First Person

Race Against Time: A Teacher’s Constant Struggle

Classroom management decisions are all about timing, and time waits for no one — not even a white teacher striving to capture the sophisticated racial commentary her students are never shy to espouse. I am often forced to choose between my established parameters — learning objectives and the rules of my classroom — and a teachable moment that, if done right, my students will remember long after those parameters have stopped mattering.

In my second period 10th-grade world literature class, which tends to be the most precocious and defiant of my three classes, a restless energy fills the air. We are concluding a human rights unit in which students focused on how survivors of human rights violations demonstrated courage, and I’m trying to psych them up to write the final project: an essay about someone they know who demonstrates great courage. As we are brainstorming potential people we could interview, a student named Joseph blurts out, “I want to interview you, Ms. Lustick! You got the courage to come in and teach us black kids every day.” I wait a beat, for a burst of laughter or some other response, but rest of the class waits silently for my reply.

When a student calls out, two sides of a teacher’s brain light up. The content-driven side of my brain gets excited: wow! That student made a fascinating point! I’d really like to hear more! I bet other people do too!  Listen to the content-driven side of your brain and students will learn very quickly how easy it is to get you off track. So a teacher quickly learns to beef up the management-driven side of her brain. The management-driven side of my brain can hear a student call out just about anything and it will compel me to do one of two things: repeat, flatly, that I’m only calling on students with their hands raised, or show this by flat-out ignoring the comment in favor of a student whose hand is up. It’s usually this latter strategy that I employ. It’s less disruptive to the lesson, while sending the same message: I will take your comment as soon as you raise your hand. I always feel it’s the more impartial and professional of the two strategies. It says, “I don’t discriminate against specific students or their opinions; I simply only acknowledge those with their hands raised.”

But there’s a layer to this particular comment that complicates that. It is so personal and racially charged that ignoring it could look like it is being done out of fear, or out of embarrassment at the answer. Because to be entirely honest, I do think I have courage. My students challenge me every day to prove to them that I see and care about them for who they are, and if I’m not willing to prove that in every fiber of my persona, everything else I’ve planned will probably be a waste. Joseph senses some of this, I’m sure, but not the nuances. To pretend what he’s saying is ridiculous or not worth hearing would be fake of me, and my students can’t stand it when I am fake.

So I’m left with an impossible decision: Should I respond to his comment, showing I can engage in a racial discussion but forgoing part or all of my lesson? Or should I ignore him in favor of a student with his hand raised, allowing the learning to continue? In a split second, I know I must make the latter decision and speak with Joseph later. I’ll know whether I made the right decision at the exact moment it is too late: When I call on another student, I almost flinch in anticipation of raucous laughter and exclamations of “Yo, Joseph, she violated you man! She totally ignored you. Oooooh…”

But no — there is just silence, with the exception of Thomas asking if they have to turn the interview notes in with their papers. “Yes,” I respond. “You have to show your own process.” Phew, over the hurdle. Class continues, and the two sides of my brain are back in action as one.

I speak privately with Joseph later about his comment, asking him all the questions I wanted to ask him in class. He says he didn’t even mean to say the word “black”; it just came out. What he meant by it was “kids acting like this”: He gestures around as the rest of the class talks, laughs, and otherwise wastes time instead of working on their essays.

“Poor behavioral choices?” I prompt. He nods. I’ve heard other black students complain about “black people” when they really mean to complain about irresponsible or disrespectful behavior. I want to ask Joseph why this is, whether it’s a mere joke, and whether he agrees with me that perpetuating negative stereotypes, in jest or not, is an example of internalized oppression.

“So why didn’t you say that?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he insists. He doesn’t seem interested in engaging in the topic anymore. I’ve given him the space to have this conversation, and now it is he who is shying away. I wonder what it will take for me and my students to be able to have the kinds of conversations we so clearly want and need to have, still play our roles as teacher and students, and still get our work done.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.