First Person

A letter to fellow teachers: As we denounce racist police, we must not hold our tongues about racist schools

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar

When I was about 16 years old, I worked in a pharmacy in a suburb of Milwaukee. I mopped floors and stole candy. Two people addicted to painkillers came in one night with a .44 Magnum revolver.

They wanted money and drugs, and though I was in charge of neither, I got to feel what it was to lay on the floor with a gun to the back of my head. Later, I got to know what it meant to see a middle-aged, balding cop and believe he was the most beautiful creature in the world. It’s easy to hate on cops, you know, until you really need one.

Of course, in many places and at many times, cops are doing the ugliest things we do. I don’t need to tell those stories, do I? I don’t need to repeat the hashtags, do I? We are, I am, drowning in the sorrow of right now. I need love. We need to embrace love in each other, but I also, right now, can’t stop being mad.

There should be no more hashtags, obviously. I agree, obviously, that we should stop needlessly killing people, stop fearing black skin as a marker of some imagined violence about to happen. But that won’t be enough.

Maybe we need more hashtags. Millions more. There are no small ways someone is treated as inhuman. There are no small injustices. There are only injustices that are drowned in the volume of their volume. There should be hashtags for the times someone didn’t die. For the comments, names, assumptions, accusals, abuse, on the car lot, in job interviews, from police, from the guy behind the counter, from the woman at the bank, from the doctor.

From teachers. We know it. From teachers. We need hashtags for every student of color and Native student suspended for insubordination, for being bored or disrespected and acting like people do when they are either or both of those things. Hashtags for students suspended for being smarter than their teachers or principal. Hashtags for students awarded for passing with skills that should have them leading. For every student made to feel like their teacher is scared of them.

We can decry racist cops and the racist criminal justice system, but we better not hold our tongues about racist teachers and the racist education system. We better not use their excuses about how the media is making it hard for us to do our jobs, about how the family and community of our students is to blame. We better not say “not all teachers,” and we better not say, “No one would chose teaching if they were racist.”

We sound ridiculous. Anyone sounds ridiculous when they say race isn’t an issue, most especially when they can point out at racism in others and somehow imagine it doesn’t touch their own work.

Teachers, this is us. We are them, without guns.

We take lives with subtlety, with patient violence.

Our black students under-perform, and we blame them. Our black students are singled out and we blame them. We track them low and punish them often, and we blame them. We prove to them they are less than, and we blame them for it. Get mad, but don’t come to me blaming poverty for our failures.

Get mad for black lives. Get mad at the murder and incarceration, but acknowledge that we are fueling the system from the bottom up with the black flesh it feeds on.

Get mad at me for saying it. I’m mad at every teacher who won’t.

Get mad, but not if you’re only looking for someone else to blame. Your righteousness is racism.

Us versus them is too easy. Black lives versus blue lives, allies versus attackers. The saintly liberal against the demon conservative. It’s too easy. It excuses too much. It hates too much.

I genuinely respect cops. I respect anyone whose job it is to run toward bad things happening to help people. I’m not sure I would be able to always do that. I wouldn’t. The stakes are high and impossible decisions need to be made instantly.

I wish them safety. I also wish them patience and empathy and humanity and respect and understanding. I want them to be better, and want us all to be better.

I know nothing about police training, but I know we all, most especially any white person in any position of power, any white person with any desire to consider themselves a functioning adult of a healthier society, needs to more work on our own work. We need to be honest. We are, every one of us, part of this problem.

We can shout that Black Lives Matter. Let’s make sure they do.

This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.

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.