First Person

Commentary: Toward more productive dialogue

Teacher Mark Sass urges people engaged in debates about education reform to open their minds to diverse perspectives and avoid ideology and knee-jerk positioning.

Living in Colorado, a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election, we are being bombarded with campaign spots on the television and radio. It is still four months from the election, yet the airwaves of Colorado are filled not only with the acrid smell of out-of-control wild fires, but the acrid smell of our political discourse.

As a social science teacher, I’m fortunate to be able to bring immediate relevance to my classroom with the impending presidential election.  I am not only responsible for teaching the election system to my students, including the electoral college, political parties,and special interest groups; I am also responsible for teaching students how to engage in their civic duties, which includes gathering and arguing their political positions.

I have plenty of real life examples on how NOT to engage in political discourse just by using the media.  There is little “how to” engage examples out there today.

The same can be said of the discourse surrounding education reform today.  There are plenty of examples and ideas on how NOT to engage in discourse, and not a lot of examples or ideas on how to do it well.

How do we move to a more productive, a more constructive conversation about education and education reform which can result in action?  Let’s start with a few suggestions for those who currently engage in the education discussions:

  • Teachers, we need to listen. In order to listen effectively, reactionary and defensive posturing will need to fall aside. We have to be open to the ideas of others rather than simply rejecting them because they may not be “real” educators. Teachers need to lead, but we need to listen as well.
  • Non-educators, have some respect for the profession of teaching.  After all, if the research informs us that teachers have the greatest impact in the classroom, why not help promote this by listening and taking teachers’ voices seriously?
  • Don’t confuse bias with partisanship. Bias permeates all of us.  But bias does not mean one is wrong or right.  Let’s allow for one’s “angle” or “perspective” to enter the idea arena without immediately disregarding others’ views based on who they are. One can be biased but not closed off to other ideas; partisanship leads to closed-mindedness because the only goal is to win.
  • Understand that education is complex. For those who believe they have easy fixes to education reform, don’t bother.  Easy fixes reflect a simplified view of the parts that make up the whole. When people take a reductionist view of something as complex as education, they limit the conversation to a very narrow world-view.
  • Focus on the shades of grey that exist between the polarizing and dualistic approaches that seem to inhabit current education reform discourse.  Education has experienced tremendous swings in the reform pendulum that leaves us weary and thin-skinned.  Think back to the phonics versus whole-language debate of a decade ago.  We now know it takes a combination of both based on the student’s individual needs to work.
  • To progressives I ask us/you to stop with the simplistic view that: a) you cannot impact achievement gaps in schools until you end inequities in society and/or b) academic achievement is not phased by social injustice. As I state above, let’s move away from the either/or scenarios.
  • To those who advocate for a market-based approach I ask that we understand that there are short-term and long-term approaches you can apply to education reform discussions.  Use the long-term approach. Countries with successful education systems recognize that short-term financial returns do not equate to success.

Some may call me naive but I envision dialogue that relies on the human capacity for rational behavior where we recognize compelling, reasoned arguments for what they are; where we can learn from one another and agree on interpretations of the situation; where we reach a common understanding through reasoned argument, consensus and cooperation rather than strategic action strictly in pursuit of ones’ own goals. These are some of the ideas that come from the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his idea of communicative action.

This is not easy work.  Whenever work involves moral claims it will be combative and messy. Saul Alinsky, the great community organizer, called dissonance “the music of democracy.” Let’s be mindful of this as we engage in our work.

I want to be clear that I am not necessarily advocating for finding a middle ground.  The middle ground may not be the best place to end up.  Besides, if we focus on the middle ground, it just encourages parties to engage in polemic attacks in an attempt to keep the middle ground from moving to or away from the poles.

I am advocating that we take into account the perspectives of those whom we reflexively reject. Let’s reach consensus on the moral claim that compels our work, and let’s reject the use of power as the motivator to act.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk