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’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.