In this course equity is viewed as setting high expectations, providing accessible opportunities to learn and ushering each student through meaningful outcomes. The purpose of this laboratory is to explore personal, interpersonal, and institutional issues involved in becoming a teacher leader for educational equity. This course will have you examine the personal and institutional impact of the intersection of oppressions surrounding race, ethnicity, language, gender, and class.
Alliances and Trust
How did school experiences affect your ability to trust others? What was helpful and what was harmful?
I became very distrustful of adults and teachers through high school. There were the concrete reasons, and the vague, emotional reasons. I can’t think of any “helpful” experiences, only harmful ones. One incident had a huge impact on me and my ability to trust others when I was in 10th grade. In my school, Lower School was 7-9 and Upper School was 10-12. One of my friends was taking her finals early due to a family vacation. She was given a test to take in the classroom of one of the English faculty, who at the time also served as the Dean of Students. This friend of mine, “Leslie,” was one of the smartest girls in the school, and also one of the most troubled. Leslie was quite the kleptomaniac actually. That day Leslie finished her exam early. Due to the honor code in place at the school and the fact that she was the only individual taking the test, she was left to work on her own without a proctor. When she finished the exam she did what any other super-smart, super-troubled kleptomaniac would do and started looking through the Dean’s files.
What she found of interest was a hand-written list. It was written in the exaggerated curlicue cursive of our 9th grade science teacher.
I remember it so clearly. It was written on yellow lined legal paper, the kind that you tear off a pad at the top. The writing was in red rolling ball liquid pen—NOT ballpoint. Down the left side of each of the four or so pages was the name of each of the 86 young women in our class (it was an all-women preparatory school).
Next to each of the names were notes. A small number of the names were left blank. Most contained words, phrases, and occasionally small paragraphs. (Even though I laugh when I think about this usually, to write it all down actually still makes my blood boil). I can photographically recall them almost in alphabetical order:
Nn. parents are friends of [Johnny] Cochran…
Nn. father molested her as a child…current stepfather…
Nn. sexuality: ?
Nn. sleeps where ever…
Nn. Dad came out of the closet, mom flipped out…
Nn. works hard for her B’s, trustee kid
Nn. Mt. St. Helen’s kid, dad’s a charmer…not
Nn. nice girl, nutty parents
And the list went on. Leslie naturally showed the list to me and two of our best friends. At the time several of us were on the editorial board of the school newspaper. We thought, “This is IT! We’ll ruin them! We’ll show them!”
Leslie took a copy (we made hundreds at Kinko’s) to the Headmistress, along with threats of not just the school newspaper, but the Los Angeles Times. We had readied the attack.
What she got in the headmistress’ office was a flat, nonplussed response. The list, she said, was simply confidential notes from a meeting that takes place every year between the 9th and 10th grade faculty to discuss any special concerns or needs regarding individual students. She saw no problem with its contents and wasn’t compelled to explain any of it in any other way. No further explanation or apology was given.
The headmistress told Leslie that she could be expelled for stealing according to the honor code. But since Leslie was a National Merit Finalist and a third generation legacy at the school, she was given a slap on the wrist. She wrote a research paper on the history of the honor code at our school, or something else equally lenient and ridiculous.
What I learned as a teenager/assumptions I made:
1. Adults are evil, judgmental, classist, racist, and sexist. (So if you’re Black and you’re friends with Johnny Cochran you…are smart? Are not? Are someone to be feared?…or wait…remind me of how that is supposed to impact a child’s learning? So your teachers are judging you for sexual experimentation? So your teachers got together to decide whether or not your dad is cool? Or maybe you’re not allowed to get B’s if your dad’s a trustee member, or you’re only getting B’s because you’re doing C work but you’re dad is powerful???)
2. Our teachers cared more about gossiping about students and their families than our education (priced, in 1995 at 15K/year).
3. There is no justice for teenagers.
4. If you’re smart enough/rich enough/upper class enough you can get away with anything.
How do these experiences affect you now?
Most of the time they don’t affect me at all. I don’t walk around with a chip on my shoulder. When I see faculty and staff from my alma mater I smile and make small talk without engaging in fantasies of public hangings and the like. I actively dislike my alma mater, and take issue with many facets of it, but this experience isn’t totally paramount. I take the experience as a whole, rather than a laundry list of transgressions and offenses.
Since I’ve been a teacher I’ve found myself in SOMEWHAT similar situations and conversations to the one the headmistress claimed those faculty were having. Teaching is personal business, and to do it you get pretty caught up and involved in your students’ personal lives.
Keeping all this in mind, I’ve tried hard to make sure that any time I’m talking about something as sensitive as molestation, grades, sexuality, and parents, that I keep the conversation constructively focused on how this information impacts learning and how we can help the student.
What still confuses me about my experience as a student is 1) why the conversation my teachers had focused so much on the parents’ social and class standing/affiliation and 2) why in the world anyone would write it all down, and in such and obviously insensitive and sarcastic tone. Or rather, I’m not confused. I know. And I’m disappointed.
One of my cardinal rules of teaching is NO SARCASM. I’ve worked largely with 6th-8th graders, and the fact is, you can’t rely on all students of that age to understand sarcasm. Now, even if I end up only working with 9th-12th graders, or college or graduate students for that matter I still argue: NO SARCASM.
Sarcasm can be funny between friends, in the Coen brothers’ films, and on a Friday night at a bar. Maybe it has something to do with the traditional Eastern/Southern American (as in Pennsylvania and Tennessee) families I come from, but in spite of the comic possibilities, sarcasm is very frowned upon. When there is a standard like that set in my family, it can sound arbitrary and puritanical, but usually there are good reasons behind it.
Besides what many elders in my family would say (sarcasm is un-Christian), sarcasm is harsh, bitter, and usually involves derision. Sarcasm is often cutting and often comes in the form of a taunt.
If you employ sarcasm (bitterness, taunting, derision) towards or around your students, how can they trust you? How do they know that they will not be the next targets? It follows to ask then, how will they learn, if they fear, hate, or distrust you? Why would they want to?
What in your current situation affects your ability to trust other and others abilities to trust you?
I still have difficulty trusting others until they have shown me DIRECTLY that they have respect for me. I try to engender trust by showing others DIRECTLY that I respect them.
What has helped or been a hindrance to forming alliances across racial lines?
As a white person, it has helped me to study and inform myself of the history and ongoing conditions that lead people of non-white backgrounds to distrust whites. Along the way, I have had the opportunity to learn from, work with, and have a good time with people who come from different racial backgrounds than me. Being aware of my own issues of trust and concurrent fear that I feel in different situations has led me to be more aware of how others, particularly people of other races, might experience different kinds of fear and distrust AND how the bases for their fears and distrust DIFFER from mine in that they are HISTORICALLY-, CULTURALLY-, AND INSTITUTIONALLY-BASED.
To be explicit and honest: I treat people of other races differently than I treat other white people. For example, when a Black parent comes for a parent-teacher conference with me about their ADHD diagnosed, 12-year-old son who drives every teacher nuts, I make SURE that that parent knows that I am not going to give up on their son. I make SURE they know that I am not going to put him away in the difficult-young-black-boy category and close the door. I make SURE that they know that I value their son’s mind, and don’t discount it because of how he looks, how he acts, and the stereotypes that are perpetuated in our society on our TV’s, in newspapers, and in Hollywood movies.
Similarly, if I go into a graduate class that looks to be all white, save one dark-skinned woman, I might try to engage her. I would want to let her know that I value her presence and that I’m glad she’s there. Because I imagine it can be scary to be in a room of people where no one looks like you. At least I know it would be scary for me. Then again, it might also be angering, frustrating, annoying, uncomfortable, or unpleasant. I don’t profess to understand what it feels like to be the only not white person in the room. And I don’t treat non-white people differently than I would treat any white person on whom I would like to make a good impression, but I might make a little more effort to let that person know that their opinion of me matters to me just as much as any white person’s.
Then, in both cases, as a closer and more intimate relationship with the Black parent or the dark-skinned classmate has formed, I let have them know in subtle or explicit ways that I acknowledge the existence of institutionalized racism: that I believe that the U.S. built its power by oppressing people of color, that I know whites are guaranteed privileges that people of other races might never have access to, and that I too see this as a problem and that I too would like to work to change it.
Is this correct? Am I perfect? Please.
I know that it’s helped me form alliances across racial lines. I know it’s a starting point. I know that I have a lot to learn. I know that all I’m doing really is treating every other person the way I would like and expect to be treated.
It’s the Christian way.