Perception is Truth. (Until it’s not.)
The faces are blurred to protect my students, of course. I wish I could share the unredacted photo: the students are relaxed, even laughing. Their body language is engaged, there are so many things you wouldn’t see. When I snapped the pic, one student told me I was “snitching” because he thought they were in trouble. They weren’t really engaged with the instruction, but only socially with each other. When I took the picture, it didn’t occur to me that it would look like another Barbecue Becky snapping a tattle-tale image to show to cops. When I ask them to sit in assigned seats, they refuse with protest, and perhaps it is the protest of all the systemic racism that makes kids of color forced into situations they have no control over, so any moment, however fraught with consequences, of regaining that control they will do the thin-slicing and risk it. I wear the face of that oppression.
And there is an undercurrent of hostility, and I must recognize my part in it. And I will do better.
The past two years have been two of the angriest, hostile and fear-ridden teaching environments in the Title I schools I’ve taught. Districts are turning away from helping children in poverty to focus on equity and restorative practices.
Are these bad? No, of course not. It’s good and important work, and due to a few incidents, one I am looking at reflectively and self-critically. I have found my own inner dialogue (and slightly outer tone) to be defensive and hurt. And after listening to a just-in-time “Teaching While White” podcast, I have come to some conclusions.
I don’t always get it right. In fact, I need to always, ALWAYS consider the optics from the students’ point of view.
Assumptions and Actions
By Elizabeth Denevi
I do not expect people of color to thank me or to acknowledge my antiracist work. I consider it my moral responsibility and will not look for validation from people of color. I am the one who benefits most from multiculturalism.
In other words, not only will I not get a ‘thank you’ –it’s not warranted, it’s excessive, and any criticism I receive must be absorbed quietly. It is my privilege and honor to work in a Title I school: I have always felt like the lucky one. Not a savior. Not a hero. But the beneficiary of sitting side by side with the world in my own backyard. And my beliefs have not been expressed in practice to some observers in my classroom this year–and perception is the truth. So if that is what others are seeing: that I am not equitable in practice, voice, or actions, then it is only I who can change.
However: that doesn’t mean that students don’t have some huge trauma and anger– and these past two years the fear levels continue to spike, and for good reason. Our nation is a mess. It’s under an authoritarian regime. Voters of color are being purged. We are in an apartheid state. S*** is real. And if my actions as a white teacher are doing any harm, I must repair.
What Happens When You Refuse to Join the World — and Tell the World to Join You in Collapse? by Umair Haque
But the world also didn’t quite understand that America couldn’t ratify many of these treaties. It was itself a segregated apartheid state. It only ended segregation in 1971. How could it sign treaties giving people equal rights — or be punished and disciplined by its peer nations — when it itself wasn’t ready to do so to its very own people? All people weren’t people in America — so how could America sign up to a world order that wanted all people to be people? Do you see the problem? The world was moving ahead, swiftly, with conviction, towards greater equality, freedom, and peace. But America was trapped by its past — not just unwilling, but politically and institutionally unable to join it. You can’t exactly ratify human rights for all if you’re making black people drink at separate water fountains.
The single most effective structure in my experience is the teacher-team model. The cross-content team works as a cohort to support each student: even if only a team of three, alongside common planning times, a cohort, when working collaboratively, helps find patterns and proactively create supports for students. It’s almost like an adult unified front: not punitive, but gentle, warmly demanding adults who clearly let each child and their parent(s) know they are there for support. The best teams include a mix of personalities, and overarching maturity allowing that not all students will equally like all teachers.
Why don’t more schools, especially middle schools, do this model? Well, I know it was abandoned at times under different administrators because they did not value it. I know it can be a scheduling issue. I believe this year my former middle school went back to the team model, and I am so happy for them, if not a bit jealous. On the plus side, my colleagues in my new building have reached out and we’ve been proactive and collaborative without a formal blessing from admin. But we work well together, and for that I’m grateful. Our goal is simple: we want students to be happy and learn.
(Pst, Admin: it truly, totally makes your life better when the front line of support, teachers, are there for students first.)
Which brings up a suspected reason: loss of control. Giving over control to cohorts of educators is too scary.
Are you exhausted from living in fear? I am. Perhaps I can bring this up to the #cleartheair community–what is the plan for us educators from a variety of backgrounds to heal our communities? We are telling the truth while trying to create a new narrative. Meritocracy is garbage, and we all need to recognize that.
I can’t do this work alone, in isolation. No more fear.