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Reflections on Race & “White Fragility”

As I write the most challenging and complex chapter of my dissertation (the one that explores how teacher training programs approach issues of race, racism, and privilege), I feel the need to take a step back and reflect on what I have observed about race more broadly over the course of this work.[i]

It feels important to frame this in light of current events. During the two years of my study (2014-2016), a series of widely-publicized events shed light upon deep social divisions in this country (which seem worse with each passing day). It began with numerous (and ongoing) examples of police brutality against Black men and women, including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. These Black people died unjustly at the hands of those who are tasked with protecting us, and rarely was an officer held accountable for their role in these deaths. While this was likely distressing but not surprising to Black people and many other people of color, the continued coverage of these events exposed white people in particular to some of the realities of enduring racism in society. Many did not see this coming – perhaps because they had never been trained to truly recognize the experiences of different racial and cultural groups in society – and many more continued to deny the existence of racism in the United States, citing President Barack Obama’s election as evidence of “a post-racial America,” and insisting that “All Lives Matter.”

This response to being forced to confront racism is unsurprising. And in truth, it mirrored some of the responses of the white teachers in my study to coursework on structural racism and white privilege. As white Americans, we have been raised with the illusion that race doesn’t matter because we do not see its effects on a daily basis. This fact in and of itself is evidence of our own privilege, though. For unlike every other racial group in the United States, white people don’t have to think about race.[ii] In public, we are rarely looked upon as representatives of the white racial group; we just get to be individuals, everyday people, who can go shopping without being suspected of theft, drive cars without being pulled over for no reason, party without worry and often without being arrested for noise/alcohol/drug violations, walk around in affluent communities without neighbors calling the cops (or worse, attempting “vigilante justice”) against us. We also get to move through life with the idea that every one of our advantages and accomplishments has been fairly earned, that every good fortune is evidence of our hard work and aptitude. We do not have to question any of this, and we can live with the comfortable idea that we are all just good people trying to do our best in life. If we think of “racism” at all, it is only as a dirty word that applies to rare bigoted individuals, not the broader system that reproduces social inequality generation after generation.[iii]

But this insulation from the realities of systemic and institutionalized racism predisposes us to what DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”[iv] Because we white Americans have never had to think deeply about race at all, many of us react quite negatively when we are faced with glaring evidence of racism and confronted with the benefits accorded to us because of our whiteness. We have never seen evidence of race being an issue, so it must not be. Or we feel affronted because we are individuals, dammit, so much more than representatives of a race. Or we insist that everyone has to deal with shit in their lives, and being white doesn’t shelter us from that. Or we feel unjustly implicated in racism, or worse yet, personally labeled racist. Or we feel guilty, because we take a brief look at all the advantages we have – wealth, education, security, healthcare, housing – and realize that maybe some of that was easier to get because we are white, and that makes us feel bad. Or we feel like we already know all about racism because we took a course on it and so we’re “woke” and do not have to think about it or process it anymore. These emotional responses of denial, self-righteousness, anger, defensiveness, guilt, and complacence allow us justification to return to our comfortable isolation, to cease thinking about race. Because let’s be honest, it’s exhausting to think about race.[v]

This white fragility was perhaps never more evident in society than with the Presidential election of 2016. After being bombarded with media around “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist attacks, and the need for political correctness amidst all of this, white Americans began to bristle under what felt like an attack on their sense of everyday comfort, their racial isolation. Feeling criticized by “liberal elites,” harmed or neglected by particular government policies and regulations, and somewhat resentful of or anxious about people of color and immigrants, a broad section of American society – made up almost entirely of white Americans – voted for a man they felt would stand up for their rights, which included their right to remain isolated from racial awareness. His voters were simply more comfortable with his blatantly racist and sexist rhetoric (which society has normalized for centuries) than challenging and perhaps even threatening conversations about racism and privilege (which have never been normalized). I am not trying to harp on individuals here, this really is a social problem.

As white people, we have never had to practice conversations about race, to grapple with these sensitive realities. And just as we are taught to believe that there is no class system in America, most of us are able to continue believing that there is no racial hierarchy here either. We think the American Dream is available to anyone, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, because this is what we learn in schools. And it’s really hard to abandon the comfortable reality that we have been programmed to think our whole lives. But we owe it to ourselves and our society to try to understand the reality, to try to see the world through the eyes of those who appear different from us, and to work alongside people of color to change it. As John F. Kennedy said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And some of this work must begin in our schools. Although schools are often thought to be what makes the American Dream possible, the “great equalizer,”[vi] they are not doing their job, in part because they are not teaching students about reality. For schools to indeed serve as vehicles of social change, they must first acknowledge the need for such change. They must acknowledge that racism is real and recalcitrant, systemic but also, like a disease, can infect individuals. This of course means that teachers – and especially white teachers, who make up 82% of the teaching force – must learn to escape their own racial isolation, confront racism head-on, and teach their students to do the same. We need to start somewhere, and soon, before we become irreparably divided from our fellow citizens.

Notes

[i] I do not proclaim to be an expert on race or racism in the U.S. or elsewhere. Instead, I am writing this blog as a way to process my own thoughts on this in light of my research and what I have observed in the field and in the society that surrounds my research context. I also want to acknowledge that as a white woman, my understanding of the way race influences the experiences of people of color is limited to what I have read, observed, and heard. I do, however, feel more authority to speak to the experience of “white fragility.”

[ii] Wise, Tim. (2005). White Like Me. New York: Soft Skull Press.

[iii] Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2006). Racism without Racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of inequality in America. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

[iv] DiAngelo, Robin. (2011). “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3(3), pp. 54-70.

[v] But just as a reminder: people of color do not have the luxury of isolating themselves from the realities of race for one moment, for avoiding the common assumption that each of them is representative of their race as a whole, or escaping demonization by media or others for some alleged deficit or offense.

[vi] In 1848, Horace Mann said the following in his twelfth annual report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education: “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” (see Life and Works of Horace Mann, Ed. Mrs, Mary Mann, vol. 3, p.669, published in 1868).

 

Real, Radical Love in the Classroom & Beyond

I never would have predicted how much I would love my students before I started teaching. It took a few months to settle in, for me to overcome the all-consuming trials and tribulations of neophyte teaching; but then I fell in love with them. And when I speak of love, I feel I must clarify that this is not a romantic kind of love; at the time, it was a love that was distinctly different from any other love I had known. As I have since become a mother (and during the course of my doctoral research on teacher-student relationships), I can now recognize the love for students as akin to maternal love. It’s not as intense, but it is quite powerful in its own right. And today, I think that perhaps this love is our most powerful weapon against oppression.

In teaching, as in life, “real” love is different from a false or contrived version of love. It’s not about using someone else for a particular end, it’s about meeting them as a whole being worthy of the same recognition and care you desire[i]. As Cunningham (2004) notes, “When we choose real love, we refuse to work within the system. We don’t play by The Rules. In real love, we choose to speak not in the language of competition and violence, but in that of cooperation and compassion.”[ii] This relates to Freire’s concept of “radical love,” which is courageous and liberatory, dialogical and anti-authoritarian. Radical love for students means treating them as human beings with voices and experiences that are equally valuable to those of the teacher.[iii] So that when they go out into the world, they can recognize themselves as worthy of respect and love, even when society tries to tell them otherwise. And they can advocate for themselves and others.

When I taught, these wonderful beings were entrusted into my care and guidance for a year or more (as I taught many of them in English and/or advisory all four years). And I felt fiercely protective of them, placed great value on their thoughts and feelings, and worked as hard as I could to ensure their experience in my classroom felt safe and inclusive. My love for the students meant that I listened to them, designed curricula and instruction around their needs and interests, and sometimes broke the rules (by refusing to teach to the test, by not reporting students to the Dean for particular infractions, by letting them eat food in class). The connection was reciprocal, and they often gratified my efforts with hugs, laudatory notes, and smiles. I never felt underappreciated or unrecognized, and I hope none of them did either; still I do not delude myself into thinking I was perfect. Teachers are but human beings, and we make mistakes just like our students. But again, that human connection is what makes this profession special. It’s a meeting of souls.

Research shows that these teacher-student relationships are incredibly influential for students.[iv] But they are equally influential for teachers. Because real love is reciprocal. When my once-freshman class walked across the stage at senior graduation, I too moved on from teaching. But one day soon thereafter, I was overcome with this poignant sense that when I died, I would again see all of their faces again, just as they appeared when I taught them. Because teaching them, connecting with so many wonderful beings, had been the most meaningful experience of my life. I keep in touch with many of them still, over Facebook, email, and when possible in person. Because they still matter to me. And teaching them was never about reaching an achievement goal or doing a job; it was about love. A love that continues to inspire my research.

Many teachers experience this love. And I do not mean to establish myself here as some paragon of radical love for students, but rather as someone who had the benefit of teacher preparation at UCLA to help me understand how I might show love for students whose lives were so different from my own. I am simply someone who was well-prepared for, genuinely committed to, and deeply moved by this work. Moreover, I know numerous teachers who have loved their students similarly and more powerfully. Most of teachers I trained with at UCLA and worked with at the high school in Los Angeles practiced or continue to practice radical love for students everyday. This love is what inspires teachers to stay late or arrive early at school, to spend hours planning and grading on the weekends, to call parents and discuss the many achievements their child has made, to write long glowing letters of recommendation to colleges and internships, to design exciting and responsive curricular projects and activities, to be there everyday – rain or shine, healthy or not – to welcome students at the door with a genuine smile. We certainly don’t do it for the pay, the external rewards, we do it for it for the intrinsic rewards.[v] Because we love them and they make our lives so much more fulfilling.

But with the pressures of increased standardization, top-down instruction, budget cuts and school competition, such a love is much easier named than enacted. Teaching and retaining this love for so many amidst a turbulent sea of political and logistical challenges, can be all-consuming. Many nights, I felt that I had so little left to give to anyone or anything else that I worried about my ability to wake up the next day. And six years later, the political and educational climate in this country has only gotten worse. Teachers are still demonized for requesting cost-of-living increases to their pay, improved working conditions, and more resources (when they should be lionized for doing noble work). But now, forces at the federal level also seek to dismantle the very institutions where this love is cultivated and disseminated, to dismantle the families that we serve and serve us in the classroom. And we must fight it with an even more powerful radical love.

We must listen to teachers, honor them, and speak up for them. We must better support them to do the same for their students, through thoughtful teacher preparation and continuing support at the school-level. We must spread real, radical love, not hate, from the ground up – in our schools and families. Because perhaps only love can truly counter the forces of oppression that seek to dominate this country.

 

[i] Buber, Martin. (1937). I and Thou. New York: Scribner & Sons

[ii] As cited in Douglas & Nganga, 2015

[iii] Douglas & Nganga, 2015; Freire, 1970, 1993.

[iv] See Cooper, 2013; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Martin & Dowson, 2009; Sosa & Gomez, 2012

[v] Lortie, 1975

The Debate over Education Reform

With the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the position of Secretary of Education for our nation, I am again reminded of the vitriolic partisan debate surrounding education reform. One side – the side to which DeVos subscribes – believes that our school system is thoroughly broken, standardized tests are good metrics to measure students and schools, teachers’ unions block any meaningful reform that policy makers try to implement, and that free-markets (in the form of school choice through extensive charter options and voucher programs) in education is the only way to fix the system.[i] This is appealing to many because it advocates for inexpensive solutions, where the markets monitor themselves and weed out poorly performing schools because parents don’t ultimately choose those for their students; it also identifies an enemy in the form of teachers’ unions, a force to unite against. At face value, business people also often find this side sensible because it resembles the way that consumers determine the success of companies and products, and this makes sense given their experience.

Meanwhile, the other side maintains that our public schools aren’t actually that bad, that standardized tests are biased and highly flawed measures of educational success and shouldn’t be used, that teachers unions are essential in supporting students’ and teachers’ rights in a system that otherwise seeks to strip these, and that the answer is to better fund schools, lower class sizes, and better support teachers (in knowledge, resources, and pay). The solutions suggested by this side are more expensive, as they require more funding to support schools, teachers, and students. Nonetheless, this argument is generally more appealing to teachers or others who have worked in schools, who have seen a lot of wonderful things happen in public schools and know that teachers work tirelessly with very little support for very little pay.

I understand why a person would latch on to either argument. There is a lot of misinformation out there and people often operate on an incomplete picture of the situation – especially if it fits into their worldview – because they don’t have the time to better inform themselves about all the complex facets of schooling in this country. So I want to offer my somewhat informed opinion for those who have not had the same luxury I have had to extensively research and ruminate on education.

The first thing that any informed voter or consumer of education should know is that teachers are the most influential school-level factor in student achievement and advancement.[ii] Basically, this means that the individual teacher in a classroom has way more influence over a student’s progress than the school, the district, or the broader educational policies that affect all of this. As such, any reform that supports a teacher to grow and improve, and retains already good teachers, is a reform that can make an appreciable difference.

Some people respond to this fact by supporting policies that seek to increase teacher evaluation to weed out the ineffective teachers. At one point, I admittedly fell into this trap. I had just been RIF’d[iii] for the second time in my four years teaching in LAUSD and I was mad (a fact that drove me to leave the classroom and pursue doctoral studies). So I thought, why can’t we just determine these layoffs by teacher quality instead of seniority? But as I began to study education and learn more about the system, I realized my folly. Few districts have installed an even remotely reliable system of teacher evaluation, and LAUSD was certainly not one of them. And those who claim that teachers can be judged by test scores alone – through a system like Value Added Models (VAMs), which attempt to account for a students’ growth over a year – fail to understand the statistical and/or practical constraints of this approach. These include: 1) many teachers teach subjects that are not tested, 2) standardized tests often don’t adequately measure student learning, let alone critical thinking, test for arbitrary skills (I was an English teacher who had to look up “participle clause” to correctly answer a question in one test I proctored), and include “Idiotic, hair-splitting questions pertaining to nothing“, 3) “teaching to the test” can create gains that are not actually meaningful, 4) the effect of student demographics are not fully accounted for in VAMs[iv], and 5) statistically speaking, VAMS cannot be used to determine any causal judgments upon teachers because students are not randomly assigned to their classrooms. Low-income schools that serve a disproportionately high percentage of English Language Learners and students with disabilities, where class sizes are often higher, teachers are more overworked, and resources are fewer, will often have lower test scores and lower growth on these exams. Basically, there is no way to reasonably evaluate a teacher based on a students’ test score.[v] We cannot just slap a performance evaluation onto the back-end of a teacher’s year and expect this to change teacher quality. Instead, we must find ways to help the teaching force improve before and after they enter the profession.

Any reform that does not seek to improve teachers – the key input to student’s education – will have little impact on student progress. As such, market based models of education reform are flawed from the get-go. This is why you see dismal results in DeVos’ charter school experiments in Michigan. Similarly, the most recent longitudinal large-scale study of charter schools found that on average, charter schools do not improve test scores, and in fact attending a charter school seems to have a negative impact on a graduate’s wages. The only type of charter school that did advance test scores – no excuses charter schools, which are largely geared around standardized tests – did not improve students’ life outcomes, making the increase in test scores a specious advancement.[vi] Studies of voucher programs produce comparably lackluster outcomes. And in fact, the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs drains money from public schools (because money follows the individual students) and often results in fewer resources and support for teachers and students that need it most. Finally, students are human beings, and as noted above, they cannot be quantifiably measured like products; as a result, parents don’t often receive enough meaningful information about the quality of a school (especially if it is a relatively new school and does not have many years of longitudinal data on students’ life outcomes) to determine its potential efficacy for their child. “Free markets” – in which there is often very little regulation (e.g. enforcement of policies protecting students with disabilities) – is simply not the way forward if we want to improve the education of ALL students in this country. It is not the way forward if we want a better future.

In another blog, I will go into more depth regarding some of the things we can do to improve our system. Education is not some black box; we actually do have a sense of what works and what does not. Briefly, we need to recruit more excellent candidates into teaching, which means the profession has to be more desirable; we need to train teachers better before they enter the classroom, which means teacher education has to become more rigorous and thoughtful across the board; and we need to provide teachers with more and better support and professional development once they start teaching, because teaching is hard and it’s easy to burn out.[vii] All of this will take considerable time and investment, which is likely why it’s not the most politically popular position. But when it comes to our future, it’s worth it.

[i] Chubb & Moe (who are both scholars of politics, not education) champion this argument in their 1990 book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which has become quite and influential text for education reformers.

[ii] Sanders & Rivers, 1994. This finding has also been reproduced and verified by a number of other scholars and is now commonly accepted as truth.

[iii] Reduction in Force layoff, given in reverse seniority order in accordance with many union rules, or in CA, state bylaws. These are disseminated irrespective of teacher quality.

[iv] A student’s socioeconomic status has more impact on his/her test score than any other factor. And slew of complicated variables that come along with this are hard to measure in a statistical formula.

[v] Meira Levinson and I tackle this issue in our paper No Justice, No Teachers (2015). Other scholars that exam this include Koretz (2009) and Braun (2005).

[vi] Dobbie & Fryer, 2016. http://www.nber.org/papers/w22502

[vii] Some of this is stated in the paper I worked on with Jal Mehta and colleagues, available at http://www.totransformteaching.org/

 

The Politics of Recognition

As this election has made clear, many Americans seem to feel unrecognized or misrecognized by others. Or worse yet, people feel invisible or unimportant. Recognition is a critical piece of feeling acknowledged, valued, respected, and human. Being recognized means that someone else really sees you, with your struggles and strengths, and to some degree, understands you. Deep down, we all need this; but somehow, many of us are not receiving this.

As human beings often learn to define ourselves through relationships with others, this recognition is critical to our sense of self, worth and purpose. As Charles Taylor, a modern philosopher, asserts in The Politics of Recognition, “Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression.”[i] Differences in age, social class, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, geographical location, and culture – including race, cultural norms, traditions, and use of language – often inhibit people from fully understanding or seeing those around them. This is evident in the racism, sexism, and violence that been publicized in recent years. But it is also evident today, as we sit with a divided country and a controversial president-elect of the United States. I, along with most media outlets and political polls, admittedly did not see the results of this election coming. This means that many of us failed to see half the country. And nothing will change unless we work harder to understand others, to see beyond socially constructed façades, and recognize the beautiful humanity shining in all of us.

While we should try to really see those around us in every walk of life, I believe much of the work for the future of our nation must begin in the classroom. The way that teachers recognize the students they serve has serious implications for those children and adolescents, and society at large, as those students become adults. There is much research to suggest that meaningful teacher-student relationships, based on shared recognition, are linked to student engagement, efficacy, academic resilience and achievement.[ii] But research also suggests that a “cultural mismatch” between teachers and students can inhibit the development of such relationships.[iii] While this often refers to white teachers working with students of color – as over 80% of the teaching force is white and just over half of the students are people of color – it could also refer to an urban-raised, middle-class teacher working with low-income rural students. Our differences often blind us to our similarities. And teachers, as the adults in the room, must work harder to see all of their students, to form meaningful relationships with them.

Anecdotal evidence seems to confirm the importance of meaningful teacher-student relationships. When asked to recall their best teacher, people might refer to the teacher who took them aside and encouraged them to pursue computer science, who helped counsel them through a personal issue, who made a novel like Crime & Punishment relevant to their lives, who responded to their writing with thoughtful and individualized feedback, who called their parents and said something positive about them, who showed up at their soccer game or Quinceañera, and who created a safe and inclusive classroom community where they readily made friends with those around them. It is much less likely that someone would recall the teacher who was adept at lesson plan sequencing and transitions, who appropriately scaffolded new content upon their existing knowledge, who taught all the standards and test preparation techniques, or who had truly mastered abstract algebra. That is not to say that content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, lesson planning, and teaching the standards are not all vitally important to effective classroom practice, but these subjects overwhelmingly dominate the scholarly and popular literature on teaching and teacher preparation. We should also be attending to the relational side of the profession, to intentionally value every unique human being who sits before us. Because every student is important. Every teacher is important. We are all important. And if we really believed that and could better understand and love ourselves and others – connecting across seemingly large divides – then we could indeed have a better world.

So instead of losing hope today, instead of believing we have fallen backwards by decades, I am choosing to fight for a better tomorrow. I am choosing to acknowledge the other half of the country (the half that didn’t vote like me), while continuing to work toward better recognition of those who have been historically marginalized (and given the rhetoric of this campaign, might understandably fear the next four years). We are all valuable; our lives, our joy, our pain, our triumphs and tribulations are meaningful and important and worthy of recognition, as these make up the fabric of our very existence. We are more alike than different, more connected than we believe. We all matter. I see you, America. And I believe in you.

 

References:

[i] Taylor, Charles. (1994). The politics of recognition. New contexts of Canadian criticism, 98-131.

[ii] See Cooper (2013); Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Martin & Dowson, 2009; Sosa & Gomez, 2012).

[iii] See Sleeter (2008).

7 Reasons Why Teaching is Worthwhile

 

If teaching is incredibly challenging, afforded little status, and doesn’t pay well, why should people teach?

When I left my teaching career in Los Angeles to pursue a doctorate in an Ivory Tower far removed from my classroom, the withdrawals were vicious.  I had never been much of a crier.  My students would probably categorize me as a “warm and fuzzy” type, but I rarely cried during my four years in the classroom (at least after that initial bout of sobbing in the bathroom during my first week). Maybe I didn’t have the energy to cry, but teaching brought me far more joy than sadness. During my first dreary fall in Boston, however, my husband sometimes returned home from work to find me curled up on the couch with tear-streaked cheeks. He was as surprised as I was at the tears. My life was “better” now, wasn’t it? I controlled my class schedule, had plenty of non-structured time, did not have to grade papers or plan for classes, and had hours to sleep and put back on the pounds I had lost while teaching. My courses felt sufficiently intellectually engaging, but something profound was missing from this whole experience. Of course, I missed my students terribly, but I had stayed long enough to move with many of them from freshman year through to high school graduation. In a way, we went to university together. When I got here, though, what I truly mourned was the loss of the most fulfilling experience I have ever had, and in some ways, a loss of part of myself.

I barely qualify as a millennial, and I don’t relate to much of what is said about the millennial generation. However, a recent study suggests that when considering their first job, the older generations sought out positions where they could make money, while the millennial generation sought out jobs where they could find purpose and make a difference. And yet, millennials do not seem to be pursuing teaching, as the horrifying predictions about the impending teacher shortage indicate, but they should. And this is because of teaching’s “intrinsic rewards”(a term I borrow here from the famous sociologist Dan Lortie). As a colleague of mine told me, “Teaching is the hardest job ever in life… but it’s also the most rewarding.” Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Teaching is never boring. If you have ever had a desk job, you might well-understand the experience of checking the clock. Frequently. Wishing it was lunchtime already. Or 5pm. This is NOT a common experience for teachers. Instead, teachers look up at the clock and wonder, how the hell is it already 3pm? Class periods fly by because teaching requires you to be fully present for every moment. And no day is the same, as students come to class with different moods, different needs, different challenges and different contributions each day. Also, students can be hilarious! At least once my students made me laugh so hard in the middle of class that tears started streaming down my cheeks (my students fondly remember this as the only time they saw me cry).
  2. Teaching is really life-long learning. While the perception of teachers might be that they teach the same content every year, I never reached a point where I could teach the same curriculum in the same order with the same lessons. Every time I taught a new novel, I had to (re)read it and analyze it from the perspective of my students. And if after a decade of teaching the same content, teachers do reach such a point, the students will bring new challenges and inspirations with them to class each day. Tailoring class activities to engage the particular students before you each year requires you learn about the things that interest them. Finally, the students teach you so much about life while you try to teach them academic content. In my four years in the classroom, my students taught me about the realities of racism, the meaning of hard work, struggle and family, the power of faith, resilience, and more. And they inspired me to continue learning every day.
  3. Teaching creates new family. When I interviewed friends who also left the classroom after years of teaching, they told me that one of the things they missed most about teaching was the family they found within it. If you intentionally work to form relationships with your students, they become like family; they want to get to know you, they notice and care if you miss work, they value your opinions – just as you do for them. And often your colleagues become like family, too, because you share students, school structures, and poignant experiences. When I left my school for this doctoral program, I missed my second home and my school family almost as much as I missed my parents when I left for college.
  4. Teaching serves a purpose beyond yourself. What is more important than working toward a better future for our society? Many of the teachers I have interviewed decided to enter teaching because they want to make the world a better place and believe, as I do, that education can help shape society. Helping students to develop the tools of empathy, critical thinking, metacognition, self-reflection, and of course reading, writing, scientific inquiry, and arithmetic, can benefit their future – and truly the future of our society. In this way, teaching truly is a noble profession, as it serves a great purpose than personal advancement.
  5. Teaching makes you a better person. Relatedly, I have also heard from other teachers that teaching made them a better person. In learning about others, forming bonds with parents and families, and pursuing a path beyond your own self-interest, you become better. I am convinced that I was absolutely the best version of myself when I was in the classroom, the version of myself that caused me the most pride. This is because teaching is a job of service, one in which your every waking need is no longer the center of your universe because you have a bunch of other human beings consider. And unlike parenting, you can to go home each night, get a full night sleep (unless you have babies at home!), and then return the next day with a fresh focus on how you can better serve your students.
  6. Teaching grows your heart and feeds your soul. When a colleague of mine retired after 35 years of teaching, she told me that she felt content to move up to the mountains now because she had led a “life well-lived, well-given.” In the service of others, in the service of a better future, teaching is a meaningful, purposeful life-long career, the kind that many of us search for. At the beginning of my career, a student gave me a magnet that read, “Teaching is a Work of Heart.” I did not fully understand this idea at the time, but as I progressed through the years in the classroom, the work somehow became a part of me. Sometimes painful, but mostly wonderful, teaching awakened a piece of my heart, causing it to expand.
  7. Teaching is a powerful identity. I have heard a number of teachers utter some version of “once a teacher, always a teacher.” And I, too, believe this to be an accurate depiction of what happens when you teach. There is something so special about this profession that even if you move away from classroom practice, you still feel like a teacher. And every time you see another teacher, you feel this great affinity for them, as you share a keen understanding of some important part of life that you only realize if you teach; somehow, I “get” them and they “get” me, in part because we know that life is about more than just us.

There are many more reasons why teaching is a fabulous profession, worth pursuing despite all the crap that teachers have to deal with; but these are some of the reasons that I have never stopped itching to get back into the classroom. This is also why I study teaching & teachers because I know how much teaching matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On how challenging and important teaching is

I think that on some level, most people understand the importance of having good teachers. In the last 20 years, researchers have found time and again that of all the school-level factors (including local policies, school leadership, funding, curriculum, etc.), the individual teacher in a child’s class makes more of an impact on his/her achievement than anything else. Basically, individual teachers are the most important piece of our nation’s school system. But teaching is really hard work – mentally, emotionally, and even physically. You can’t just throw someone into a classroom and expect them to adequately serve the students before them; and yet, that’s exactly what we often do.

“Those who can’t teach, do.” (You see what I did there? I corrected the offensive and inaccurate adage about teaching being easier than pursuing other professions). I majored in English Literature in college and upon graduating, I felt fairly equipped to tackle debates about Shakespeare, read analyze complex texts on my own, and write a variety of essays and reports; but I had no idea how to teach other people to do this. And even though I could have stepped right into the classroom through TFA or another alternative route without having to go through teacher training, I knew better than to subject a whole group of students to my unskilled and unprepared ways. What I didn’t realize was how much I would have to learn before I could teach effectively.

Here are just some of the forms of knowledge & skills required of good teachers:

  1. Content Knowledge: This is a fairly obvious one. If you don’t know much about a subject, you can’t teach it effectively. And I mean, REALLY know the subject. Despite having majored in English, for example, I had to learn a great deal more about particular authors, literary criticism, poetic devices, and more in order to passably teach AP Literature and my other English classes. But across the country, and especially in urban schools and in areas where there are teacher shortages like Math and Science, teachers who do not have an adequate grasp of their subject matter are thrown into the classroom, and without much support. How can we possibly expect this work out well?
  2. Pedagogical Knowledge: This basically means knowledge about how to teach. This includes having a tool box of instructional routines and strategies that can be planned in advance or pulled out at the drop of a hat if the situation calls for it; the ability to assess students in ways that produce useful information for future lessons; the ability to design meaningful curriculum that builds upon what students already know in order to help advance them toward particular goals; the ability to facilitate whole group and small group discussions; the ability to manage a classroom of children or teenagers for an hour or more at a time; and the list could go on. While some might be more inclined toward teaching than others – possessing what Howard Gardner calls “pedagogical intelligence” – the knowledge about how exactly one should approach teaching is not something that people possess innately; it must be learned intentionally.
  3. Pedagogical Content Knowledge: This is different from just knowing how to teach, because it means knowing how to teach your content in particular, with attention to the common challenges of learning this content. The teaching of math varies widely from the teaching of English and benefits from distinctly different instructional strategies. Similarly, teaching Elementary students a range of subject matters, including teaching them to read, requires a different skill set than teaching high school students.
  4. Knowledge of Child and/or Adolescent Development: In order to understand the students before you, and design effective lessons to meet their needs, teachers need to have a strong understanding of the stages of cognitive, social, and emotional development through which their students are progressing. As most parents know, understanding what to expect from children at different ages is incredibly helpful when interacting with them.
  5. Ability to Differentiate Instruction: This often refers to learning how to teach English Language Learners and students with special educational needs, but could also refer to the ability to provide instruction that meets students at a number of different levels and lifts them all up. For example, in a single class, I had students labeled “Gifted and Talented,” others classified as “Limited English Proficient,” others with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for particular learning disabilities, and a variety of additional students with their own particular needs; I’m not sure I ever quite met everyone’s needs. Teachers need a great deal of knowledge and skill to differentiate effectively.
  6. Relational Knowledge: This is the focus of my dissertation and I will go into depth about this in future posts; but briefly, this refers to the ability to connect with students, learn about them, understand them as individuals with a unique collection of experiences and knowledge, design lessons around their interests that also support their individual needs, demonstrate care and advocate for them. This also means knowing how to effectively interact with parents/guardians, as well as colleagues and administrators.
  7. Cultural and Social Knowledge: In my dissertation, I include this within my framework for relational competencies, but it is worth separating here. You can’t teach students effectively unless you have some understanding of the cultural context of their home, as well as the social and cultural context surrounding the particular school and education in this country more generally. What outside forces are having influence over your students’ experiences within the classroom? Over 80% of the teaching force in the U.S. is white, while just over half of the student population is made up of people of color. So it’s especially important for teachers to acquire knowledge that better enables them to serve students who come from different backgrounds than they do.
  8. Ability to Teach to Standards: Teachers need to really understand the particular set of standards they are expected to teach. Whatever you think of standards (and I personally prefer the Common Core to the fragmented and nit-picky state standards that preceded it, but abhor the standardized testing associated with standards), they are a reality in schools today. And teaching to these standards takes a lot of preparation and “backwards planning” in order to design lessons that intentionally respond to such goals.
  9. Ability to Use Technology: Teachers need to understand how to use anything that their lessons call for or that their students will use in class – this includes PowerPoint, Excel, Word, iPads, document projectors, Smart Boards, etc. This seems trivial, but I can’t tell you how much class time I wasted fumbling around with stupid technology failures (that were probably my own failures to fully understand how to use these things).

So consider this list for a moment. Then multiply the difficulty level by 25. Or even 40 (yes, I had 40 students in a class one year). To cite David Cohen again, teaching is an especially challenging profession because unlike psychology or counseling where the professional in the room serves one person at a time, teachers must deal with many students all at once! The mind space that it takes to monitor, consider, and respond to everyone’s needs simultaneously is baffling.

But at least teachers only work 7 hours a day, right? No. Teachers often get to school an hour or more before the first bell rings, and stay and hour or more after school ends. Then, when they go home, they have to grade papers and plan for the next day. And sometimes respond to student emails/phone calls. When I was a teacher, I would say that I worked at least 60 hours a week. I barely had time to eat or sleep (which is probably why I weighed less than 95 pounds throughout my entire teaching career – bad, I know, but my sedentary graduate school lifestyle has fixed that!).

But teachers get summers off, right? Wrong. First of all, most of the teachers I know spend a good amount of their summer working, either by teaching summer school (because they need to supplement their inadequate pay) or planning for their upcoming school year. When I taught, I spent my “summers off” planning entirely new units for my classes the following year, reading books I planned to teach, learning new approaches to instruction, buying supplies for my classroom (with my own money) and writing grants to help fund the projects that I wanted to do. And in the few quiet summer moments when I wasn’t working, I really needed to rest in preparation for the following year. Teaching is truly hard work and it doesn’t end when the bell rings or the summer comes.

Honestly, I don’t think just anyone is cut out for teaching. Despite common opinion, not everyone can teach. I do, however, think that a lot more people could be adequately trained to teach effectively than are actually doing it. Because just like people can learn to become successful doctors or lawyers, they can learn to become effective teachers.

The next President of the United States should quit wasting time and money on “reforms” aimed at changing school policies, trumpeting school choice, or pushing new curriculum and standardized tests. While it might be easier, more popular, and possibly cheaper to try tinker at the margins of the system, we need to tackle the most fundamental component of the whole educational endeavor in order to make real change. We need better ways to recruit, train, and support teachers, because more and better teachers will uplift our whole society.

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Some of the experiences/resources that have helped inform these ideas:

  • My experiences learning how to teach at UCLA’s Teacher Education Program and teaching in LAUSD
  • Much of Linda Darling-Hammond’s work, including Powerful Teacher Education and Preparing Teachers for a Changing World
  • Course and conversations with, as well as articles by, David Cohen
  • The book How People Learn (edited by Bransford, Brown & Cocking)
  • Sharon Feiman-Nemser’s Teachers as Learners
  • Geneva Gay’s Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • My advisor Jal Mehta and the project I worked on with him: http://www.totransformteaching.org/
  • A talk Howard Garner gave at HGSE on revisiting his Multiple Intelligence theory.

How teaching got a bad rap

When I* first decided that I wanted to be a teacher – which was freshman year in college – I often received the following responses: “Why?” “That’s not going to make much money.” “But you could do anything!” As many other teachers have experienced, the teaching profession as a whole is not afforded much status in United States. While perhaps sometimes considered a “noble” profession because of the idea that it is a selfless endeavor, few kids seem to grow up wanting to be teachers. And this is a big problem for our country.

Enrollment in education majors and teacher preparation programs – even the once popular Teach for America – is notably dropping. Meanwhile, the country is headed toward a teacher shortage, as baby-boomers will likely be retiring in droves in coming years. But this isn’t the case all over the world. In other developed countries, including those that constantly score at the top of international education rankings like PISA, teaching is a desirable and respected profession, attracting more aspiring teachers than can be trained or employed. There are a number of reasons why teaching in the U.S. is not valued as it should be. And it is my hope that just maybe, if we better understand the historical sources of teaching’s “bad rap,” we can work to change public perception about teachers.

Our forefathers essentially neglected public education when they constructed the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights. Many of them had received little formal education themselves, and thus perhaps did not believe a focus on education was necessary. Despite what many people think, education is not explicitly mentioned in these federal documents. Instead, the constitution granted all unmentioned powers to the states. And education became a state-by-state right, and one that haphazardly emerged across the country with different laws in different states governing this enterprise, and unsurprisingly, to different effects. This “non-system,” as Professor David Cohen is fond of calling it, made teaching a bit of a tricky profession to pursue, with absent or disorganized structures for training teachers, little consistency across locations, and a lack of initial oversight, which often yielded undesirable working conditions. In a pioneering country where land ownership and trade promised financial advancement, teaching in makeshift schools – often done for room and board instead of currency – was not considered a terribly desirable profession.

Women still wanted to be teachers, though. While most other professions were off-limits to women, society more readily accepted women into a profession built around providing care and guidance for children. From the 1800s onward, women flocked to teaching (often to escape undesirable marriage prospects), which resulted in the common idea that teaching was “women’s work.” Given that the work of women has always been relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy, this association made the profession less desirable for men. Instead, men occupied administrative roles over schools, serving as principals, policymakers, and professors – setting the rules that teachers had to follow. Nonetheless, women continued to pursue teaching as one of their only professional outlets, thus providing schools with a qualified and dedicated labor force that had few other employment options. This allowed schools to get away with paying teachers significantly less than they deserved for their labor. But when women’s professional options later expanded, teaching became less and less desirable, and the labor pool of eligible teachers began to dwindle. After all, sexism is so pervasive that not even women want to aspire to “women’s work.”

The desirability of teaching was further crippled by increasing standardization in the early 1900s. While teachers historically enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in their classrooms, a new push toward “efficiency” in curriculum and instruction began to constrain the limited authority teachers possessed over what happened in their classrooms. This is a factor that continues to threaten the desirability of teaching, as the reinvigorated push toward new standardized tests and “teacher proof” curriculum continues to frame teachers as mere cogs in the machine of education.

In addition to low-wages, an undesirable reputation for being “women’s work,” and a general loss of autonomy, teachers also had little job stability. Principals often hired and fired people at whim – giving favor to family members and friends, firing pregnant women and those who opposed their policies. While teachers were subjected to oversight, principals were not. In conditions such as these, who would want to be a teacher? In response to this undesirable state, teachers began to assemble and fight for their rights. In conjunction with the women’s rights movement in this country, teachers’ unions were born.

Teachers unions accomplished a number of important advances for both teachers and students. They improved conditions in schools, secured more resources for students, arranged more job protections for teachers, and advocated for more transparency in hiring and firing practices. However, teachers’ unions faced constraints from rules governing how they collectively bargained, including those imposed upon them by the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA). While unionizing produced admirable results, the common methods of achieving these results – such as picketing and going on strike – seem to have further compromised the teaching profession in the eyes of the public, who often viewed these acts as self-interested and “blue collar.” Instead of realizing the overall benefit to schools and students that resulted from the formation of these teachers’ unions, society seemed to recoil at the prospect of mostly women making demands that appeared selfish. (It seems to me that women are still not allowed to be selfish.) While I will not go into depth here about the complicated position of teachers’ unions in the U.S. today, it’s worth noting that popular rhetoric continues to vilify teachers’ unions and by extension, teachers.

Moreover, because everyone was a student, and spent countless hours in schools observing teachers in action, many think anyone can teach. This goes along with the saying “those who can’t do, teach!” which implies that teaching is easier than most other professions. This is of course a glaring fallacy; and upon stepping on the other side of the curtain, new teachers quickly learn how incredibly hard it is to become a mediocre teacher, let alone an effective one! But the perception of teaching as a job anyone can do is consistent with what it pays – a meager salary when compared to other equivalent professions (like psychology and law); as a result, some teachers must become Uber drivers on the side just to make ends meet.

The status of teaching is not helped by the fact that teacher education – the manner in which teachers should be prepared for this incredibly challenging profession – consists of a similar “non-system.” Preparation for teachers developed along with schools, without much rhyme or reason. And until recently, the nearly 2000 different teacher preparation programs in this country faced little to no regulation or oversight. While aspiring teachers pay a great deal to attend these programs – an expense they will not soon recoup on a teacher’s salary – there is still really no guarantee that they will learn all they need to teach effectively. Meanwhile, a number of “alternative routes” like Teach for America continue to place teachers in the classroom with very little training at all. This further perpetuates the idea that teachers don’t need training. While the preparation of doctors and lawyers is viewed as rigorous, stretching over multiples years and culminating with high stakes performance exams, teacher training has existed without the public demand for such common structures. In fact, most other skilled professions – including cosmetology, plumbing, the clergy – requires more training than teaching. Shouldn’t the individuals who spend so much time with our precious children, essentially helping to shape the future of this nation, be better prepared for this endeavor? I will discuss this more in future blogs. But the point I want to make here is that the devaluation of teaching as a profession feeds the devaluation of teacher education, which in turn perpetuates the myth that teachers don’t need training and reinforces the low social status of the profession as a whole.

While a number of factors have influenced the public’s disparaging opinion of teaching as a profession in the United States, it is time to face this unfortunate history in order to address our misperceptions. While teachers still face many undesirable realities in today’s schools – including crowded classrooms, standardized testing, long hours, and low pay (which all continue to impact the low-status of the profession) – it is time to realize how very important, challenging, and truly admirable teaching is. And it’s time to change how we select, prepare, support, reward, and regard teachers. Our future depends on it.

*I am admittedly not a historian of education. Nonetheless, I have spent a great time studying teaching at HGSE and have learned a lot about the history of teaching in the process. Some of the resources that have informed my knowledge and beliefs on this topic include:

  • Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher
  • Pat Graham’s Schooling America
  • Raymond Callahan’s Education & The Cult of Efficiency
  • The work of David Cohen and his course on Democracy in Education
  • Various articles by Susan Moore Johnson and her courses on Teacher Quality & Teachers’ Unions