October 11, 2014
This week’s classroom tales include the ongoing culture wars at my school. My school is a middle school in a rundown, ancient building. We are mostly poor - as indicated by the FARM numbers (free and reduced meal numbers - 80%) and non-white (over 60%). We have a fair number of middle class kids, lots of working class kids, and too many desperately poor kids. Homeless kids, foster kids, children of gang members, children of drug users. The nearby neighborhood (across the street) is know for gangs and drugs and violence.
Our faculty is mostly white. By “white” I mean White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. WASP. Solidly middle class, solidly Republican. Too many of my colleagues neither understand our students nor want to. Too many of our students don’t trust white people. With, too often, good reason. Ferguson, for example. Trayvon Martin. And on and on.
I have found that the middle class white teachers can be sorted into three general categories. There are the regular folks who do their job, mean well, but don’t see their white privilege or really understand what their students deal with. But they are nice folks who do their best. That’s ok, as far as it goes.
Then there are the Great White Hope folks. These people make my blood boil. How lucky our students are to have them. If only these poor students would assimilate their WASP values and appreciate the presence of these wonderful, white role models, the students would be so much better off. They don’t phrase it this way, but I swear - almost. These white teachers assume that every other white person thinks exactly as they do. They get angry when they find out that someone like me, who is also white, disagrees with their words and attitudes and behaviors.
Which brings us to those white teachers who are not WASPs. They don’t come from Protestant families, they don’t vote Republican, they may have grown up poor themselves. They are frequently descended from Ellis Island immigrants, the poor and oppressed ethnic Catholics and Jews from Europe, who have not forgotten where they came from. The wonderful, late sociologist Andrew Greeley pointed out that culturally, Irish Catholics are more like African Americans than their white, protestant neighbors.
I’m one of those ethnic Catholics, by way of New York City. First woman to go to college. My grandmother never even made it to high school. My great-grandmother arrived in this country as a lone teenager, carrying one suitcase. Not too unlike the teens arriving across our southern borders these days. Poor Irish, poor Mexican. Not much difference.
The Great White Hope teachers make me angry. They are arrogant. They do a lot of harm. And they are so damn impressed with themselves.
I tried being an administrator. After four years, I headed back to the classroom. At least in my classroom, I can be who I want and have fun teaching my students. I don’t judge them. I’m not better than them. I simply have the advantage of three generations who worked hard to give their children better opportunities. As Governor Ann Richardson of Texas said, being born on 3rd base doesn’t mean you hit a triple.
When I sit in meetings, and listen to my colleagues say hateful things about the students, complain about how awful they are, I get angry. I used to ignore it, sit in the back, head back to the sanctity of my classroom. I realized, though, that I need to speak up. Take action. Stop being such a coward. It started with the dress code, last year. Our dress code is sexist in it’s language (as are most school dress codes) and racist in it’s enforcement. I refused to enforce it. There were two teachers who actually called me during class time to yell about how some girl (always black) was dressed, and even walked into my room. I told her to get out. I explained that I don’t have a problem with how the girls dress. I said I was too busy (teaching) to notice. She stomped off.
This year, I’m not going to watch. It isn’t enough to not be a hateful bigot. I must stand up. This year, I’m with my kids. My room has become the place they come to hang out. It always was, but now more so. In my classroom, everyone gets to feel safe. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, every way. Safe. We respect each other. When a teacher says hateful things, I respond. When a teacher badmouths a kid, I speak up. When a student tells me of bad treatment, I acknowledge and help them fight it.
Two African American boys complained to me that a white teacher (GWH) was constantly rolling her eyes at them and called them idiots. In the past I would have sidestepped. No more. I told them she shouldn’t talk to them that way. I said, since she wouldn’t apologize, I would apologize for her. We then talked about how they could deal with it. Don’t battle in the classroom, I said. We agreed they should tell their parents and tell their administrator, and that they could always come to my room. I’m their official mentor. The teacher dislikes one of the boys so much, she sends him to my room almost daily. We don’t teach the same subject, so that means he’s missing her class time. I have tried to talk to her. It does no good.
This teacher has been so awful that people have been to the principal about her. Meanwhile, I try to be a mentor to provide support and a safe place. The part that’s wrong is that there are too many teachers like her. If you dislike the non-white kids so much, why the hell are you here? She’s not the only one. There are two others who are just as bad. And that’s jus in my wing of the school.
I’ve taught a long time and in a lot of schools. I’ve taught in private, wealthy white kid schools, middle class schools, and schools that were mostly disadvantaged and non-white. You know what? Kids are kids. They want the same things. A teacher who cares and respects them. A teacher they can trust. A classroom that is a safe, engaging place to be. They want to feel valued and respected. Who doesn’t want that?
If you, the teacher, can’t do that for every student in your room, please - go into another line of work. We can’t just hide in our classrooms anymore. We must stand up, speak up. Be the change. I’m a little late to the activism, but I’ve waded in. Stay tuned. Finally, I’m ready to step up. Being there for my kids isn’t enough. I have to fight too. I have to speak up. I have too teach them how to fight for themselves and win. Then I need to get out of the way. I have great students. Look out. They will do great things one day.