Shifting away from the subversive narrative that teachers are tireless martyrs for inner-city youth



Violent. Aggressive. To be tamed. These are terms often used to describe animals and at times even criminals. Yet, in a recent City Pages article Distrust and Disorder: “A Racial Equity Policy Summons Chaos” in the St. Paul Schools, the nomenclature used to describe students was as such. They were not described as children or the developing youth, but as violent delinquents. Whose students were these? What school was this? These were certainly not my scholars, nor was it an accurate depiction of my work climate in a North Minneapolis school.

It is universally agreed that education, racial equity and discipline in public schools is a complex national conversation. Let’s be clear: Public schools were never designed to serve this diverse of an array of students. What was once intended to churn out obedient industrial workers is now charged with preparing scholars for college and competition in a globalized workforce. In this respect alone, a massive overhaul is long overdue. As I read on, the article proved to be the same old, oversimplified narrative: Inner-city students are violent, unintelligent thugs, and teachers in these schools are tireless martyrs trying to save students from themselves…and poverty…and their community…and…you get the point.



Teachers are not to blame for this narrative anymore than students. In fact, both become victims of this portrayal, thus reinforcing stereotypes of both groups. For reasons unknown, the article placed teachers at the center of the conversation, portraying them as unheard and powerless victims of disorderly student behavior and poor decision-making by school districts. This is not to mention that many root causes were ignored, very little data was offered, and there was little to no explanation for the driving force to focus on racial equity in the first place, and why the initiative has been met with much resistance.

Sifting through the sensationalized stories of assaults, threats and intimidation, and an oddly placed focus on Hmong flight from Saint Paul Public Schools, the key commentary which rose to the surface is the utter failure of the system as a whole to partner and implement a plan with some modicum of buy-in from all who are involved, including its various stakeholders.

Preparing students in the most marginalized and exploited communities requires a shift in how our students and communities are viewed. On the most basic level, it requires a true understanding of racial and economic factors, and the historical implications it has created for our communities. This does not even include the impact it has on student development, how these factors that manifest vary, depending on the group, whether African-American, Somali, Hmong or any other non-White American community.

School safety and a positive learning environment are concerns echoed in many urban schools, including my own school, where I work as a behavioral dean. Deans in our building serve many functions. Attendance and academic concerns are a portion of our work, but our primary responsibility is to ensure students are following school behavioral policy. One outcome of our role is that we have frequent contact with the school’s most disruptive students, often resulting in a more meaningful student-staff relationship. We are able to build positive relationships with these students because we rely on a relational approach to discipline. Research has shown that this approach to discipline that emphasizes proactively building relationships with students is key in developing student trust, and when used by teachers, the result has yielded positive implications in the classroom. Of particular significance is the potential of this approach in regards to African American students, who want to know that you care, before they care what you know.

The importance of developing these relationships is another factor the article neglected to mention. It is in the context of these relationships that we begin to develop an understanding of the student beyond their behavior. We hear from students who are homeless and highly mobile, living in shelters, or coping with any of a number of issues that plague our community, often without the necessary social-emotional skills. Our work centers support students in the development of these skills, providing equal parts accountability and advocacy.

Wiggins_Pull Quote 2-2

I empathize greatly for teachers. Their frustration, at times, is warranted. When a teacher sends a student out of class, I work with the student and teacher to process what happened, coach the student to make better decisions in the future and identify an appropriate consequence. Sometimes consequences involve a suspension recommendation, in which case, school administrators make the final decisions.

Suspending students is the least enjoyable part of my job however, primarily because research shows it does not change behavior. (I would provide a link, but if you Google “suspensions” you will find a plethora of articles revealing their ineffectiveness.) Suspensions are not a one-stop solution. This is not to suggest that schools should no longer suspend students, nor that unwanted student behavior should be free of any consequence. Additionally, I am not saying that classroom removals should end. What I do believe however, is that student removals should be used only as a last resort.

I have heard many of the teacher concerns and views expressed in the article from my own colleagues, as our school has recently undergone changes to many policies and procedures, including the behavioral policies, which was a result of a voluntary agreement between the Office of Civil Rights and Minneapolis Public Schools. In my discussions with teachers and school staff, a few common themes emerge. Teachers and staff believe districts missed an opportunity to gather teacher/staff input during the development stages of the policies. In addition, there is a feeling that districts failed to create and develop appropriate alternatives to suspensions or classroom removals, or provide adequate training before implementing such a large policy change, leaving many school administrators responsible to devise a plan. As a result, many teachers felt they lacked support and preparation to deal with the transition and its impact on classrooms and school climate. It led to inconsistent behavioral interventions and confusing guidelines. And contrary to the article, the students were the real victims.

A component of the racial equity policy aims to address the disparities in suspensions among African American students and their White counterparts. Finding alternatives to removing students from class or school is one piece of the puzzle. It is also one of the easier tasks. In my opinion, the real task will be creating a paradigm shift among educators to view African American students as capable of the same academic success attributed to their White counterparts and changing the narrative. I believe the advocates of this policy are hopeful that this is a step in the right direction.

I was struck by a quote from the article as stated by SPPS teacher Rebecca McQueen:

“There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are. I think we’re telling these kids you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.”

Timeliness is important. Students arriving late to class can be disruptive. And violence has no place in schools. But, McQueen’s statement reflects a focus on punitive consequences. In addition, she expresses disbelief that suspensions fuel the school to prison pipeline, and implies that we actually help students by suspending them! How?

My question is, how are those issues resolved by sending a student home or telling them they can never come back? How are we helping students by denying data that clearly corroborates the relationship between school suspensions and prison sentences? What do we accomplish, other than convincing students they are unwelcome in our buildings, our classrooms? And who are we sending those messages to? The same students who already feel marginalized, left out, unwelcome? Is it only at school or is it in Midway? Frogtown? The Eastside? The Northside? St. Paul? Minneapolis? Ferguson? Baltimore? McKinney?

The change in mentality, as well as the narrative, is required if we are to see meaningful results.

What is lost in McQueen’s punitive response to student behavior is the understanding that student behavior is often driven by an unmet need. Schools and students would benefit from taking a proactive approach to address student needs. Many students show up to school facing a multitude of adversities, including trauma, mental health issues, PTSD, homelessness, substance and domestic abuse, and other non-academic needs.

Districts must develop partnerships within their communities to provide wrap around services to children and families. In addition, they must provide training that will prepare educators to effectively support student success, as it is a reality of working in urban schools. All who choose to work in these communities must be dedicated and committed to ensuring success, as if it’s the only option, for every student. No policy change can create this perspective, but it can certainly challenge those not in agreement. My question educators: How will you rise to the occasion? Will you commit to learning a new way of understanding these issues, or will you retreat to the comfort of your own perceptions? These are questions which all educators must answer. The students are waiting.

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Grant Wiggins’ work educating youth spans more than fifteen years across the metro area, including public schools, charter schools and out of school time programs. His work inside and outside the classroom includes youth development, performing arts, and community organizing. Like many educators, his current role as a Dean of Students at a Minneapolis school often includes coaching, behavior support, advocacy, academic support and community liaison.

18 thoughts on “Shifting away from the subversive narrative that teachers are tireless martyrs for inner-city youth

  1. I read the article, since there has been such a brou-haha here in St. Paul, and it was interesting to read more details about what parents and teachers are upset about. While I’m a strong supporter of public schools, had to pull my kid out (years ago) due to incompetence on mostly the part of the principal and vice-superintendant at the time. Maybe St. Paul needs Deans. The principals in many cases have not been able to cope with the inner-city-ization of St. Paul. High expectations are key, and St. Paul admins have been pretty bad about seeing non-white students as… “poor things” and we have to “understand” them. Let’s all work together to have high self-esteem and high expectations! Also, the iPads were introduced with no training at all. What good does that do? I know many special-needs kids. I have heard St. Paul is mainstreaming them without one-on-one support which is VERY disruptive to “normal” learners. I am not a public school teacher, but just try to teach a Sunday School class with even one kid with Asperger’s. Can’t do it!

  2. Looked at another way, a more immediate key question is protection of students and staff with fewer behavioral problems from those few students with aggressive behavioral problems, regardless of the root causes of their aggressive behavioral problems. I like the article’s focus on root causes, though. It would be better – and cheaper – to have an adequate social safety need with plenty of foid, shelter, clothing and constructive activity choices – than to continue to build up a prison society!

  3. Grant, I wonder if it is possible to be fair and offer educational opportunities to both the disruptive students and the more quiet complacent students in one classroom at the same time? That may have been the point of including information about the Hmong student exodus. You are correct in saying that the disruptive students are crying for help and shouldn’t be punished but they need real help that will improve their lives, not suspension and not a 3 minute “pep talk”. These students were shuffled and ignored in the past but beyond all the talk and shaming, their needs still are still not being addressed adequately. Perhaps the schools don’t currently have the ability to do so. Meanwhile the current state of affairs has made it incredibly difficult for teachers to maintain a learning environment for all students.

  4. “You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.”…. What do we accomplish, other than convincing students they are unwelcome in our buildings, our classrooms? And who are we sending those messages to?
    You are sending a message to the majority of students who are in fear of said students and whose education is compromised by these students that they matter. That they are entitled to a peaceful education.
    Of course there is a need to assist kids who are struggling and creating disruptions. But not at the expense of the rest of the class. Suspensions aren’t the answer-true. But having teachers and students talk out issues that are cut and dry is a waste of time and empowers kids who simply need consequences.
    If your child was in a class full of kids who cuss out teachers and bully students, you would want the kid in question to be removed.
    And yes, there is a lot of Asian flight. I’ve personally witnessed egregious racist behavior exhibited toward Asian students-by other students-while teaching. This is the elephant in the room. All races matter.

  5. Seriously,

    I believe I addressed the concerns you expressed in the article. The problem with what you stated as being a cut and dry issue is that many times they are not cut and dry. It would seem that you are of the opinion that students who are non disruptive have rights that should supercede those who are disruptive. This is in fact not how Public School works. Districts have found this out the hard way by consistently dealing with certain groups of students by removal from the classroom. Too many removals results in the denial of education forv students which is violation of their rights. For those schools receiving title one dollars the result could be an OCR agreement like I discussed in the article. Schools are then legally required to address and improve in the areas in which they are found to be in violation. They are given a few years to show positive results and if they are unable to do so they may find they are on the wrong end of a law suit or they could lose those dollars. This is a necessary accountability to protect students and marginalized communities.

    As far as my child, I would not start by expecting students to be removed or pulling my child out. I would start by asking what is the teacher doing to ensure all students are safe. And if the teacher could not do so I would question what resources need to be put in place to support that teacher. I believe that is one good thing the City Pages article did cover. When a parent took action at Ramsey things began to change. I believe that is partly because parents provide a level of accountability to those who work in schools. Reasonable parents who understand it is not as simple as removing students are an asset in helping schools develop new alternatives and think outside of the proverbial box.

  6. Sophie,

    I believe the idea that Hmong students are quiet and complacent is part of the problem. Quiet and complacent does not equal academic success. Hmong and black students are underperforming for different reasons. The message that gets sent is that it is ok to fail quietly but disruption is not acceptable. The reality is neither should be acceptable. However, disruption is a matter of opinion to some degree and removal from class is typically at teacher discretion. You may view blurting out answere without raising your hand as disruptive and may decide to send a student out. I may view it as a nuisance but ultimately harmless as the student is engaged and learning. This may sound silly but believe me it happens everyday. And again, that quiet kid who follows the rules but is failing remains in class while the engaged student who didn’t technically follow the rules is sent out. These are the sort of things schools and teachers are being forced to reconsider. Especially when these decisions disproportionately impact a particular group of students. This is what the racial equity policy is attempting to get teachers to look at in their personal practice. Reflecting on who you send out of your classroom and why? Is there a pattern? If there is how do I change what I am doing in a way that positively impacts students? Again, this is hard difficult work but entirely doable and certainly should be expected from all who work with students of any age.

    • Grant, I never stated that quiet students rights outweigh disruptive students rights. I merely pointed out that your arguments seem to assert the opposite in that the disruptive student can’t be removed without taking away their rights. If a student is quietly failing that needs to be addressed however their issues are not taking educational opportunities from others.
      Pointing out that Hmong students are typically less disruptive (whether failing or not) is not the problem it’s true. I refuse to use the “I don’t see color only shades of grey lingo”. Why is it that only comedians can joke about cultural differences while everyone else pretends not to notice? Have I taught disruptive Hmong students? Yes probably 3-4 out of hundreds over my 15 years in Saint Paul. I’m going to be honest and talk from my experience. I’ve also had hundreds of non disruptive black students who by the way have had their learning environments harmed by disruptive students. Not all black students call out answers. I have never sent a student out for doing so, that’s rediculous. When I say disruptive I mean swearing non stop, fighting, bullying, walking in and out of the room without permission, throwing things, swearing at me etc. None of those behaviors are tied to any culture, none should be tolerated and all take away from the rest of the class. These behaviors are what are happening in St Paul schools and what the admin are telling us to deal with “in the classroom”. If sent out for these behaviors, students are talked to and sent back in a few minutes to repeat the process over again. White teachers are being told that these sorts of behaviors are part of black culture and to try to accept them. How this message is helpful to anyone is a mystery to me.

  7. It sounds like there is a lack of a discipline policy in the schools. You made a great a point that teachers have some duty to manage their classroom and that they need help from admin. Administrators need to understand the problem and come up with a solution with parents, students and teachers. For me, I reach out to the students and parents first. It has to be positive and consequences have to be clear. We have to reward and a knowledge the positives too. They already some from home problems and issues. My question is, what do those parents say?
    What does the Hmong leaving mean? Are they leaving because of the suspensions or leaving to other districts?

  8. I am not involved, nor have I ever been involved in this business.
    If you set a higher level, and you can be bound to believe,
    then you certainly can figure out strategies.
    So those with socialist belief systems either consciously or subconsciously
    (due to their unfortunate cultural conditioning) tend to fail financially in society and rely on government handouts, whether on cushy government jobs, highly union-protected jobs, or actual handouts.

  9. I think the bar needs to be raised and the paradigm shifted with regards to expectations and accountability for both educators and students. I have multiple children with special needs, some with Individualized Educational Plans (IEP’s) and some without, and I have found that some educators have this “one size fits all” mentality about children and learning. That there is something wrong with my child if they aren’t conforming to educational and behavioral standards. There is no consideration given toward extenuating factors that may make learning difficult. It is when “all else fails” have some teachers been willing to seek a different learning model. I see this in my own children , for example one who is always ready to volunteer for the teacher but never turns in his homework. His ADHD demands that he live in the moment in that he is more than willing to “come up to the board” to answer the math problem at hand but can’t tell you what he did with his completed homework from the night before. His marks are so poor that it is only the yearly standardized tests that inform us that his math and reading capabilities are at grade level. Another example would be the older brother who would’ve entered 2nd grade unable to read because his teachers kept removing him from of the class for behavior issues even though we informed them that he had a high likelihood of having ADHD and other learning difficulties. An Inner City child facing homelessness, drug-addiction of a parent or poverty will have a hard time placing value on education when questions such as “where are we sleeping tonight” or “will there be food at home when I get out of school” are constantly playing in their minds like a broken record. When I was a child beginning school in the 70’s, the expectation was that you were there to learn… PERIOD! Most behavior problems were addressed at home, and in my home that meant a belt. I started at the tail end of corporal punishment in the schools so for the first year or two that meant a rapping on the hands with a ruler or a swat or two on the rear with a paddle by your teacher which was usually in front of the class. Over time schools have become a haven for certain students to escape the harsh realities of their lives but they are not encouraged to perform to their full potential. Teachers are concentrating energies on those “that want to learn” so that the child that becomes the class comedian when asked to read out loud is sent out of the class when the behavior is used to mask the fear of ridicule for being a poor reader. Also this business of paying teachers based on education not results needs to stop – I too am college educated and have a long work history with my current employer but unlike teachers my pay increases are based on merit and productivity not a mix of education and years on the job. If educators lost pay or didn’t get a raise based on the results of students who fell below the minimums required on the basic standards tests a lot more of them would work to find ways to ensure all children are successful. I know that in a lot of ways society itself is to blame for this one – our politicians are constantly cutting funding for education so that is no longer lucrative for people to be teachers.

    • I am college educated and graduated in a class that had 1500 teachers. My cousin graduated 2yrs later in a class that had 700 teachers. As we demonize teachers less people will enter the field which will create a shortage of teachers which will cause us to have to pay more to get people in the field of teaching. We need to support our teachers. If we want better outcomes for students we should hire more teachers and decrease class room size. It’s common sense. In corporate america most managers have 7 people reporting to a manager not 30 people like teachers who can’t fire these active minded students. We do need a change in thinking of educational administrators. We need leaders who have an understanding of the effects of income inequality on our students today. The article hits the nail on the head on how students who are hungry, homeless, or have mental illness or other problems have to be addressed at school. We need principals and asst principals along with teachers not to look at students especially african american students as thugs. In school district 279 a principal at park center hs used the actual n-word at a staff meeting and an assistant principal called African american students thugs. this mentality needs to go in all schools. You can’t teach children with this attitude. We need to care about students and teachers by understanding them and supporting them. Educating students is not like working in private companies. In companies managers can pick and choose employees where public schools have to accept all students which is a huge difference. There is not any special needs managers in corporate america. The schools work for the public good and public welfare where companies work for the profits for the owners. Merit pay and other bonuses don’t always work in public education because teachers classes are selected for them and classes are very large in some districts.

  10. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic.

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    more. Thanks for excellent info I was looking for this info for my mission.

  11. I’m a teacher in Saint Paul schools and I was angered by the City Pages article. Many teachers in Saint Paul are deeply committed to working on Racial Equity issues and we were not interviewed. City Pages did not report on what was happening with racial equity work in Saint Paul schools. City Pages wrote an opinion piece framed as a report. Many excellent comments are listed here I would just like to add that neither The Star Tribune or City Pages ( owned by the Star Tribune) have reported on issues regarding the black community with any accuracy for as long as I have lived in the Twin Cities which is well over 20 years.

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