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

What a refugee student from Iraq taught me about reaching newcomers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Some days, Fahad looked like defeat, his tight face tucked into a red hoodie and folded over his thin legs. Other days, he looked like chaos, a screaming fit of flailing limbs.

My role in this scenario remained the same. Each day, I failed to get through to him. Each day, I tried anyway.

I’ve spent years of my teaching career in rooms with refugee students like Fahad, who, for months, responded to only a handful of English words. He mumbled hi and yes and no. He didn’t make eye contact and walked on his tiptoes, gazing at the floor. He avoided human touch. Fire alarms were cause for an immediate meltdown.

He was placed in my classroom for newcomers, a community with 19 students encompassing 16 languages and six world religions, in the hope that it would be what he needed. And after spending so much time with students like Fahad, I’ve realized a few things outsiders should know about teaching students like him.

One is that these students protect their peers with everything they have.

I’ve watched as other students draped their arms around Fahad’s shoulders, physically coaching him toward the appropriate task without adult cues. I’ve watched as they chose him as a math buddy, as they rotated bully-defense duties in the lunchroom, and as they cheered for him when he succeeded. Perhaps the other students understood something about Fahad that only other refugee students could.

The other is just what it feels like when you do get through to a student like Fahad.

One day, walking through the hall, Fahad reached for my hand. “Mrs. K, you hold my hand, OK?”

I smiled. “Fahad?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know that I care about you and that you are safe with me?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Can you look at me, buddy?”

Fahad comes to a complete stop. He faces me. Eight months after our introduction, our eyes meet for the first time. I blink quickly, struggling to restrain my emotion.

“Yeah, Mrs. K. But you have to keep holding my hand.”

Days later, we took a class playground break. As an afterthought, I brought along a box of colored chalk. The students charged the swings and monkey bars, making up for two hours of classroom time with a few seconds of unleashed energy.

Except Fahad. He reached for the chalk and set to work creating a mural along a sidewall of the playground. After some prompting, he explained.

“See, Mrs. K.? Those things in the sky have the guns. And here are guys on the floor with trucks.” (By things, he meant helicopters, and by trucks, tanks.)

“They have guns. You see this people over here? That people is hiding. The other people already die. Who is hiding? It’s me! And my baby sister and brother and my mom. No dad. He over here, see? By the guns, Mrs. K.”

Conversations with Fahad’s mother, through an Arabic translator, paint a clearer picture. Fahad’s father helped the U.S. government in Iraq, and a price was put on his head as a result. Fahad’s mother fled with their children. In the process, Fahad was kidnapped and held hostage by soldiers. After a few days, the soldiers relented to his mother’s incessant pleas for his release, and the family was eventually reunited and granted asylum. Twelve days after arriving in Denver, Fahad passed through our school doors.

His story is a reminder that teachers’ jobs are so much bigger than math, reading, and science. We are detectives, lighthouses, listeners, and foundation builders.

Fahad has a long road ahead, but he doesn’t hide under desks anymore. He hugs me every morning. He writes in full sentences and is working through multiplication. On occasion, Fahad is brave enough to read aloud. He wants to be a scientist — not just any scientist, he says, but an American scientist … of rocks.

Best practices in newcomer education have evolved significantly since my time with Fahad. But it’s always been a tough balance to strike between focusing on academic gains and creating safe spaces for children who have sometimes unthinkable backgrounds, and not all teachers get the help they need to make those minute-by-minute decisions. As an education community, we have a lot of room for growth here.

Now, I am working to help other teachers in positions like mine and to support other schools and districts in meeting these students’ unique needs. Fahad and his classmates continue to be my best teachers.

Louise El Yaafouri (Kreuzer) is a veteran teacher at Place Bridge Academy, Denver’s refugee magnet school. She is also the chief refugee/immigrant consultant at Sterling Literacy Consulting and the author of The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition.

guest perspective

People who say geography means rural areas can’t share in Trump’s school choice vision are wrong. Here’s why

PHOTO: Danielle Scott / Creative Commons

Do some school choice programs make sense in rural America? For students like Paige Knutson, Daniel Lopez Gomez, and Merle Vander Weyst, the answer is certainly yes.

President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for secretary of education insist that private-school vouchers are a good idea. I strongly disagree. But there are examples across America that show how public school choice options can help rural students and families. Having worked with rural schools for 28 years, I know that geography isn’t an insurmountable hurdle.

These options include district schools-within-schools, alternative and magnet schools, charter schools, distance learning options, and dual high school/college credit programs. With federal support, the best of them should be identified, strengthened and replicated.

Why? Let’s start with Paige, Daniel, and Merle.

Some years ago, Paige Knutson brought Minnesota legislators to tears as she explained how a rural Minnesota alternative school had saved her life. Knutson, an honor student and cheerleader, was the oldest in a large farm family that was in danger of losing their property. When she became pregnant, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad and removed from the honor society. These weren’t appropriate responses from the school. But they were the reality.

She thought about taking her own life. Fortunately, a friend told her about a nearby alternative school that welcomed her. Her testimony helped convince Minnesota legislators to permit state per-pupil dollars to follow youngsters who attend alternative schools across district lines.

Dozens of communities in rural Minnesota, like Blackduck, Cass Lake, and Redwood Falls, host these alternative schools. One of the most inspiring programs I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. is the annual MAAP STARS conference, where alternative school students perform, display projects, and earn statewide recognition.

Daniel Lopez Gomez is one of them. He came to the small town of Worthington, Minnesota from Guatemala in 2013, speaking little English. But he blossomed at the Worthington Alternative School. He recently was named “MAAP Student of the Year.”

Thousands of Minnesota students, many of them in rural communities, attend schools of choice, including but not limited to alternative public schools for youngsters with whom traditional schools have not succeeded.

Merle Vander Wyste, who attends the online Blue Sky Charter School, represents another form of rural school choice. Online schools, including Blue Sky, aren’t successful with all students. But they work very well for some young people.

In an award-winning essay, Vander Wyste explained:

“I was never popular in school. Because of bullying I suffered from social anxiety and depression. I often had suicidal thoughts. In my own home, I didn’t have other students telling me how I needed to act. I did not have anyone pressuring me to try drugs. No one told me that the brand of clothing I was wearing was inadequate. I was able to experience my own personal growth as a person.

Attending Blue Sky Charter School has been a great experience for me. It has allowed me to continue my education in a safe, relaxed setting in my home … I work better at night … and I am able to schedule lessons around work or another activity.”

There are other forms of school choice that work in rural settings. They include:

District schools within schools: One way for rural districts to offer more choices is to innovate within the space they already occupy. Forest Lake, Minnesota features two schools in one building, one of which is Central Montessori Elementary. For many years, International Falls Elementary School did the same — one school had traditional grade-level classrooms, and the other operated more like a one-room schoolhouse, with several grades of students working with each other.

Rural charter schools: Most charter schools aren’t in rural areas. But some are: According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 732 rural charters enrolling nearly 200,000 students in 2014-15 school year. Charisse Gulosino has provided fascinating maps of rural charters located, for example, on rural American Indian reservations. She also noted that rural charters serve a slightly higher percentage of low-income students than the national average. One of the most well-known is in tiny Henderson, Minnesota, where students at the Minnesota New Country School study and contribute to the local community.

Dual-credit programs: Minnesota and Washington allow 11th and 12th graders to spend time on a college campus (or in Minnesota, to take college courses on a campus or online), with state funds following students paying for the tuition. Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law also pays for the students’ books and lab fees. Thousands of rural students use these great programs.

I hope that President-elect Trump, DeVos, and Congress will listen to rural, as well as urban and suburban, families that are making great use of these opportunities. Using multiple measures, the federal government can help identify the best of these programs. Then it can help share information, expand and replicate those that are unusually successful.

Joe Nathan has been a public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, National Governors Association project coordinator, researcher, advocate and weekly newspaper columnist. He directs the Center for School Change.