Teacher-Student Relationships in the Era of COVID-19

“Children and teachers are not disembodied intelligences, not instructing machines and learning machines, but whole human beings tied together in a complex maze of social interconnections.” – Willard Waller, The Sociology of Teaching, 1967

The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated much about us, our society, and our schools. In the process, it has laid bare certain realities about teaching and learning that we should stop and acknowledge. One of these is that, for most people, learning is enhanced by relationships – a lesson that Besty DeVos and those pushing the expansion of virtual schools should heed.

For more than a month, schools across the country have been closed. Districts have attempted to replace in-person classes with online lessons in the form of asynchronous computer assignments and synchronous zoom classes. This great experiment with distance learning has revealed deep inequities in the system, with many students lacking access to laptops, high-speed internet, and the quiet space necessary to complete online coursework. In Los Angeles, where I used to teach, 15,000 high schoolers have not signed into their online classes at all. But even among students who have the resources necessary to participate in remote classes, online learning has revealed itself to be a poor substitute for the deep and meaningful connections that students make in classrooms. This is because, in the words of my colleague Sarah Fine, learning is profoundly social. And teaching is, too.    

I know this because I study relationships in schools. When students feel seen and cared for by their teachers, they feel more connected to school, more engaged in the curriculum, more academically resilient. When they feel their teachers believe in them as individuals, students hold higher expectations for themselves and achieve more. Meaningful teacher-student relationships uplift students in a variety of ways. But such relationships in schools are not a given to begin with, as many teachers are not prepared with tools necessary to foster meaningful connections, especially with students who come from very different embodied perspectives than their own (in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, linguistic background, religion, and more). Now, with a great deal of physical distance between teachers and students, making meaningful connections to support learning has become even harder.

The teachers who effectively established supportive relationships with students before March of this year may be better able to continue these connections over the internet, helping motivate their students to keep learning when distractions are both justified and plentiful. I am truly heartened by stories of teachers who are creating relevant projects related to COVID-19 that interest students, drawing students into class discussion who are usually socially anxious in-person, and forming caravans to drive through students’ neighborhoods or even teaching them through windows at their houses. But on the whole, the pandemic and the shift to remote teaching is putting a strain on teachers (especially those who are now shouldering the weighty responsibility of caring for and schooling their own children) and impairing their relationships with students at a time when many students need the most support.

For most people, the importance of relationships in learning extends from preschool through graduate school. In my own home, I watch my young children light up when they see the faces of their preschool teachers on the computer. For a moment, this connection reaffirms that their teacher is still there, that they haven’t been completely cut off from what was once considered normal. But my children’s initial excitement begins to fade when they realize they cannot interact with their teachers, either because their teacher’s face exists only on a prerecorded video or because the child spends most of a short class zoom on mute. I do not blame their teachers for this, for they are doing the best they can in this unfortunate situation. It is simply that for most students, remote classes are a poor substitute for real face-to-face dialogue – the Socratic educational ideal.

By college, students seem to be able to better handle some virtual learning, in part because they know themselves better. But even as adults, they often benefit from the connections they can form with their professors through in-person classes. In a graduate-level seminar I teach entitled Social Change through Human Connection, I have the luxury of teaching only 3 students. I teach it synchronously on Zoom, in much the same way I taught it in person, beginning each session by allowing every student space to discuss their updates, challenges, and survival strategies in the era of COVID-19. I am living the best case scenario for remote teaching because the class is so small and each voice can still shine. But even here, in a class centered around human connection, our zoom discussions do not live up to the in-person dialogues we had together. As one of my students shared last week, “I am not okay. I need human interaction. And video discussions are not the same.” The class will end in a couple weeks, but I doubt we will have the kind of closure that a class celebration or a proffered hug or handshake usually solidifies. Learning just feels more powerful when we are all together in the same space.

The pandemic will end. Life will attempt to return to some semblance of normal. When it does, I hope we will carry all that we have learned during this crisis into our new lives, for there will be so much opportunity. And if we go forth and foster more meaningful relationships in all places – including our homes, our communities, and of course, our schools – perhaps we can make strides toward building a world more united in our shared humanity.   

Why caring for is so much more than caring about

Last week, I wrote about why education has largely eschewed the feminine and failed to  fully embrace the relational side of teaching. But in some educational pockets, I see hope in the renewed focus on care in schools. See, for example, Harvard’s Making Caring Common. This represents a wonderful trend, moving towards more humanizing practices in spaces that are too often treated like assembly lines. However, there are different kinds of care, and they are not equivalent. And I am afraid that the much easier to practice, but much less-impactful form of care is the one that will dominate education reforms.  

Building on Nel Noddings, Angela Valenzuela distinguishes aesthetic care from authentic care in schools. Aesthetic care is what Noddings would call caring as a virtue, or caring about someone (as you would an object). It is a general state of being, an attitude, akin to being nice. It’s not inherently negative, but it can be performative. I can look like I am caring when I do not get angry, when I treat everyone the same, when I smile. Many of us, and perhaps particularly women, have been socialized to be this type of caring. We have learned to walk with a soft step, to avoid controversial topics, to do what we are told, to show that we care about issues, about how we look, about living things. Performing aesthetic care can make us look good to others. But that does not mean we have learned how to care for others.

Some displays of aesthetic care can be useful in schools. For example, when a teacher stands at the classroom door every day to greet students as they enter the room with a smile on their face, it can make students feel welcome, appreciated, or even seen for that brief moment. It does not require much of the teacher to do this – they do not have to know anything about their individual students to perform this daily ritual – but it can set the tone for the class. The class can feel like a caring one. And this matters, but it is not enough.

The teacher who cares about students is also likely the one who is arrives on time everyday, always follows school rules and procedures, and never challenges administrators or district mandates. It is the teacher who knows every student’s name but maybe does not pronounce them all correctly. It is the teacher who is always nice to students, but may not challenge them academically. It is the teacher who performs small acts of care (see above), but is not available to students when they need extra help on an assignment, when they need an adult to talk to about a personal issue, or when they need someone to advocate for them. From the outside, aesthetic care looks good. And maybe it is better than no care at all. But it does not foster the deep and meaningful bonds that many of our students need.

On the other hand, there is authentic care. This is a genuine and critical form of care, what Noddings would call caring as relation. Authentic care necessitates getting to know another so you can care for them. It is active, requires deep engagement and understanding, sparks reciprocity, and involves reflection and vulnerability – because being personally authentic sometimes requires risks. Those who care authentically practice what they preach and often expect a lot of themselves and others. The exchange of such care might be challenging sometimes, but it is truly rewarding because it is real. The most natural example I can give for this type of care is that found in parenting. But while our most potent expression of authentic caring might be reserved for our children – as an extension of ourselves – we can all find ways to extend authentic care beyond our homes.

In the classroom, the teacher who enacts authentic care gets to know students as whole people – learning about their families, cultures, interests, hobbies, learning challenges, hopes, dreams, and fears. It is the teacher who opens their classroom during lunch to offer respite to students; who holds high expectations for all students and helps them reach these with in-class and after-class support; who connects with parents/guardians to support and encourage students; who shares pieces of themselves with students, too. The teacher who cares for students is also the teacher who is kind, but may not always be “nice” – they are willing to push students to achieve, ignore a school discipline policy in order to keep a student in-class (even when they have briefly displayed defiance or brought in forbidden food), design culturally responsive curricula when the district has mandated a white-washed canonical course, or passionately advocate for students when they are apprehended by a school resource officer for a trivial infraction. The teacher who cares for their students is willing to fight for them.

I know from personal experience that teachers are already saddled with more responsibilities than they can handle. But I would say that if they had to prioritize, authentic care for their students should come first. Because from that, everything else will follow. When students are cared for by teachers, they are engaged in the academic content, feel safer in the classroom, and have better academic and life outcomes. Caring for students is so much more than caring about them.

As human beings, we do not always have the energy to care for those around us. It’s so much easier just to care about people, things, issues. But when we can, we should try to practice authentic care, because all of us can benefit from the more meaningful human connections that ensue – both in and out of classrooms.

Embracing the Feminine and Centering Care in Schools

In her renowned book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education, Nel Noddings laid out an argument for the importance of care in schools – for students, for teachers, for society. By focusing on compassionate human relationships within the classroom, she argued, we would prepare more ethical, thoughtful, and caring citizens. But 36 years later, our education system has failed to center care, largely because it has refused to embrace the “feminine.”

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) nearly 20 years ago, schools have increasingly focused on production – measuring their students in standardized test scores – to the detriment of the human side of education. NCLB, and the subsequent Race to the Top legislation, exacerbated the emphasis on “hard skills” and quantifiable outcomes in schools. Many have written about the human cost of these reforms. But the truth is, K-12 schools – and colleges of education – were already neglecting the “soft skills” needed in teaching and learning, likely because of their association with “women’s work.”

I have written elsewhere about the gendered history of teaching, and the way that has influenced the status of the profession. Because teaching already wields less status in society than other jobs requiring similar levels of higher education, I believe that many people working within this field experience an inferiority complex. I’m not necessarily talking about teachers, though. Instead, I think this inferiority complex is more obvious among  those who have chosen to leave teaching or not to teach at all in favor of working around schools in educational policy, administration, and academia. Because the farther people get from the classroom, the easier it is to convince themselves that education should be treated as a business, the easier it is to forget that what makes this profession special.

Within schools of education, those specialties focused on teachers – namely, teacher education – have been relegated to the bottom of the status hierarchy. Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), for example, has focused heavily on preparing administrators, policymakers, and educational psychologists (the educational professions that make more money) to the detriment of their small and withering teacher education programs. It seemed to me that this was because HGSE, too, desired to make itself more masculine, more aligned with the professions of business, law, and medicine (the most “prestigious” graduate schools within this hallowed university). In fact, during my seven years at this large and preeminent institution, there was not a single professor on faculty whose primary research focus was teacher education .[i]

In other university contexts, scholars of teacher education have struggled to assert their legitimacy. One of the ways they have attempted to do so is by emphasizing the so-called “cognitive” aspects of teaching. These include topics like pedagogical content knowledge, child psychology, and alignment with state and national standards. While these are no doubt important topics, the result of the relentless drum beat of “hard skills” is the continuing suppression of the feminine, the nurturing, the relational. This means that many teachers may enter schools without having learned much of anything about forming relationships with their students – a distinct disadvantage in this innately human profession.

I believe there is hope, however. In recent years, several prominent scholars in education have sought to shift the focus of the profession back to the human beings at the center of this whole educational endeavor. Most of these scholars are people of color – including Gloria Ladson-Billings, Jeffery Duncan-Andrade, Geneva Gay, Ernest Morrell, Tyrone Howard, and Angela Valenzuela – who have argued that if teachers (most of whom are white) are going to adequately serve the students in our schools today (most of whom are people of color), they must get to know and care for them. Others within and beyond academia have taken up the call to support social and emotional learning (SEL) among students, driving efforts to consider what SEL means for teachers, too. And even HGSE now has a project that emphasizes care in schools.

But we still have a long way to go. Because within this largely female profession, that which is considered feminine has suffered. But we should not be afraid to embrace the relational side of teaching, for it is the heart of the work. And if we fail to center meaningful teacher-student relationships, we miss opportunities to prepare better teachers, support better schools, model meaningful connections in the classroom, and build a better world through care.


[i] HGSE has since hired a teacher education faculty member, and has created a new Harvard Teaching Fellows program for Harvard seniors. But to me, these read as incremental steps as opposed to fundamental shifts.

Why All Arizona Schools Are Worth Your Money

Sure, Arizona schools should be better funded. That’s a no brainer. But why should I have to pay for it? This seems to be the attitude of many Arizonans, at least according to a recent Morrison Institute poll. The problem with this kind of thinking is that even though many people acknowledge that we need to invest in school resources, hire more school counselors and staff, and pay teachers more (see my last blog), it will not happen until most are willing to help fund schools themselves.

Once their children graduate from high school, some Arizona residents have suggested they should no longer have to pay taxes to support education. Those who never had (or intend to have) children may feel similarly. Senior citizens who have moved from a high-tax, high-quality-education state (where their children attended public schools) to Arizona – in part because of its lower tax rates for income and property – may resent the idea of paying more to contribute to the education of other people’s children. And those who live in one area, might be willing to pay more taxes to support schools in that specific district through bonds and budget overrides (because even if they do not have kids, good schools improve property values), but less willing to pay more to improve schools across the state. To top it off, families can even remove their “tax credit” dollars from the general pool and donate these specifically to their children’s school. If it doesn’t directly benefit my family, why should I pay for better education?

But all of these groups – and truly everyone in the state – would ultimately benefit from better funded schools. Because the better we fund schools, the better student outcomes we get – both for academics and life. And today’s students will be tomorrow’s citizens, employees, doctors, and policymakers. So better school funding  = better business, a stronger economy, better health outcomes for everyone, and happier citizens.

I have heard business owners here complain that they are having a hard time finding enough qualified workers, especially for higher-level jobs. In fact, numerous companies have decided not to locate here because they were concerned about finding local talent. Or they were worried about their ability to convince current employees with children to move to a state with an education system that consistently ranks near the bottom of the nation in measures of quality. As a result, Arizona is home to many low-wage industries (such as call centers), but not enough high-skill, high-wage industries. In fact, it is possible that up to a third of jobs here could be replaced by automation in coming years. Although it may seem like we are thriving right now, these factors make our state particularly vulnerable to future recession. And we should not forget that during the most recent recession, Arizona indeed suffered a great deal more than other states and rebounded a lot slower. Economic downturns like this hurt all of us. Our only inoculation against such vulnerability is strengthening our education system.

A better education system now could also save your life later. Senior citizens will have increasing need for good healthcare as they age, but as it is, Arizona does not have enough primary care doctors or healthcare workers. With life expectancies on the rise, most of these citizens will live well into their 80s. They will need today’s students to be the ones occupying healthcare roles. But Arizonans are becoming less-educated, less-trained – with only 17% of current 9th graders on the path toward college graduation. How can we expect to educate enough future doctors at this rate? Enough biologists, nurses, lab technicians? We need to start better funding our education system now so that we can care for our citizens in the future.

And what about the human cost to the children in the system right now?  Doesn’t every single child – regardless of race, class, or neighborhood – deserve to benefit from teachers who are capable and caring, textbooks that are engaging and up-to-date, buildings that are safe and functional, and counselors that have time for them? Doesn’t every child in this state deserve the same chance at creating a life that brings them happiness? A recent study indicated that school districts serving mostly white students in Arizona get, on average, $7,613 more per-student than those serving mostly students of color. This disparity is much greater than most states in the nation. Our educational playing field here is not great to begin with, but this inequality makes it even worse. This is what happens when we are only willing to pay to increase school funding in our district or school. When instead of seeing our shared humanity, and the value of every soul in this state, we only look out for our own family. Such short-sightedness will hurt us all in the end, for the reasons enumerated above, but also because happier, better-educated citizens are less likely to commit crimes or require social services. Happier citizens make a better society.

The children in all of our schools today are the future of this state. They are the ones who will vote in future elections, who will win future elections, who will work for and serve the people of Arizona. They are us in 10, 20, 30 years. We owe them a good education. And we all benefit when our education system prepares more knowledgeable, skilled, thoughtful and principled adults. So when you commit to paying your share to better fund our education system, don’t think of it as throwing money away, because it’s not. Think of it as making a deposit in the bank of Arizona’s future. A deposit that will bear the greatest possible dividends for years to come.

Teaching for the “Right” Reasons, Leaving for the “Wrong” Ones

A colleague of mine recently asked an Arizona state legislator, “How do you feel about the fact that teachers in Arizona are paid less than most other places in the nation?” The legislator’s response was: “I’m proud of it…because that means they are entering the profession for the right reasons.” Although I have heard similar sentiments expressed before in my home state, I was still disappointed by this. After Red for Ed, and amidst our current teacher shortage in Arizona, I hoped we had learned more about what it takes to teach.

This legislator perpetuates an idea that relates to the precarious status of teachers in this country, which I have written about in more depth elsewhere. It harkens back to the commonly held notion that teachers – who are mostly women – should be self-sacrificing, should operate completely without concern for themselves, without thought for their own well-being. For those who serve our children must give without taking and learn to subsist off of the nobility of the act. Our society has established expectations for teachers that are not unlike those we have of mothers; we are supposed to be martyrs. But this notion is damaging to our teachers, our students, and our society.

Let’s just get one thing straight first, though. No teacher sets out to enter teaching for the “wrong” reasons. Not even if the pay and status were higher. Because the reality is that there will always be far easier ways to make money than teaching. Across the country, teachers complete onerous teacher certification programs and must pass standardized exams and fulfil security clearance procedures just to enter the classroom. Once there, they need to draw upon a number of complex skills and competencies to teach, connect with, and manage 30+ children or adolescents at the same time. And despite common perceptions to the contrary, teachers often work well over 8 hours a day, especially early in their careers, for there is grading, planning, and correspondence with parents and students that must be done after hours. Many also spend their summers teaching summer school, planning new courses, or writing grants. Teaching will never be easy money.

Instead, the vast majority of teachers enter the profession for the “intrinsic rewards,” those experiences that nurture teachers’ hearts, minds, and souls. For truly, there is a great deal of meaning and fulfillment to be experienced in the service of others. But sometimes – and perhaps this is often the case in the state of Arizona – those intrinsic rewards are not enough to sustain oneself.

Imagine that you love teaching and that your favorite part is connecting with the incredible human beings you have the opportunity to serve every day. When one of your students has an “aha!” moment that facilitates their understanding of complex material, makes a fascinating point in class discussion that had not even occurred to you (even though you have been studying this stuff for years), or writes you a heartfelt thank you note for caring about their academic and personal growth in a way few others have – it sends you to cloud nine, all your hard work has been worth it. For a while, this keeps you going, for this is why you went into teaching in the first place: meaningful service to students and to the future of this nation. But at the same time, you need to survive.

You have student loans that keep piling up, because getting your teaching degree was not cheap. You have to pay rent, which in the state of Arizona is increasing at epic proportions. You have to feed yourself and care for your physical and mental health (which teaching can often take a toll on). And perhaps you need to provide for a family as well, with children who need to be in daycare or after-school care so you can do your job. Your salary is less than $50,000 a year and you are struggling to pay for all these expenses, even with your Uber/Lyft side-hustle. And then you begin to think, is it worth it? The building in which you work is literally falling apart. The ceiling leaks when it rains. The A/C only cools the classroom down into the 90s when desert temperatures are soaring outside (and the HVAC system emits that musty smell characteristic of mold growth). The carpeting is ripped and stained and too unsanitary for students to sit on during morning circle. Your 1990s textbooks are in a similar state. And now your average class has 40 students in it (the ideal number is closer to half that). Despite how much you love teaching, how much it feeds your very soul, you begin to think that maybe this is not in fact sustainable. You have to think about your family.

This is why research shows that while intrinsic rewards – the “right” reasons – generally draw teachers into the profession, extrinsic forces like salary, benefits, workload and working conditions are driving them out. And it has caused a teacher shortage so severe that 1 in 5 Arizona classrooms does not have a permanent teacher. Teachers are not entering for wrong reasons, but they are leaving for them, because when they weigh the balance and do the math, the negatives have begun to outweigh the positives. And I do not blame them.  The teachers are not in the wrong here. The system is.

We cannot expect teachers to be martyrs. Martyrs die; but we need teachers to live and thrive so they can teach our children to thrive, too. We need to pay them well and respect them immensely for their incredibly important work. The future of our state depends on it.

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.