First Person

Fire Miss Crabtree!

Poor Miss Crabtree. She’s getting married, and she has to leave her job. Such things happened back in the day, before anyone thought of equal rights for women, tenure, or indoor plumbing.

Nowadays we no longer insist teachers take chastity vows, remain unmarried, fill the inkwells, clean the coal boilers, or do whatever else they did in the good old days. Still, without tenure Miss Crabtree could now be fired for some more contemporary reason. Perhaps she told her colleagues how much UFT teachers earn. Or maybe she insisted they provide services mandated for special education students. Maybe she didn’t do anything and they took the word of an angry student over hers. Perhaps they posted her scores (despite an explicit agreement not to — how can anyone trust these folks?) and decided to discontinue her, rendering her license useless in New York City. These things happen when teachers don’t have tenure.

Yet, I keep hearing, tenure is evil. Why? Because there are bad teachers out there! If you watch “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” you may walk out thinking they all hide behind the skirts of evil AFT President Randi Weingarten. You might even think Weingarten recruited them and granted them tenure, but she did neither. People who think she did are confusing her with folks like Joel Klein and his merry band of administrators, who actually have such powers.

Say what you will about Weingarten, but she’s the most “reform”-minded union leader in the history of civilization. Weingarten most certainly does not defend bad teachers.

In fact, I’ve never seen anyone at all say we want more bad teachers, or that bad teachers need to be retained indefinitely. I have seen many public figures say that teachers shouldn’t get raises because some of them are bad. It reminds me, frankly, of young racists with whom I grew up saying things like, “The bad ones spoil it for the good ones.” Sure, we’d like you to have civil rights, but some of you are bad. Until you are all perfect, like we are, we need to continue treating you like second-class citizens.

Miss Crabtree and her students, in a still from the 1930 film

Let’s say teacher A sits at his desk, eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and reading the box, while his students throw chairs at one another. Let’s say he teaches English but doesn’t actually speak or understand it, let alone any other known language. Would that make him a bad teacher? Let’s say yes. To defend a bad teacher, you’d have to assert that teachers have the inalienable right to study Cocoa Puff boxes during class time, and have no need to know their subject matter. I’ve never said such a thing, and I’ve never heard it said, either.

Now let’s say teacher B speaks to reporters, and writes anywhere and everywhere that will post his ravings about the ineptitude of those who manage the school system in which he works. Let’s say he’s extremely critical of the preposterous shortcuts that masquerade as reform, and makes a huge stink over things that actually hurt kids, like overcrowding and class size violations.

Finally, let’s say both teachers A and B are brought up on charges. Either they have the right to representation, or they don’t. Either they have the right to present their side of the story, or they don’t.

When I hear the new breed of education experts like Davis Guggenheim and John Legend ranting about bad teachers, I get the impression they feel only good teachers should be entitled to representation. But who gets to decide who are good and bad teachers (particularly without hearing their side of the story)? Should it be Joel Klein, who spent years boasting of test scores gains that proved to be nonexistent? Should it be crusading ex-D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose notion of classroom control entails taping kids’ mouths shut? Should it be Guggenheim, who made a film that’s largely misrepresentation?

Personally, I’d rather not rely on the good graces of such individuals. I have a little experience with unreasonable supervisors, and I want them to demonstrate I did whatever they happen to be accusing me of. Because I have tenure, that’s precisely what they have to do (at least for the moment).

If school leaders like Michelle Rhee readily fire hundreds of teachers based on faulty methodology, what are they gonna do to Miss Crabtree? Without a union, who would protect her? I’m hoping my daughter, who dreams of becoming a math teacher, has better options.

In fact, I’d like all my students to have better options than those faced by non-union teachers. I’d like to leave a legacy of good schools and good jobs. I’m afraid demonizing teachers while ignoring outrageous discrepancies in “reformer” talking points will lead to neither.

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