Community Voices: The Cool Teacher ain’t really all that cool

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“Y’all doing the most!”

“Yup, I know. Do you know why? Because we know you can do it. What support do you need from me?”

At that point the conversation typically takes a whole new tone. Instead of accusatory, defensive and afraid it becomes one of concern, support, and loving accountability. I know the student is frustrated, what teenager wouldn’t be frustrated with having to stay after school for homework? (Or having detention or any of the other things we hold students accountable for?) But, I also know she wants to be an immigration or civil rights attorney and so college needs to be in her future. So I don’t flinch.

“Ummm can we talk to Mr. K about the AP homework? And can I call my mom to let her know I’ll be here until 5?”

“For sure. You want to use my phone?” I smile and hand her my school phone so she can call home. There is a slight smile showing on the edges of the scowl. That was two weeks ago. Today that same student came up to me and told me her GPA went from 3.1 to a 3.7. She wants to go to UCLA. I truly believe she has a shot, but she will need loving accountability.

This is what is missing from most schools, from most classrooms, from most pedagogy.

We love to debate education. We gather in our corners and collect all the relevant facts and figures to come out swinging the next round. We talk about opportunity gaps and graduation rates. We talk about standardized test scores and restorative justice. We debate the merits of college prep and defend vo tech programs. We demonize charters and write off public schools all in the name of “quality.” The reality is none of this matters without humanity. Without the ability to see young people as capable human beings, and then the willingness to hold those capable human beings accountable. Sadly, in the White Liberal Utopia that is Minneapolis this willingness is sorely lacking. And that is why we are the worst city to be a student of color in in the entire country.

My first few years in the classroom I took great pride in being the “cool” and “chill” teacher. I was the teacher that “understood” the students. It made me feel good that students wanted to be in my room after school. I was honored that they would confide in me. I told myself these relationships were important (they are) and that they couldn’t happen if I were more rigorous (they could).

For the first six years of my teaching career I was in schools that didn’t even pretend to be preparing students to move on to college, despite the hopes and aspirations of the young people. I had some of the most intelligent, resilient, and traumatized young people in the city. We did a lot of really great things, and I’m proud of our time together, but their education, both prior to and during our time together, was an injustice. They deserved options and they didn’t get them. I didn’t prepare them to get them. So I moved on to a college prep school.

At the college prep school I met more of the most intelligent, resilient young people in the city (no matter where I go the young people stay constantly amazing). Here there was an expectation of excellence, kinda. As long as you didn’t ruffle feathers and present challenging behaviors you could reach the finish line (my previous students wouldn’t have gotten in). For many young people this gave them the boost they needed, they graduated and went to college. I’m so proud of the work that was done there (and is still happening there) as well as of the great things that graduates are doing (and will do). Still, there were those for whom the lack of accountability meant that they slammed head first into the natural consequences of not being ready. They would end up dropping out of college (or not even getting in to begin), sometimes with thousands of dollars in debt. Something about that feels wrong and antithetical to my belief in the ability of all young people.

We seem to be incapable of truly educating all students. St. Paul Public Schools is experiencing this in tragic ways. The media is quick to point out student “brawls” and chaos while blaming the racial justice policies and initiatives of former Superintendent Valeria Silva. Defenders of the racial justice policies find themselves making excuses. There is this false dichotomy at the foundation of our dialogue: punitive and oppressive authoritarianism or chaos. I reject this as a false choice. There is no reason to believe that we educators can’t hold our students accountable without being oppressive. The key to this, though, is being totally truthful about what it is that these two sides hold in common: whiteness.

Too many authoritarian educators out there believe that students of color and poor students are inherently and culturally flawed. That “this is their culture” and that they need to be “taught respect.” These teachers never reflect on their own practice or interrogate their own worldviews for how they are contributing to a stifling and oppressive learning environment. As a result their classrooms are run with militant top down discipline, and are full of rote memorization and remedial worksheets.

On the other hand the white liberal teachers who refuse to maintain standards because they don’t want to recreate systems of domination are also perpetuating injustice. These teachers lose sight of the fact that structure and predictability are stabilizing forces, and are actually best practice for trauma-informed classrooms. More than that, such actions betray their underlying doubt in their students. By not holding young people to high standards these teachers are making a clear statement that they don’t actually believe young people can meet those standards, whether the standards are behavioral or academic. Or, more insidiously, they are deliberately withholding what Lisa Delpit calls the “rules of the culture of power” from their students, knowing this will result in them playing a game they don’t know how to win. And the argument about skill deficits is false. Do students have holes in their skill sets? Yes, even privileged white students. Does that mean we stop teaching? No, unless they are going to skate on their privilege. What it does mean is we have more work to do, and we need to make the most of every instructional minute. We must meet students where they are at, but also get them where they want to go. Students deserve options and providing those is our job. It is only white guilt that tells us otherwise. However, there is something inherently messed up about setting an expectation and not supporting young people to meet that expectation. This happens way too often and only serves to keep access and options in the hands of middle-class whites.

The student who doesn’t want to learn is a myth. They may not want to learn from you, but they want to learn. But learning requires a certain level of vulnerability. Our job is to create an environment where students feel safe and willing to be vulnerable. That won’t happen in classrooms steeped in the norms of whiteness that minimize and pathologize the lived experiences of students. It also won’t happen in classrooms where anything goes and there is only a disingenuous tip-of-the-hat to excellence. If you can’t figure out how to build the type of relationships that facilitate loving accountability and create nurturing polycultural learning environments where excellence is produced then you shouldn’t be in a classroom. Nobody needs to be “kept in line” and nobody needs to be saved.

So, I’m not so concerned with being the “chill” and “cool” teacher anymore. That was easy. I’m more concerned about being a good teacher. That is hard. The funny thing is, students still confide in me. Students still hang out in my room. And, most importantly, my relationships are stronger. My students now know I’m going to love them enough to hold them accountable, and then support them to repair. It’s a much more rewarding place.

 

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