in high-needs schools straight out of college, you have this sense that if only you care enough, you'll change the world.

And you're half right.

The caring part is important. But you can't care with reckless abandon. If you do that, you'll send your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive and find yourself unable to meet your own basic needs. Forget about tending to the needs of the children who walk through your school's doors every day.

We call this burnout, and it is one reason we see such high turnover in public education professionals.

Do you want to last in public education? Here are my recommendations for developing your own spiritual hazmat suit. These things should not be negotiable.

- Sleep regularly, and enough to allow you to wake feeling energized.
- Have one off-day per week where you do not allow yourself to think about work or do anything related to it.
- Make time for play.
- Get over yourself. You cannot do it all, nor should you be expected to.
- Do a small number of things well rather than a large number of things poorly.
- Breathe deeply and meditate for 15 minutes a day.
- Take a nap mid-day.
- Take time to work out the food you're going to eat throughout the week with attention paid to meeting your dietary needs. Seventy-five percent of your diet should be fruits, grains, and vegetables.
-  Move. It can be any type of movement that works for your body, but we all desperately need to move.
- Speak with students and colleagues as positively as possible at all times. Never pass up an opportunity to complement someone.
- Work to ensure the environments you inhabit most often are welcoming and feel good (e.g. your classroom).
- Think deeply about your life's purpose and how the activities you participate in on a daily basis support that purpose.