Saturday, June 8, 2013

Beyond the Message

Ta-Nehisi Coates is posed an interesting question by one of his readers.  As a black man who struggled in his youth, yet who is now a successful, senior editor at the Atlantic, what kind of address would he give to a class of graduating seniors at a poor, disadvantaged high school.  His reply emphasizes that - and he has given a number of talks to schools - he doesn't think stern admonitions or cliches about working hard would find much traction.  Instead, he writes that what is most important is speaking of a sense of personal interest in education, of ownership.
I am doubtful that I could have been shamed into making better choices. Some people probably can be. There's was plenty of shaming around me as a child. But I did not take education seriously until I saw something in it for me, aside from what everyone else thought.
Some people are great speakers, and great speeches can be given, and I won't begrudge anyone for putting out a positive message.  But I can only be reminded that these kids need more than messaging. 

I've recently given up teaching because after a handful of years of teaching at schools with screwed up priorities, where my classes have been filled overwhelmingly with students with severely dysfunctional attitudes towards authority and their own education, I came way too close to having more than one nervous breakdown. I had to leave for my own sanity.

I feel like I have my own idea of what those teachers might say, but I don't know. Maybe they were terrible teachers who were disrespectful to their students and had no compassion. Maybe, like me, they were too forgiving and let the students walk all over them - despite my best efforts, I am just not that strict, authoritarian. Such a style would seem to be the only way of working in such a dysfunctional institutional structure.

I worked for two years at a continuation school, where kids got sent after essentially failing the first two years of high school, and demonstrating they couldn't be productive members of a general population environment (fighting, talking back, doing drugs, etc.). On a hierarchy of needs, these kids needed something much more basic than content: they needed emotional healing, a quiet place to escape negative social norms (parents and peers were often sociopathic), and someone to listen and talk with them.

Unfortunately, the NCLB/reform movement has been all about destroying the old ways teachers might have had to dealt with such students (who, let's be clear, are the real drivers of the achievement gap and are by and large a product of poverty and social dysfunction at a structural level - neighborhoods, jobs, etc.). My principal wanted to see over 90% "engagement" during direct instruction lessons to students who hadn't earned credit in years, and who spoke openly in class about been abused at home, daily hardcore drug abuse (often in the hands of their parents), violence, and wave after wave of teen pregnancy. And yet, the principal literally had us analyzing test score data in staff meetings!

So as a teacher maybe of similar students myself, I wonder if my comments wouldn't come in the form of an apology for a royally fucked up system which doesn't really care for them, in terms of actually trying to offer help to them that they would need. Words? They need more than words.

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