In the End the True Nature of Teaching Will Prevail

Teaching and learning is art. The role of the artist is to reveal the essence of reality so that we are moved into compassion for ourselves and the world. So we can respond with kindness and humanity, to grow and flourish, to love each other and experience the effortlessness of unbound beauty, the type of effortless beauty found in a Spring bloom.

This has been a socially, emotionally and spiritually tumultuous year for all of us. Not too long ago I remember thinking and hearing that if this president or that, became president—“I am leaving the country!” Alas, this president, or that became president and most of us are still here. For some, this “morning after” is marked by an effervescent glow while for others, we find ourselves stripped naked and bare, each of our flaws and imperfections magnified by a blinding fluorescent light.

How will these social and political changes impact our teaching and learning craftsmanship? How long will it take for our eyes to adjust before we begin to see things more objectively, more clearly— not seeped in a morning after glow or stark naked shame?

I have felt sadness for the many losses and disappointments experienced over the course of this year. Yet, on some days, I am filled with gratitude. Especially during this month of June that marks the end of a year for teachers. Put the past to rest and the anticipation of starting again. I suspect that you are experiencing similar emotions because even though we are all unique individuals, we are together in this shared-reality, these months of social upheaval. Together we have witnessed a grand clearing out, the removal of clutter and garbage that has allowed us to scratch past the fine lens of complacency and superficiality. We are feeling the aftereffects of what happens when toxins are released into our blood stream, similar to what you might feel after a deep tissue massage: the pain and the soreness and all you want is Ibuprofen and green tea.

Donald Pfaff tells us that we are naturally good, that we are biologically wired for altruism. I want to believe him. Especially now when I encounter more news about war than peace and I find people filled with rage rather than gentle kindness. He writes:

“For too long it has become common wisdom that human nature is essentially selfish. We are taught that our instincts are somehow designed by nature to promote ourselves, and that these ‘animal’ selves must be tamed to fit into civilization…. The human brain is actually programmed to make us care for others. Many of our basic drives, reactions and skills are more products of nature than nurture. The innate biology of the human brain [in fact] compels us to be kind. That is, we are wired for good will.” [1]

If you decide to read Pfaff’s book, you will discover his very intriguing “Altruistic Brain Theory” which can be summed up this way:

For a person to act altruistically, they must picture the person who will be the target of this altruistic act in such a way that the image of the person blurs with that of one’s self, which provides the basis for treating the other like oneself.

A brilliant and critical theory for teachers to consider right now, as we engage in the last stage of cleaning out cubbies, saying goodbye, letting go of the past and anticipating a new beginning. Why? Because now is the time, when we are no longer gripped by the fear of unfamiliar shadows and are ready to find peace and acceptance for who we really are. Now, we can narrow in on what we need to do to move into alignment with our magnificent, altruistic nature.

I for one, make a commitment to engage in a mindful inquiry this summer about altruism. I will reflect on this question every time I interact with another human being:

Does the image of the person in front of me blur with the image of myself?  

Then I will ask, why or why not?

What are the barriers, filters and/or mindsets that prevent us from being able to picture or visualize a person, as being like oneself?

Recently, I was invited to contribute to a column on race and implicit bias and I thought deeply about how personally responsible we should feel for the injustices we witness in schools and in society when there are so many complex factors at play such as widening income inequality, segregated schools and communities, a national narrative that breeds intolerance for immigrants, Muslims, poor people and so on. Implicit bias exists, however we need to understand that our minds are so fragile and conditioned by the prevailing narratives of our time. Our nature may be altruistic, but how often do we act in alignment with our true nature? What gets in the way of truth?

Teaching is an act of love. It is revelation. It is the total nurture of the mind, body and spirit of humanity. It is a craft to be taken on with compassion. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, the majority of teachers go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. It is a calling for most.

This June, I hope that as you make sense of this socially, emotionally and spiritually challenging year, that you do not stray too far from your purpose. Rest up. Then visualize yet another iteration of yourself; a self that is One and in the same image as all other human beings, because tomorrow we will come together again.

We are still here and there is much work to be done.

____________________

[1] Pfaff, Donald W. (2015) The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford University Press, 2015

Entitlement: Knowing Your Place

In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol wrote about the apartheid conditions of America’s public schools and begged educators and policy makers to do something about it. That was in 2006 and not much has changed. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared education ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’ however sub-standard education conditions continue to be the norm for low-income children of color, particularly for blacks and Latinos. Half of all black and Latino children grow up in or near poverty. Half of all black and Latino boys fail to graduate from high school. Fully two thirds of black men without a high school degree will serve time in prison as some point in their lives.[1]According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 50.3 percent of students identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or another nonwhite ethnicity. White students no longer make up the majority of students in California and Texas.  In New York City, nonwhites make up somewhere between 58 and 65 percent (depending on whether Latinos identify themselves as white) and if we step back and consider the population of the globe, you will find that whites make up only 16 percent of the total population with Asians being the majority. With numbers like these, it becomes clear we need to consider our use of language in this country especially when it comes to the term minority. Putting a false label like minority on the majority acts as a pernicious mental barrier that blocks us from really unpacking the systemic and structural elements of white privilege and apartheid-like conditions of our schools.

The truth is if you are a Latino in New York City, for example (or a member of any of the ‘non-white’ ethnic groups) you can and should stop identifying yourself as a minority and should refuse to be labeled as such.  Furthermore, you should consider it an act of protest just a powerful if not more than laying down in Grand Central station with a placard on your chest. Changing the language we use in conversations around race, equity and human rights can and will get us closer to seeing the true nature of who we are as a society. Misleading labels perpetuate false notions of entitlement for some and second-class citizenry for others and tearing them down can heighten our perception of how we identify ourself and others as we struggle for sustainable change.

In response to the Eric Garner case in New York City, many whites across the nation communicated that it was the first time they felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. According to them, unlike other incidents of police brutality this was different because there was clearly no evidence to dispute the criminal nature of the killing. In the midst of outrage and protests that took hold of our city (in great part due to the connection with Ferguson events), I was confronted with mixed feelings about how to engage in constructive conversations around social justice and race particularly with educators. I thought a lot about Rebecca Klein and her article in the Huffington Post entitled A Majority of Students Entering School are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White.  I realized that although I was in New York City and represented the majority in numbers, I was still perceived as a minority. How does this perception inhibit or strengthen my voice when I talk about injustice and equity?

The incongruence of being labeled a minority is magnified when my work with educators often takes place in all brown communities. I’ve noticed an overwhelming reticence to allowpeople of color to take ownership of an event and how it is shaped publicly even when the event has direct implications for communities of color and especially if the conversation can leverage a movement for equity. Freire calls this phenomena false generosity. False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation.[2]  Unless we see the relationship between power and language in society and examine who are positioned constantly in positions of leadership aka the ‘executors of transformation’— we are never going to make a change.  It is time we ask ourselves: What does equity “look” like rather than sound like?

There is a plethora of research behind the notion of power in language.  Using a term like minority to identify a person is a tool of power. There is also power in the notion of pedagogical authority— that is who we by default turn to for decision making. Who do we associate with critical thinking and strategic planning in our society? Who is the expert?

Refusing to use the label minority is about understanding  your  place. It is about entitlement and staking a claim in a situation with full confidence, determination and leadership. Entitlement is the precursor to agency. Without a feeling of entitlement, one cannot take action. Language and labels such as our antiquated use of the term minority can make those who are central to a situation feel marginalized and less equipped to act.

At a time when we are struggling to make sense of recent current events that remove blinders from our eyes and for educators in particular who work in schools that are microcosms of society— we need to consider different, long lasting forms of protest that will change how we see the world.  Reject false labels and challenge the language of status in society. Refuse to label yourself or others a minority or try seeing yourself as a minority if you are white and live in a city like New York.  Dare to change the conversation by engaging in the real practice of equity.


[1]Warren, M (2014) Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice Movement. New England Journal of Public Policy: Vol.26: Iss1, Article 11.
[2] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)

Renaissance of Courage: On Public School Responsibility

          Who is Dr. Cornel West referring to when he says, “We need a renaissance of courage and a willingness to sacrifice?” This is what he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! during a discussion on his new book Black Prophetic Fire about the legacy of leading African American voices including Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells. He was referring to blacks themselves like when he confessed his fear that we may be witnessing the death of black prophetic fire in our time. Black prophetic fire, according to Cornell West can be summed up as a deep love for justice, love of the poor and working people and a love for black people. He tells us this can best be understood if we consider the four essential questions W.E.B. DuBois wrestled with in his lifetime: How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And how does virtue meet brute force? This fire Cornell West refers to is the very notion of agency and social responsibility and it begs the question- What is the ethical culture driving our conversation about public schools today and what is your personal responsibility in making a difference?
          This past weekend The New School and The Nation magazine hosted a talk entitled Saving Public Schools. It was moderated by Chris Hayes and included a handful of well-known education pundits—Dana Goldstein, Pedro Noguera and Randi Weingarten along with one community-based equity activist, Zakiya Ansari. Opening the dialogue was The Nation’s Besty Reed followed by New York City School chancellor Carmen Fariña, who I knew about but still had not heard speak. When I looked at the panel and around the New School auditorium it first appeared to be a pretty diverse group although in retrospect, I’d have to admit I remembered very few Latino and Asian faces in the room and I’d venture to say there were fewer attendees who would identify themselves as poor. Later when Chris Hayes asked how many of us were familiar with the Common Core Standards over ninety percent of us raised our hands. Chris had to laugh calling us outliers, who else would come out on a Sunday evening to hear a panel talk on public education? My mind flashed to a scene in a dystopian novel I’m reading called The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks that talks about people who are informed:
                “Well, of course I’m a citizen,” he said. “I was born and raised in Britain.”
                “It’s just a label that my father uses. Ninety-nine percent of the population are either citizens or drones.”
                Dr. Bennett took off his gold rimmed spectacles and polished his lenses with a green flannel cloth. “Would you mind explaining this?”
                “Citizens are people who think they understand what’s going on in the world.”
                “I don’t understand everything, Judith. I never said that. But, I’m well informed about current events. I watch the news every morning while I’m on my treadmill.”
                Maya hesitated, and then decided to tell him the truth. “The facts you know are mostly an illusion. The real struggle of history is going on beneath the surface.”
                Dr. Bennett gave her a condescending smile. “Tell me about the drones.”
                “Drones are people who are so overwhelmed by the challenge of surviving that they’re unaware of anything outside their day-to-day lives.”
                “You mean poor people?”
                “They can be poor or trapped in the Third World, but they’re still capable of transforming themselves. Father used to say, ‘Citizens ignore the truth. Drones are just too tired.”

          The talk lasted for about two hours at which point I left the New School auditorium in a semi-apathetic haze. I’m not sure if it was the after effects of the cold medicine I had taken or if it was the actual talk but I couldn’t help think we haven’t even begun the difficult work that lies ahead of us as we face the failure of perennial reform compounded with a decade’s worth of policies that have strangulated the public education system. The numbness I felt reminded me of a NYPR program I had accidentally tuned into just a few weeks earlier called ‘Staring Into The Abyss’ in which Brook Gladstone spent an hour discussing the poignant question: Why is nihilism so trendy and is this really a new phenomenon? I know apathy is not nihilism, but they are definitely close relatives especially when one considers the impact the war on public education has had on teachers and teacher educators.
            
          Digging into the abyss, I was able to pull up one surviving frustration of mine, however mangled and in somewhat critical condition. It had to do with responsibility and agency and Dana Goldstein’s comment about the promise of the Millennials (which contradicted to some extent LaMotte’s argument in her article, Forget the Millennials. Gen Xers are the Future of Work published in TIME magazine online on October 2nd). It had to do with the notion of race and class and does change happen from the inside or from the outside, from those struggling to survive or those who are privileged? Goldstein proposed that with the advent of Millennials investing in urban centers, public schools can be revived. Millennials are educated, have money (equaling choice) and purportedly believe in the promise of diversity and democracy. Chris Hayes and Pedro Noguera conspired around this prospect by sharing a story about a school in Brooklyn in which parents have been actively trying to encourage an equal mix of middle and upper class white kids with poor and blue collar black and brown kids. Zakiya Ansari looked annoyed and asked, “Why do we need white kids to make a school work properly?” At that moment, the white woman sitting next to me mumbled something to the effect of, “Once Millennials arrive on the scene, poor folks can’t afford to stay so how is that going to help?”
                
          Funny, how race and class were interchangeable in this conversation. White is equated with middle/upper class and black and brown folks with poverty. I wonder if New Yorkers can see these two identities as being separate these days.  If not, what does that mean for the children being educated in segregated schools and what does that mean for their educators? Who is driving the conversation? And who is responsible for making a change?  
                
          In response to Ansari’s question, I’d say, it’s not that we need white kids for schools to be good. However, if the professional “successful” world outside school is integrated (as depicted in the media, the movies and TV) children need to see the same demographics in the classroom if we want them to identify themselves as a part of this reality. Otherwise, it’s natural for children to question their place and value in the world, which is what it means to be ‘marginalized’ in society. The question of segregated schools is much less about the quality of education in contemporary society (although this certainly is important and dates back to the pivotal case separate but equal)—but more about how schools need to reflect the type of society we want to live in. Do we want our children to grow up in a divided, racialized and segregated world? How are children going to learn about citizenship, democracy and agency in a segregated setting?
                
          When I was growing up, I had the fortune of attending public schools that were rich in diversity. Today, many of us recognize we were lucky to have a quality public school education with this experience. Just by exposure alone, it was evident to us that American society is a fabric threaded of different colors, ethnicities, languages and religions. That is not to say we had a utopian system back then. My mother, like many others, had to fight to get me into a good junior high school that was just outside my ‘zone’ but was easily accessible to our neighbors with non-Latino last names. The point is, fellowship with children and families from different backgrounds provided us with a broadened perspective of the world, taught us how people coexist and helped us learn important skills about how to negotiate in society—skills that continue to shape how I see and interact with the world today. Regardless of the quality of education, children who have segregated educational experiences are missing out on critical social, emotional and cognitive skills required in a global community. Teachers in segregated schools are very aware of this. It comes out in the academic performance of their students. In my doctoral research entitled, The Impact of Teaching Literacy for Social Justice on Student Achievement (2007), I documented how a teacher was concerned that although the African American students (in a segregated, African American school) were easily engaged and could critically examine and respond to literary experiences that spoke to the African American experience about slavery, oppression and persecution; they couldn’t transfer this knowledge when learning about the Jewish American experience and the holocaust. The challenges of learning multiple perspectives in a segregated school setting as presented by Kozol (2005) are real.
                
          After the event, walking down Sixth Avenue looking for a place to eat, I began to think about how powerful it would be if everyone who attended the talk sent their own kids to the public schools. What would that look like, a school comprised of these folks, the ‘intellectual class,’ or at least purporting to be?  That’s when it occurred to me that that’s exactly what a private or selective school looks like. The fact that most education pundits, policy makers, well paid administrators, university professors and white collar professionals opt to send their own children to private or highly selective public/charter schools is a topic rarely brought up in these settings. It’s not that these educators don’t care for ‘other people’s children,’ it’s just that like Pedro Noguera said, “educated folks with means regardless of their color will never send their kids to bad (or questionable) schools.” Bad schools where perennial reforms exist can only happen to poor folks struggling to survive. Is it because poor people (now joined by a growing number of ‘falling’ middle classers) don’t have a voice or is it because they really don’t have a choice?  Or is it because they are too tired to even light the fire?
                
          Is there a possibility that we may have created a choice-less “choice” system that in actuality perpetuates quality education for the privileged? How can we expect the down trodden to be responsible for their own uplifting? What are the different levels of courage required to stand up and fight for what you believe in depending on your position in society? What kind of sacrifice can we ask of people who are struggling for their survival? Who is driving the conversation around public education and what is the ethical responsibility of the intellectual community? What is the social and moral responsibility of the private school sector with regards to the public school sector knowing that these are the decision makers and drive public policy? Can we require private schools to collaborate and share resources and social networks with public schools?  How do private schools churn out a citizenry that recycles the same inequitable conditions in society?
                
          Education reform has historically and consistently been about experimenting, examining and dissecting public school kids and mostly poor public schools. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to how we educate children of privilege and unpack notions of entitlement, elitism, competition and Darwinism. Dana Goldstein stated early in the talk that one of the original purposes behind public education was moral. How can we consider the moral purpose of public schools without considering the ethical culture of our private schools simultaneously? I wonder if it’s possible to reposition education reform. Consider school reform not as a business of fixing the poor but as a holistic endeavor in which we are all implicated in the need to change how we do things for all kids, and that includes all kids, the rich kids too, and the sons and daughters of all the reformers and the intellectuals, too, who sit and talk about wonderful, really big ideas like equitable funding in our country. My guess is that we’d have a very different kind of conversation, one that gets at the true nature of our people, willing or unwilling to sacrifice the benefits of privilege.