First Person

Neuroses Of A Privileged White Educator

Some of our students have asthma. Some of them don’t. Some of their parents have marital problems or have histories of abuse. Some of them don’t. Some of them get in fights at school; some of them have had their siblings arrested, some of them have been arrested themselves, and, well … some of them just haven’t experienced any of these things.

It’s interesting to see how teaching in a Title 1 school in the South Bronx both does and doesn’t live up to the expectations that movies gave me. Some professors advised me to teach in a private school, with a mostly white population. “It’ll be easier,” they said. “Those Bronx kids will tear you apart.” My parents said it would be more financially viable, and that I’d have greater job security. “It’s not safe,” one relative said. “I read a review on the Google. I went to New York in the ’70s. I know what it’s like there. Trust me.” And movies: I’ve seen clips from all the cliché urban biopics. Try “Blackboard Jungle,” or “Stand and Deliver,” or “Dangerous Minds,” or “Freedom Writers.” (These “success” stories have been expertly debunked by Colleen Gillard and Gary Rubinstein, respectively.)

Where can we bridge the gap between fiction and reality? Why is it so gripping — I would almost say transfixing — to watch movies about privileged white people helping underprivileged racial minorities? Teju Cole, in speaking about “KONY 2012,” controversially coined a term he calls “the white savior industrial complex.” He uses this term to describe when white people expend “big emotions” in helping racial minorities so that they can “validate” their own economic privilege.

I can’t help but ask: Does this apply to me?

I’m white and Jewish. I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb outside of Chicago and went to an enormous school, one of the best in the state. I took 12 Advanced Placement classes, saving up enough credit to take a year off of college, spend a year abroad, and save up money afterwards by taking on part-time jobs and internships instead of registering for classes. I am one of the lucky ones. I was born in the right place, went to the right schools, and in college, I made the right choices. The fact that I had choices to begin with was what set me up for success. So many students that we teach don’t feel like they have any.

In being accepted to Blue Engine, I couldn’t help but berate myself, believing I had fallen into Cole’s “white savior” dialectic. I’m just another wide-eyed kid from an elite private school thinking he can go into a Title 1 school — predominantly filled with racial minorities — and subsequently “save” them. What naivety, what presumption! These kids, I thought, are going to chew me up and spit me out.

Ironically, I was afraid of being judged by the color of my skin. I was afraid that I would be unable to relate to my students, unable to break the bubble of my privileged, suburban, mostly white upbringing. “I won’t be able to reach out to them,” I thought. These were my neuroses and mine alone.

A month later, I have found something I definitely didn’t expect. My school staff and my fellow BETAs come from a wide variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. But when we work, all the differences in our upbringing — who had privilege and who didn’t — don’t interfere with our ability to teach or relate to our students. In fact, each of us has something different—a skill, a character trait, a finesse — that helps us to connect with each kid differently. As a team, we are strengthened by our differences as much as our similarities. We become united in a common goal: we are all working to raise the stakes for these students and get them somewhere despite the odds. And they look up to each of us, because they know we all equally believe that, no matter where our great-grandparents came from.

Like them, I was a student, and not very long ago at that. When they complain about their upcoming essay next week, I tell them how in college I wrote six-eight papers per quarter. When they stress about the 10 pages of reading per night, I tell them about how in high school I once read a book overnight to study for an exam the next day. Like I used to (and probably still do, more than I’d like to admit), they worry nonstop about what other people think of them. They write paragraphs at the beginning of each class about their phones and iPads and Jay-Z concerts and One Direction music videos. They discuss the clothes they bought over the weekend, the “high school parties” they went to, their skirmishes with the law, the fights with their parents, and the passing of their loved ones. Some of these things surprised me — I didn’t expect these kids to have iPhones, to be going shopping some weekends, to have the simple luxuries of life that I have (even on a BETA budget!). I didn’t expect their high school experience to, in many ways, seem so similar to mine.

Some of them, in lieu of homework, stay up long nights messaging with friends until 2 a.m. through texting or Facebook chat. I did that too, once — back then we used AOL Instant Messenger, but the idea was still the same, and the procrastination just as ever-so-sweet. Our skin colors might be different, our parents’ wallets might be different sizes, and there might be almost a decade between us. But, in some cases, we share the same gossip, the same social pressures, and similar academic experiences.

I do not feel I am trying to “save” these kids. But I am trying to help them. And for some of our students, I can help prepare them to be successful in college. It’s not about me, not about satisfying some “complex,” as Cole would suggest. I’m here to increase the chances that my students find the support that they need. Because in a school with large classes it can be easy for at-risk students to fall through the cracks.

I have already built some strong connections and I can see myself building even stronger ones as the year goes on. They ask about my years in college; they ask what I will be for Halloween; they ask if I will be around after school so that they can come by and say hi. No, I don’t think I look like Harry Potter, I say. Yes, those are silly bands I’m wearing. And yes, I went to college.

Yes, college was amazing. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I had to study — and do my homework. Yes, yes, yes. And you should, too. You can, too. You can too, just like me. Even though we don’t look alike; even though we grew up in different places.

They are silent for a few still seconds. Possibly for the first time all class. But I know they’re listening.

This post originally appeared on the Blue Engine blog.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.