In a recent article in the StarTribune by Greta Callahan, kindergarten teacher at Bethune School under the title “Walk A Mile In My Teaching Shoes,” we read this description of one way teachers are evaluated:
“Observations also involve the observer walking up to students asking what they are doing. Even my 5-year olds, who may have just started school, get asked this question. The student is supposed to regurgitate the ‘I Can’ statement that correlates to ‘Focused Instruction’. The usual response, though, is something along the lines of ‘math’ or ‘Jaden took my crayon!’ “……
A second way of evaluating teachers is the student survey:
“My 5-year-olds have to circle their responses (even though they can’t read) to questions about their teacher and school.”
A third way involves the achievement data tests:
“Two or three times a year, our students are pulled out of our classrooms and tested by a stranger from the district. When she asks our kids to go into a separate room with her and gives them a test, most of them shut down. It’s intimidating to them.”
And thus, using these three methods, the “worst teachers” of kindergartners are designated by Minneapolis Public Schools: observations that require scripted verbal responses, surveys to students who cannot read and testing by a stranger. This description and other happenings in Minneapolis schools have rendered me speechless. Some will be grateful for my silence. Others have wondered where I have been.
I believe I am experiencing certain stages of grief starting with despair and anger. I have not gone through denial or bargaining and because of my own past and present experience I probably will not go through those parts of the process. I know what is happening cannot be denied and I am not one who bargains. I struggle for acceptance and do not arrive there. Perhaps I am not into full-fledged grief after all. Yet I am headed for it. Because what has happened during these years of refusal to look at true equitable education in our district, is that our children have been abandoned. We have put brand new teachers, whether Teach for America “graduates”, or first year educators from a university certified program, into our schools with the most needs. We have provided little relief or support to these teachers– whether white teachers or teachers of color, in the form of reduced class sizes, tutors, mentoring beyond their first year or full time classroom assistants. Very little has been done for students themselves in the form of mentoring, enrichment in the arts or student empowerment programs. While pockets of help is coming from some exciting new teacher training and support, it is not early enough. And what confounds me is that as a district, Minneapolis has continued to remain silent around what is taught in schools, but rather has focused on a math and reading overload using programmed instruction, observers, “focused instruction”. Honestly, the boredom that students express about such programs is warranted; they are deadly.
All the while, from the regional or zone administrators or CEOs or superintendants we get abstractions, platitudes, or, “shock”, “amazement! “ that our kids of color aren’t doing better based on useless tests.
I was surprised many years ago when a white friend of mine said he thought we needed to tear down the education system in our country and rebuild it from the ground up. And he said this before NCLB or Race to the Top; before we cut out time for recess, music, art, theater., poetry, even science and social studies. It was before we became obsessed with charter or non-charter designations, before white millionaires decided they could run our schools. At that time some of us teaching in Minneapolis were acutely aware that without true engagement on the part of kids and their community, we would get nowhere. So we tried to re-create schools from the inside: We invented new courses, like African American literature, history, Native American literature, heroes, Asian American cultures, immigration. We invented courses like “Journeys”, “Rebellion”, “Ways to Travel”, “Exiles”, “Bystanders and Activists”–all of them ways for students to explore how we and those who came before us lived our lives, how our forefathers and mothers made food and wrote novels and worked with their hands. It was a time when some of us, white and black, were free to be creative.
Right now, there are teachers who are providing engaging classes for kids, be they studying science with first graders or Civil War history with juniors. Yet these fine educators of all cultures, races and religions continue to swim against the tide of economic demand. In some high schools in St. Paul, class hours are now limited to 47 minutes in high school: enough time to get students seated and accounted for with maybe 35 minutes left to involve them in discussion, teach them a mini lesson or two, form small groups, revise their work or make presentations.
Even under these conditions, teachers who care are offering courses in Blues and Jazz, or Reparations, are mentoring students after school, bringing poets in to talk with kids and read aloud to them. In some schools these same poets, in their single visit, are asked to teach terms and concepts, to structure their visit around the “standards”. Whatever happened to providing students with the experience of being in a room4:00 a.m. to write before going off to work? Whatever happened to engaging kids in subjects that connect with what they want to know about: robots, Ebola, racism, comedy, grief and loss? Every year, even the most committed teachers lose the chance to do what they know will work: connect to kids, find what pulls them, what moves them, and build a structured demanding class around those things.
I have long felt that hope abides in those creative and inventive classrooms of the most radical, committed teachers who believe in social justice education. In Chicago we are seeing some evidence in public schools that are centered around student interests with challenging, high level curriculum, that we can succeed at a school wide level where even neighboring charter schools are failing. But hope, because of what is found in one classroom or even one school, is not enough. The failure of schools to include and reflect the lives of poor kids, and of kids who are African American whether rich, middle class or poor, has been documented before No Child Left Behind. It is what my friend who believed in the necessity of reinventing schools had seen those many years ago. What has oppressed children has been here for centuries: in the very invisibility of black and brown skinned people in our curriculum, in our teacher training, in our classes on music, science, art, literature and especially in our history classes, including IB or AP.
Ultimately we never did have, and many teachers today do not have, the power to reinvent the economic system through education. In truth, education has been rigged from the start: its unstated goals appear to be to reproduce the divisions that already exist in the wider population, to provide plenty of instruction-following human beings to fill the need of companies, restaurants, corporate office buildings with minimum wage labor.
Our kids need what the wealthiest kids have: either in public schools where there s parent money to help out, or at-home parents to volunteer in the classroom or high property taxes to fund new theaters, computer labs, or in private schools with class sizes of fifteen to eighteen and where elementary kids go to museums at age six, concerts at seven, or in high schools where seminars are held that explore subjects in depth, that encourage complexity of thinking. Instead, because we are a system that believes in winners and losers in the education race based on meaningless tests; a system that encourages competition and provides some kids with incomparable advantages before the game has started, we are set up to struggle along, piecemeal. Until we work with those who stand in front of our children, be it in the office or the classroom, to comprehend the implicit bias they bring to their work, or to grasp the costs of white supremacy, we will not reinvent our schools. I am not ready to blame all teachers for the way our schools are run, for the inequities in our system. That is a simplistic, destructive and a disrespectful way to treat so many who give their lives and wallets and time to this work. They have not been given the tools and training to be effective in some districts. In others, the teachers who do understand what is going on, who do know what needs to be done, have not been given the chance to do it.
Perhaps radical change will come. Perhaps we will re-invent public education. Perhaps we will find a way not to blame the Greta Callahans who courageously write about their lives. Perhaps we will stop laying blame on those who love and demand the most from our kids, be they in charter schools or traditional public schools. Perhaps teachers will be given the time to do the soul searching, deep discussions, collaboration that will be needed to create schools that have full resources, encourage creative teaching and risk taking on the part of all who know what is needed.
It will not be in my lifetime. And for that I arrive at the stage of grief that is the final one: acceptance. This is not acceptance of the system as it is, but rather an acceptance of what is needed to reframe it, rebel against it. What I do see, in the meetings I have been attending all across the country, are the seeds of such rebellion. I see black, brown, Asian, Native and white teachers willing to do the risky work it will take to make education equitable and responsive, life changing and joyful. I also know that some of the most daring teachers of color and their white allies are in need of protections as they fight to empower their students, to make deep changes in the system. Before supporting the push to get rid of due process for teachers, please know this process is essential for the rebellion we need to have to move beyond white supremacy. Reaching acceptance as a final stage of grief is not an acceptance of what is now, but what might, if we ally with each other instead of putting each other down over and over again, be a true and radical shift in public education.