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Classroom Mechanics Wed Oct 20 2010
As Mark and I are sitting in a Northwest Side coffee shop, the baristas make the unfortunate choice to blare a Black Sabbath album at a volume that makes it difficult for me to hear myself, much less Mark's stories from teaching. But despite the cacophony in the air around us, Mark is unfazed. A young white science teacher, Mark takes teaching in an all-black South Side high school very seriously; when I comment on the deafening roar of the music, he gives me a look that indicates he barely noticed it. He has given the topic of his school and his students his utmost attention--little can break his train of thought.
A native of a northern suburb, Mark went to school at an elite private university out of state, returning home to teach. He was first hired to teach high school in a rich, mostly-white neighborhood, but was pink-slipped; after substitute teaching for a year on the South and West Sides, he was hired at a high school on the South Side, where he now lives. Several times during his tenure as a sub, he taught at schools where a student had been killed the day before.
In his early twenties, he's about as young as a teacher can be. In conversing about his experiences, however, one could easily mistake his seemingly seasoned demeanor for that of an educator with a decade of experience.
I was at Robeson High School the day after the body of a young girl was found. She had been missing for a couple weeks. I actually had no idea she had been missing. My students were very well aware of the fact that, had this been a suburban white girl, we would all know about it. There was a lot of anger at the police in the aftermath--a lot of feeling that the police had not kept the community safe, that they had been let down by the police.
In another instance, I had a conversation with kids about teen violence. It was definitely a violent school. We used that to talk about, what are the connections between the way you act and violence in the community? It wasn't easy for them to make those connections. Our perceptions of our own involvement in violence are always very skewed. They're not aware of the way in which their reactions can be perceived by someone as starting a fight. So many of these kids, almost all, will tell you, "I don't start fights. But if somebody cussed me out, I'll fight back." So I'll say, "Okay, how about if someone is in your personal space? Will you push them?" And you can see how this builds up. But they don't see that automatically, because the part of your brain that empathizes is still developing.
Almost universally, the kids I've talked to don't buy sociological explanations of violence. They say, "Wait, you're telling me I got in that fight because my parents are poor? No, I got in that fight because she was talking shit!"
It's partly that they don't understand how different other communities are. For example, some students told me that when they were in middle school--12, 13 years old--they would roam around in packs of 15 or so, on buses or on foot. And every once in a while, one of them would point to a stranger, and they would go beat them up, at a bus stop or whatever. And they were surprised when I told them that I never did that when I was a kid. Not because I didn't do stupid shit, but because there were no packs of 12 year olds wandering around beating people up! It hadn't occurred to them that I could've gotten through my school years without getting in a fight. That was not part of their reality.
When that happened, I thought, "Okay, fuck whatever else we were doing. We have to talk about a dozen 12-year-olds beating up a stranger at the bus stop."
They kind of enjoy the incredulity. I'm othering myself, really--I'm in their community, I'm in their space. I've realized that the places where a lot black students on the South Side encounter whiteness are either on TV or with their teachers. I don't really talk like a surfer when I'm not at school, but they all think I do.
Is it a burden--being the representative of the white race, in the flesh?
Whenever people are talking about racism, they look at me and apologize, and are like, "Naw, you're cool." I'm like, "Guys, I know about racism. It's real." The turning of the tables creates some interesting dynamics. You see that some aspects of racism do have a lot to do with unfamiliarity. I can't tell you how many times I've been subbing for another white teacher and been asked if I'm their brother. [laughs] It's interesting to have that flipped. It doesn't have the same effect on me, of course--being othered in the situation when I'm in power is much less traumatizing, much less difficult to navigate. But it's interesting.
Whenever something goes wrong at a school, you feel responsible. And you are somewhat responsible. You are somewhat responsible for everything that happens to your kids. That doesn't mean you could've fixed all of it. For any individual, you're like, "There probably were things I could've done that would've reduced the chances of that happening." As an individual, you don't have the resources to prevent all of them. Experienced teachers are much better than young teachers at doing triage. Experienced teachers are really good at saying, "Okay, these kids will do fine no matter what--I don't need to worry about them. These kids are screw-ups no matter what--I don't need to worry about them."
The positive way of putting it is, they're good at identifying where a certain amount of effort will produce the most definite good. The negative way of putting it is that they give up on some kids. There's a sense in which a lot of the low-level problems with the kids in the middle can be prevented by working with the bad kids, rather than the kids in the middle themselves. The middle 70 percent or so respond very thoroughly to their environment. If you can target the most serious behavior issues, and you can solve those, then those kids in the middle will do much better, because they don't have the negative models to work with. But on the individual level, it's really hard to work with the bottom ten percent of kids.
One thing that either makes it easier or more difficult, depending on how you think about it, is that if you control for terrible circumstances--poor living, disadvantaged communities, absentee parents, how shitty the school is--the biggest predictor of horrible results is being an asshole teacher. It is still true that most of the kids that awful things happen to don't have good relationships with their teachers. But, whereas I didn't have good relationships with my teachers, and I was kind of an asshole, I didn't end up dead or in jail.
During the last couple weeks of last school year, two students at a nearby school were killed. Both of them were doing stupid things at the time. A lot of what teachers had to say about those events involved blaming the kids for their actions--which is, of course, partially justified. But that ends up justifying our lack of connections to our students, our bad relationships with them. It justifies those teachers' lack of effort in creating strong relationships with those students.
Being a screw-up in high school means very different things for different people. A lot of that has to do with a different cultural understanding of what will really screw you up, and what wil kind of screw you up. When I was in high school, I ditched more than most of the kids in my school--maybe 10 percent of the time. At my school, 10 percent is nothing. In my first period class, usually five kids out of 20 would be there within 15 minutes of the start time. After 15 minutes, I'd have maybe 13 out of 20. Which is insane!
A huge percentage of these kids want to go to college. But the only source about how that actually happens is within the school, because they don't have family members who are college graduates. And if information about what you need to do to go to college is coming from people you don't have a good relationship with, you don't adhere to it.
The hierarchy of needs really comes into play at school. I had a student who got suspended during school. They called his mother in for a conference, and he explained he left school because some kids wanted to beat him up, so he wanted to be out of that environment. And his mother said, "That is a good reason to leave school. I support you in that decision, even if it means you're going to now miss several days of school." When you have to make choices like that, it becomes much more difficult to make practical plans for college.
I think the model where you teach in the ghetto for a couple years and then get a comfortable job is really damaging. The idea of Teach for America and programs like it is that poor schools have a dearth of well-educated, smart teachers, so let's send some well-educated teachers there for a couple years. But those teachers often don't continue teaching, so you're creating a dearth of experienced teachers in schools. You get a huge crop of first and second-year teachers, and first- and second-year teachers suck at teaching. And at my school, older teachers, who tend to be of color, are frequently replaced by young white teachers. And it's those staff of color who are likely to live in the neighborhood, and who know how to do that triage.
I tried to implement democratic measures in the classrooms. "You guys didn't like this activity--what would you like to do tomorrow?" And they're persistently saying, "You're the teacher. You're supposed to know how to teach."
You really can't change expectations. Once nobody believes that you're in charge of your classroom, it's hard to change that expectation--because if nobody believes it, you aren't. It's not about dishing out punishments and other authoritarian nonsense. It's about confidence.
Am I an idealist? My idealism has gotten much more small-scale. I'm not interested in replicability at all. To me, I'm still idealistic, but it's much more about small local differences in communities. I mean, look at Urban Prep. People talk about whether or not that's replicable--I don't think it is. Part of what makes that school work is that they work with the knowledge that you have certain ideas about what all-black, al-male schools in Englewood look like, and this is not that school. They work based on their difference from the surroundings. If everybody wore ties to school, then wearing ties to school would not have an effect. It has an effect because the only people who wear ties to school are Urban Prep and elite East Coast prep schools. There are countless other practices that are about setting it apart from other Englewood and other ghetto schools.
And I think that's okay. We have a tendency to think about fixing The Education System rather than fixing a particular school. If we're going to get systemic reform, it's going to start locally.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.
Classroom Mechanics is an oral history project aimed at giving voice to teachers around Chicago. For more information, see this post.