Our admin treated us to an engaging speaker on Wednesday during a workshop day. Dr. Donna Beegle. She is truly kind of a big deal, and offered down-to-earth ideas and perceptions about poverty, primarily from her personal life story. The only issue I had with the day was the presentation was about three hours long, with one ten minute break, and there was a small ratio of presentation:interaction component. (That’s tough on an old lady like me to sit for so long, and I think between that and the usual “you are not a human being” thing about a teacher’s schedule, I felt terrible and ended up taking a sick day, but that’s irrelevant.)
There were a few things she offered I packed in my ‘creed suitcase’ — those things I may need when I travel outside my comfort zone–reminders of ‘my home’ – where I try to live with students, and staff. Her story is not unusual–poverty doesn’t know race–it’s embedded in our cultural narrative as old as Jamestown and the Mayflower. She said (paraphrasing) that if one judges, then the possible of communication is nil, an impossibility. And she’s right.
If I could have added anything to her presentation, it would be to add a piece that teachers do this to each other, too. And if you’ve never experienced when someone is judging you, and being hostile/uncommunicative, then you don’t know what it’s like to try to collaborate/create in that environment. It’s not about ‘skin-thickening’ or not being sensitive. (‘Skin-thickening’ sounds kind of gross.) Asking someone who’s naturally empathetic and understanding to switch that off from one’s identity is tough. And that’s what we ask students to do all the time. We ask them to toughen up, get some grit, pull-up-boot-straps and get to it. Bolstering is okay: put-downs and shaming is not. It would seem like this line is mile-wide, but it’s razor thin sometimes.
One other aspect of her lecture, (which I’m not sure others heard, but with my super-powers of subtext hearing), included her discussion about print culture. There is no mystery why it is I can’t have students simply “go read this” -there demands a context and a conversation:
“Constructive criticism” is a middle class concept. A lot of times you see teachers writing information on students papers, feedback to them about how they are doing or whatever. And the oral culture students will say, “My teacher doesn’t notice if I do the work, and they don’t notice if I don’t do the work.” Because that writing is not communicating to them. They need personal, “Sit down, go over it with me, and do it verbally”, and that’s how they get their information.
That is why my most struggling readers have always been the best verbal trackers, consistently. And unless we truly want to help, support, and educate our students experiencing poverty we must bend, break, or trash the curriculum standards that impede this by way of stealing our time, our lesson ideas, constructing intentional planning that allows for talk, even if it’s self-talk, or one-to-one with teachers.
Now the other big subtext I heard was shaming. She used her memory of teachers’ voices chiding students for being late, forgetting books, not coming prepared, having lice, etc. (I wanted to tell her that lice is way overblown, and even ‘rich kids’ get lice. I’ve know a few. And one thing I would love to chat over coffee with her is that most lives are full of many experiences: times of richness, times of hunger. I have those stories. I’m sure you do, too.)
Her point was this shaming of children for things out of their control deflates them, permanently. Why tear someone down who’s doing the best they can?
I’ve seen shaming in my own school. Shaming of teachers who come in late to a meeting because their daycare was late, or shamed because they said something in a meeting, or a lot of “kids these days” comments.
Let’s talk about the dress code.
The other day we were reviewing rules, and one of my fiery young feminists has major issues with the dress code, seeing it as sexist and double-standard. I met her argument head-on, with conciliatory understanding, and my rebuttal (no pun intended) included a conversation about professional attire –my own expectations for boys and girls –I understand the issues of rape culture in our society, all too well, and I see her point. I wanted her to consider that dress codes in a professional environment are not about supporting rape culture, misogyny, sagging/gang culture, etc. It’s just a way to present oneself to the world that is self-respectful, one of those ‘soft skills’ that helps prevent others from pre-judging us. (Remember that judgment thing? Yeah.) The next day or so there was an email from a staff member giving us warning that this student was in violation of the dress code (showing her midriff) and there was no time to get her to change. Is that shaming, or being consistent with school rules? Now I feel the need to talk to this student privately and explain again what professionalism means, and how this should not impede on her personal freedoms. Now, since I didn’t notice what she was wearing, I could see a colleague getting annoyed with me for ‘not being consistent’ in enforcing the rules (I’ve been shamed with this one, too.) It’s not that I don’t enforce the dress code, but my personal philosophy is don’t demand blind rule following: understand the nature and intent, get buy-in, and gentle reminders now and again.
In other words: there are some things that are not a big deal. I propose an end to conflating teacher quality with ability to enforce rules without reason.
The Pew Research Center published an article, “Who’s Poor in America: 50 years into the War on Poverty, a data portrait.” Our nation is struggling. And I would like the conversation about poverty and kids to include how teachers are supported, too. How we get our oxygen masks on so we can help others?
And help stop the shaming. If they don’t bring a pencil to class, so what? They’re there. Teach them.
Highly recommend: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.
So is the judgment of “misusing privilege’ made us ‘lose our capacity for empathy’ (Jon Ronson)? How are we using our privilege for teaching children, and being kind to one another?