Oct 31

Why Care Matters #SpringValleyAssault

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Spring Valley assault. Lots of people have written about it in important ways. What that video showed in the context of racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement is of paramount importance. The larger socio-political ramifications of that video – of what happened to that young woman – are a devastating example of how our schools fall far short of the promise of equity and justice that so many of us who are teachers aspire to. 

And, as others have written, this clearly was not a one-time event. The reaction of the students showed they had seen behavior like this before. There was no reaction of shock, as there should have been, when seeing a classmate thrown to the floor violently. 

But beyond whether or not the administration knew they had a police officer known as “Officer Slam” in their building… or even what it means to have police officers in schools… there’s a question that needs to be asked — would this have happened if there was a system in place so that every student in that school was powerfully cared for?

Because, as horrible as the actions of the officer were, the school failed that young woman before the officer ever put his hands on her. They failed her because the adults cared more that she left the classroom than they did about what was causing her to shut down in that way. 

This event is why it is of the utmost importance that we as educators understand the difference between “care about” and “care for,” why it is important that we say “We teach students,” rather than “We teach subjects.” Because when we acknowledge, understand and truly believe that no subject we teach is more important than the child in front of us, then there’s no way that the teacher or the administrator makes the wrong-headed decision that getting her out of the room was far more important than finding out what was wrong. And there was no way that the teacher and the administrator would not have known that the young woman had just lost her mother. 

This is why it is essential that we create systems in our schools where every child is known and every child is cared for. In our schools, every child should know who their advocate is, and that advocate should ensure that students in crisis are known and cared for by all. At SLA, that is our Advisory program. At other schools, they call it family group. In some middle schools, it’s a looping program so that students and teachers stay together. But in every school, there should be a structure in the school day so that the adults— all of the adults, not just the counselors — have the time to care for the children.

And this is most important for students who have been underserved by our schools, because oftentimes, those students who have been underserved feel that no one cares about them at school. And too often, those students are the same students who are sent a message every day that our society doesn’t care enough about them either. We need to couple the structures like Advisory with professional development toward cultural competency so that all teachers understand what it means to truly know and respect students, no matter the differences (or honestly, sometimes similarities) between teacher and student. We can build systems and structures that cross racial, gender, socio-economic boundaries and allow everyone in our schools to be seen for all that they are in powerful, positive, humanistic ways.

Because every child deserves to be known in school. Every child deserves an advocate. It cannot happen by luck or fiat. We can’t just hope it happens. We can’t just tell the stories of the teacher who has some of the kids eat lunch in her classroom every day… or the coach who drives her players home from practice. To do that and to not systematize it so that every child is known is to all but guarantee that some children will go through school isolated and uncared for. And, in the world we live in, we can be sure that that will disproportionately happen to children of color and children of poverty. 

We can do better. We can do it now. In all our schools. We owe it to every child we teach. We owe it to her. 

Nov 11

Create Joyful Space

I was talking to a friend of mine about their child and school. He was talking about how much his kid really didn’t like school. And as he said it, he had that kind of sad chuckle that meant, “What are you going to do, you know?”

So I asked him, “Do you think that’s o.k.?”

And he said, “Well, most kids hate school, don’t they?”

And I can’t refute that, not really. And on some level, I get it. School is where we ask kids to do work, instead of play. And I admit it, I love SLA, but on any given day, I’d rather be at the beach or playing Ultimate or something. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create spaces kids love.

I believe deeply that kids — and adults — can work hard in service of things they care about. I believe deeply that we, as people, can understand how meaningful, powerful work can be joyful, even when it’s hard.

And school has to be that. If we accept the idea that the institution dedicated to teaching and learning is fundamentally not fun, not to be enjoyed, o.k. to hate, then we send a powerful message about the role being learned plays in the rest of our lives.

It is incumbent on the adults to not settle for the statement, “My [child/student/friend’s kid] doesn’t like school.” We have to unpack the “why” behind that statement and work to fix it.

It’s not on the kids to love school. It’s on all of us to create joyful, profound, empowering spaces in school that are easy to fall in love with.

 

Jan 20

Both/And, Priorities and Working Toward Anti-Racist Schools

Earlier this week, Melinda Anderson wrote How Long Will We Tolerate Racial Profiling In Our Schools for Good Magazine. It’s an excellent piece that uses an experience her son had in school where an administrator chose to deal with a less-than-fantastic moment her middle-school aged son and his friends had in the lunchroom as a springboard for talking about zero-tolerance policies and the negative effect they have on all kids and especially on children of color. (For the fortunate record, the administrator in her son’s situation chose a far more appropriate way to deal with the kids’ behavior.) Go read her piece – it is outstanding.

What is interesting and frustrating is that many commenters, both on Twitter and on the site, have pushed back that this had to be about race. “Zero tolerance,” it is argued, “is bad for all kids, so why is this about race?” To make that argument is to ignore that zero tolerance — and policies like it — have created the environment where black students – primarily boys – are suspended at disproportionately high rates. And what was so wild to me was that her piece pointed out more progressive disciplinary policies such as restorative justice are good for all kids and good for kids of color… and that led to this exchange on Twitter:

And that led me to blog, because she’s right, and I wanted to explore that in greater detail.

There seems to me to be a difference between saying, “This is good for all kids, and it happens to be good for kids of color too…” and saying, “This is good for kids of color and good for all kids too.” The first doesn’t make inclusively humane practice the focus, rather putting it as an after-thought. The second recognizes that we have to understand that school – as an institution – too often is authoritarian in nature and those authoritarian practices, while bad for all kids, have disproportionately affected students whose existence is already on the margins of the dominant white culture in America.

Karen Mapp, in writing about ways schools can create better parent-school relationships, writes about the idea that parents bring the ghosts of their own experiences into their children’s school with them. We have to understand that our students do that as well. More than that, they bring all that they are — all their experiences — with them as well. For students who have reason to believe that the overarching society is not one that supports them, school cultures where punitive disciplinary policies are the norm can — and quite likely will –serve to further alienate them. We must actively work to ensure that does not happen.

As educators, therefore, we need to be cognizant of the work we have to do to create more equitable schools. It is of the utmost importance that we examine our policies, procedures and structures to ensure that they do not reinforce the worst of what we see around us in the world. Restorative justice and other progressive disciplinary policies are powerful moments of “Both/And.”  In doing so, we can make great strides to ensure that the work we do is good for students of color. What’s pretty cool is that we’ll create schools that are better for all children, too.