“We find our path by walking it.” —Maya Angelou
I am overwhelmed with the beginning of the school year and with everything I know that’s going on in the world: with my country’s leadership, with the many diseased and lingering tentacles of colonialism, with too many people in prison, with Puerto Rico in the dark with the un-acknowledgment of so many humans as full-fledged human beings, with a president who openly fans dangerous hatreds and is a sexual predator, with threats to health care and women’s rights, etcetera. The things that keep me from sleeping and make me fearful that I could ever accomplish this teaching thing in a respectful and powerful way that opens instead of closes the world to the people in my classroom and all the people we share this planet with.
This makes me nervous to write here in this semi-public space because I know my ignorance and whiteness must shine through all the time and might make me look bad but also might be hurtful. And yet I feel called to write here because there are too many conversations we haven’t been having often enough for centuries and centuries. So many people we need to hear from that we haven’t been listening to.
I am a part of a small slice of that demographic of the unlistened-to (white women), but I am definitely firmly placed in the wide world of white, female teachers that dominate our K-12 education system. Because of this presence in the middle of the mainstream of educators I want to use my position to make spaces for the conversations we need to be having. Typing that feels grandiose but if no one enters into these conversations then no one will enter into these conversations. We will not change for the better and we may change drastically for the worse. (See Charlottesville, etc.) I also feel impelled to write here to aid my own process, growth and awareness as educator. Writing helps.
But where to begin? I am exhausted in a way that is interfering with my sleep and have so much grading and planning to do. If I am to get any posts up I cannot write draft after draft to get things just right. That means I may be even more likely to mis-step. But, you know what, if I do, just tell me. I am listening. And, to be real, so far I am not even naming myself here, a hesitation borne out of the somewhat public role of the teacher—our work is so deeply personal—and part of a very political system—what is safe to expose? Many teachers believe we are to remain neutral at all times. I don’t believe this is possible if such personal work is to be powerful. And kids aren’t that clueless…I digress…Call me out as needed.
But I still need to begin somewhere. I will begin where I hope to end up. I will begin with love. A lot of people talk about education as a space to create peace. I feel bruised and battered about the whole idea of “peace” right now, but I do still think that in education we can build more love. So I’ll start there.
When I was student teaching I was fortunate to experience a variety of school settings. I advocated for this but it was also somewhat accidental in the blur of returning from living in China and starting graduate school with a bunch of people much younger than I was. It was a fruitful experience, however it came about. I was able to see how different sizes and spaces and rules and teacher personas and school-wide goals changed how school felt.
One of the things that surprised me the most as I moved from school to school is that I’d leave thinking, “Well, the next group of students might not be as special as this group was. I really love this group of kids.” But every time I started at a new school it would be just a week or two before I realized that I’d fallen in love again. Maybe this is because adolescents are finally my perfect group of people to work with, but it happens every time and feels like a miracle.
I am currently working in a charter school. This gives me all kinds of complicated feelings. There are plenty of documented problems with charter schools (here | here | here | here ) and I myself have often argue against them. I follow a handful of academics who speak loudly and clearly about how charter schools can further school segregation by race and class, drain money away from struggling urban districts, and become part of dangerous political thinking that looks at schools more like private businesses instead of necessary spaces of our publicly shared democracy. Or libertarian thinking that kids who “want to learn” and know how to use their bootstraps deserve the better schools anyhow.
And yet I took this job in a charter school. A job that even pays me less and that has a way -less-stocked supply room than the majority-poverty large public school I came from. I’ve thought a lot about why I made this decision. Like any decision there are layers to it. I am early in my teaching career and want to stay open to seeing how things can be done differently. My student teaching experiences showed me that small tweaks can make a big impact on how a school feels and how students feel within it. My artistic nature makes me open to experimentation.
I struggled with the way a boxed (actually it was several confusing boxes) curriculum was handed to me last year, trying to feel my own ideas and instincts alongside the boxed plan with little training or chance to see how it was supposed to work. I felt a little lonely in such a giant district. I was stressed about PBIS and giving students tickets for acting like nice people so they could get candy. I struggled with the very early start time. I was pained by rules of big schools that deny the fact that bladders operate in their own time an rhythm, despite the presence of passes and security guards.
And also—it was my first year. In retrospect I can see how I’d adapted myself to other people’s ideas at times and lost mine. As a new teacher you need to learn the culture of the school and fit into it, following the lead of colleagues, but sometimes I found that I was doing things that weren’t creating the space or the consequences I wanted to create, and it was because I was new and I doubted that I could know what I was doing yet. And so maybe part of me wanted a new try, a do-over after all of those experiences. But I was torn about leaving a community full of students of color from very diverse life experiences, kids who I love very much, who taught me so much, and who are a lot of fun. And also I knew it was kind of stupid to have a second first year. The first year is so very, very hard.
It is my understanding that charter schools started with good intentions from at least some of the people involved—not those hoping to privatize education completely—but those who thought that these small test schools could serve as laboratories for new models of education that could then be used to implement positive change in the “regular” district schools. Similarly my artistic-curious-anthropological outlook was probably part of my decision.
While I was in school in Madison I checked out many books from the ed library entered around teaching children to care and to be independent learners, which often mentioned the work of Maria Montessori. Her work resonated a lot with practices that felt instinctual to me. At Madison I also was part of an English teacher cohort lead by a professor and graduate students who began our time together by announcing that English education can be a practice of emancipatory liberation, and who ended the program by asking us to form our theses around the question: “How can we teach to stop the killing?”
I don’t think that segregated schools are going to liberate us or teach us to stop the killing. I don’t think that draining funds from large districts is going to do so. But I do think there are so many things about “regular” schools that have been so the same for so long, that are rooted in identities and roles that need to change if we want to be liberated and less racist and violent.
I plan to learn more the origins of our school systems to better form my thoughts around this. For example, I read a book by UW Professor Michael Apple in which he mentions how teaching only became a low-paid profession once teaching changed from private tutors for rich young men to the first school houses. Young women were most available to hold teaching positions in the new small school houses (until they married). Women couldn’t be trusted to run everything, with their weaker brains and all, and thus higher-paid academic positions for men were born, and strict rules were written for the young women teachers, such as that they shouldn’t go out for ice cream alone. We cannot assume that our traditional school systems were founded on good and pure intentions for everyone’s education and liberty. But/and maybe I just wanted a shift of scenery to pull me forward.
All these thoughts were in mind when I got a call after my first-ever last day of school as a teacher offering me a job at a smaller Montessori charter school. I was torn. There are only a couple Montessori middle schools in my area and I’d interviewed at both of them twice in two years. . .
There is a Toni Morrison quote: “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”
The current status quo is a huge, huge problem, unethical in a multitude of ways. So while it still makes me cry sometimes—that I left last year’s students and the work I’d started there, that I’m left out of what those students are up to now—the fact that I’m part of this charter system I am skeptical of, (while also being skeptical of the “regular” system)—
I have this weird feeling that somewhere deep inside I feel a mission. This is strange for me, a feeling of one clear, true purpose—I contain multitudes!—I feel this mission to serve even those kids that I was physically leaving by entering into a new space with a different framework and some different beliefs behind it to discover the ways in which we can deeply respect students, give them opportunities to be seen and heard and embraced; to give them a chance to explore things that schools have left out for so long. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” the internet is always saying.
I came to teaching after a lost period forced me to simply follow the light of some new friends who glowed when they talked about their work with adolescents. Happy accident or fate or what? I feel a duty to look for and work towards our paths to liberation. The news is dismal right now but if I give up I endanger myself and I endanger you.
READING IDEAS on these topics:
Here is a list Prof. Apple sent me after I wrote him about these tensions a couple summers ago. I just unearthed the list and need to get to the library soon:
Michael Apple and Jim Beane: Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education (2nd edition)
Michael Apple: Can Education Change Society?
James Beane: A Reason To Teach
David Berliner and Gene Glass: Myths and Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools
Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education
and two recommendations just from me:
bell hooks: Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope
Nikole Hannah Jones: "Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City"
This American Life: The Problem We All Live With