[This probably isn't all that different from some things I've written before, but right now, I've thinking about many edu-things through the lens of what we see going on in Ferguson, and while I am not naive enough to think that school can single-handedly fix what is broken in America right now, I also think that schools can do much more to create spaces that do not exacerbate the problems we are seeing.]
This week, the SLA@Beeber staff was working together as our second cohort of teachers were learning about the philosophies and systems and structures that inform what we do at SLA. We were talking about advisory and how we try to look at student behavior through a therapeutic lens, rather than a punitive. One of our teachers who is coming from a very different school, and she talked about what a different frame of reference that was for her, because at her old school, it felt like students were suspended for every minor infraction. We were talking about what it meant for every student to have an advocate (their advisor) who could work with the student to navigate the often challenging world of high school, and how we all have to work to create the kind of community where everyone takes care of everyone – students, teachers – everyone. We were talking about what it means when everyone is known, where people truly know one another.
And it struck me that was what was one of the things that was missing in Ferguson. Now, I am not Pollyanna enough to think that if we just all held hands and cared about each other, all that went wrong in Ferguson – institutional racism, abuse of power, fear, militarization of the police… just to name a few – suddenly goes away. There are deep societal and policy issues that need to examined and changed to greatly reduce the chances that what we are seeing in Ferguson – from the changing racial demographics that did not result in a change in political power dynamics, to Mike Brown’s death, to the police reaction to the anger and grief of that town, to the national polls that suggest a wider-than-we-want-to-admit divide between how whites and blacks are viewing every aspect of what has happened.
But also missing was a lack of care – a lack of being known. What if Ferguson had a community policing program where Darren Wilson wasn’t in his car, but was on foot in the neighborhood and knew Mike Brown? Would this have played out the same way? What if the police had thought for a moment about the deeply traumatic effect leaving Mike Brown’s body uncovered in the street for hours would have on the community? What if there had been any thought given to the effect of snipers and military tanks rolling through the streets in the name of order? What if anyone thought about what it does to the humanity of all involved to turn a police force into an occupying army?
I don’t have answers to those questions. I can’t imagine many do. But I want to live in a world where those questions are asked before, not after, tragedy.
And then I start to think about school. I think about how in many schools – especially schools where the majority of children are kids of color and are poor – there exists the educational equivalent of “shoot first, ask questions later.” The message that the citizens of Ferguson received both in the killing of Mike Brown and near martial law that was enforced in the days after his death is communicated in so many of the schools like the one our new teacher described.
It is communicated when suspensions are the first response to any problem.
It is communicated when students of color are suspended at rates far higher than white students.
It is communicated when schools house thousands of kids in a building, and there’s no guarantee that a student who connects with a teacher one year will ever do more than pass that teacher in the hall from time to time for the rest of their time.
It is communicated when teachers have teaching loads of over 150 kids, so that the chance of knowing a child beyond being a student in a seat in a cinder block classroom is reduced even further.
It is communicated when teachers pass off disciplinary problems to a dean or an assistant principal or a school police officer who then simply deals with “the problem,” because listening and responding therapeutically is time-consuming and hard and messy, and the pink slip and the suspension form take less time to fill out.
It happens everywhere the policies and procedures and actions of a school send the message to students that the content of the curriculum is more important than the content of the student’s character.
We can change that. That is within our control.
We can all redouble our efforts to make schools humane and human places where students are known and cared for. We can build the systems and structures that enable students and teachers to talk to one another. We can create policies — and carve out the time — that make it possible for teachers to see students for who they are, to understand the flawed, wonderful people they are and can be, and to understand that there are more ways to deal with the mistakes that kids make than suspensions and the criminalization of non-criminal behaviors.
These are things we should do because they are the right things to do. They are not easy, nor are they silver bullets that will magically cure what ails us. But they might help. And they can’t hurt. And as we continue to watch the events of Ferguson unfold, as educators, it is incumbent upon us to think about how we can help the next generation do better than we have done, and help them see the prospects of a better world than the one in which we currently live.
Doing a better job of caring for one another in schools might be one good place to start.