The Inevitability of Guilt When Teaching Social Justice

I just finished reading and grading 24 ten-page reflexive essays for my Urban Education course. The reflexive essay was a final essay where students were asked to discuss how they changed throughout the course; more specifically, how their thinking changed. I asked them to analyze not only how, but also why. What provoked this change? And more importantly, why does it matter?

This assignment proved difficult for them because most of them have never been asked to write ten pages about themselves that was not an autobiography. Indeed I cautioned them against telling me stories about their own schooling in contrast to the urban schools that were the case studies of our readings, documentaries and course discussions.

I also told them they could not write about capital—cultural, social, financial or navigational. Not only do they not have the sociological background to truly understand the nuanced ways in which these constructs operate, they also needed to be challenged to see beyond the obvious. Yes, your parents’ money, connections and knowledge of the education system afforded you opportunities many students do not have. I do not care to hear that narrative again. What I want to hear is how my students are thinking about themselves in relation to issues of privilege and power in a stratified system.

And that is what I got (for the most part).

First, I want to express my pride in my students. They grappled with challenging and novel material coupled with the reality of spending many hours a week working at a community center in low income neighborhoods. They had to take the public bus (for many of them this was their first time on public transportation), complete an application for social services (e.g., food stamps, cash assistance, childcare, etc) and develop a program proposal to give their community center that met the center’s needs (instead of what my students perceived the center needed). All the while, they watched documentaries chronicling the school to prison pipeline, read academic articles chock full of statistics about gentrification (i.e. urban renewal) and school segregation, and listened to a podcast about gang violence in Chicago public schools. Every day they came to class prepared (okay, maybe not all of them were prepared every day), participated in class discussion and asked deep and difficult questions about the future of urban schooling in a system that sets poor students up to fail. I could not be prouder of their investment in, and commitment to, the course.

I am therefore not surprised that so many of their reflexive essays focused on their own privilege and how the recognition of their privilege positions them to affect social change.

What did surprise me was that despite their burgeoning understanding of their own unearned racial, economic and sexual entitlements, they still view themselves as outsiders powerless to influence change.

I did not notice this trend in their writing until in the second to last paper I graded, a student pointed out that she could have written a paper arguing for how someone with power and privilege can create change, but she did not because *‘good intentions do not create sustainable results.’

After pausing for a moment, I thought back and realized that not a single student wrote about how they could use their privilege to create change. In fact, most of them expressed sentiments of hopelessness and defeatism after taking this course and learning of the systemic problems sustaining the cycle of poverty. Many replaced their prior desire to teach in urban schools (one student titled his paper “Why I Won’t Teach”) or join TFA with a new goal of teaching in private schools because they recognize they do not possess the proper ‘background’ to truly relate to the students. Every student spoke of culturally relevant teachers and warm demander pedagogy as the ray of sunshine and strand of hope in urban schools. Yet, only one student acknowledged that despite the status with which she was born, she would do her best to become an educator who knows her students, lives in the community with her students and builds long lasting relationships with students and their families.

In class, I made a point to explicitly say ‘I am not here to encourage anyone to be a classroom teacher. I am also not here to discourage anyone from being a classroom teacher. I am here to inform you about the history and context of urban public schooling. For those who want to teach, I implore you to teach where you will be most effective.’

It is funny how students latch on to certain things. My students were clearly affected by Gloria Ladson-Billings’ theory of culturally relevant teachers and her discussion of the achievement debt. They almost all recalled statistics from the introduction of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And every student quoted Allan Johnson’s writing on privilege. They also took to heart my advice to teach where you will be most effective. But they seem to have forgotten the many times I described teacher preparation programs that specifically train you in culturally relevant pedagogy. social justice

This is what I want to believe happened: they forgot. They tuned out at that point. This is the explanation I’d like to have for their insistence that despite their privileged positions they can do nothing to help those less privileged. The person in me wants to believe that my students—my smart, funny, warm hearted students—are not hiding in their privilege, using it as a reason for why they can’t truly understand the problems and will therefore do more harm than good in any urban school.

But alas, the teacher in me sees with keen eyes. I see which quotes they chose; I see their diction when speaking about black and Hispanic youth as ‘they’; I see the word guilt 81 times across 24 papers (yes, I counted); I see the juxtaposition of their descriptors of private school with the words used by Kozol in Savage Inequalities; I see their struggle to find their entry point into a system with which they have no experience. With which they feel no connection.

They feel no connection.

Not to the students whose lives are so different than their own. Not to the teachers whose daily struggle to find textbooks has never been experienced by their teacher-relatives in private schools. Not to me who (in the words of one student) “had experiences in her primary and secondary education that led her to first become passionate about the subject and then become a scholar of it.”

They feel guilt. And shame. And social obligation (three papers were about this). They acknowledge that in their privileged positions they have the luxury of feigned ignorance. In fact, one student wrote:

“Discovering so many hidden truths in this class has been like parting the clouds, and finally allowing the shadow of privilege to be cast by direct sunlight. When I choose to stay in the shade of ignorance and obliviousness, my privilege is not apparent and cannot bring me the anguish caused by unjust advantages I don’t feel that I deserve; in the shade, I benefit from Johnson’s ‘luxury of obliviousness’ (2006, p.22). When the sun of reality shines upon me, I remember that my privilege is always present, even when I do not see it or feel its effects.”

They know that what they’ve been doing is wrong, yet they have no solutions for how to do anything differently. One of my favorite passages from a student was:

“In third world countries there is a concept called ‘poorism’. This is where tour companies take tourists into slums and walk them through the slum, let them take pictures of the hungry disheveled kids, and maybe they even take the local form of transportation. These companies give tourists a glimpse of poverty so that they can return home and exclaim to all their friends that they know poverty, how it changed who they are, and then they can share that picture of a cute African child. However, two months later, they are back to where they started…I don’t want this class to be poorism in America for me.”

I don’t know how to make this class not be poorism for them. I am unsure of how to create an emotional connection between students and the text. But quotes like these leave me certain that I’ve created a cognitive connection and perhaps, for now, that’s all I can ask of 19 year olds. And of myself.


 *Note: Permission was asked of all students throughout the course to use quotes from their papers in this blog and in any future research.

Education as Oppression

malcolm-x-oppressionI am teaching Urban Education right now. It is a foundation (200-level) course for the major. The course is divided into three sections: living in urban contexts, recurring themes in urban schools, teaching in urban schools. I have 24 students, most of whom are white, but some of whom are children of immigrants from Cuba, Guatemala, and Uruguay. Some were born in other countries but “raised white” (their phrasing). I have one African-American student and one Asian student. At least 6 of them are fluent in Spanish though I suspect around 3 more are as well. I have 8 males in this class—a lot for an education course.

Last Friday as we continued our analysis of recurring themes in urban schools, I opted to postpone our planned discussion of school closings in favor of an activity about equal funding in schools. I made this decision because the students have been entrenched in catch phrases like “urban renewal”, “cycle of poverty” and “school to prison pipeline”. It was raining and I didn’t think they were up for another depressing conversation about what happens to children when their school is closed (i.e. “student displacement”).

Instead, I gave an index card and a paper to each student. On the index card was a title or role. On the sheet of paper was a description of a scenario. In short, students were to assume roles of parent, teacher, principal, coach, student, local home owner, business owner, mayor, aspiring politician, college admissions counselor, or charter school developer at a Board of Education town hall meeting in Camden, NJ. The issue at hand: should nearby Cherry Hill cut their per pupil expenditure from $8,000 to $6,600, using the remaining money to raise Camden’s per pupil expenditure from $5,200 to $6,600. While in real life cities don’t give away their money, for the sake of the activity, students were asked to voice their opinion on if and why this should or should not happen. At stake for Cherry Hill: 15% fewer teachers, slightly larger class sizes, elimination of 2 foreign language programs and one sports team. To be gained by Camden: smaller class sizes, 10% more teachers, and a music program.

What I saw play out over the next 1.5 hours was wonderful from a pedagogical perspective. My students were engaged (no more sleepy expressions), impassioned (two students were standing and yelling at each other across the room about the merits and detriments of charter schools), creative (they came up with 3 alternatives and 6 amendments to the plan), and serious (almost every student wrote out a speech before it was their turn to speak). At first they were being silly, but after 10 minutes they were citing course readings and providing statistical evidence to support their position.

But underlying their comments was something they can’t escape (not without conscious effort): their privilege. Though they were trying to argue within the framework of their assigned character, their thinking was still comfortably housed in their experiences of private school, world travel, AP/IB coursework, and most of all, unintended selfishness.

The issue of equal school funding is over 50 years old yet we are no closer to a resolution. Our attention continues to be misplaced, our arguments misguided, our suggestions short-sighted. Conversations about school funding are about alleviating sufferings instead of mitigating advantages.

Media about education describes run-down, overcrowded schools with unqualified teachers and dejected administrators. Images of classrooms without enough desks, torn textbooks, blackboards with no chalk, windows covered with cardboard, and students huddled inside winter jackets struggling to stay awake pervade documentaries of urban schooling. The blame is hoisted upon apathetic parents, fraudulent politicians, and criminalized kids. They are why their schools fail. They are the ones dropping out of school, selling drugs, killing one another. They are the ones not studying, tearing up textbooks, and sleeping in class. They are the ones who don’t provide adequate housing or food for their children. They are the ones living off the system refusing to get a job and earn an honest day’s wages. Because of these actions—their­ actions—they are responsible for fixing their schools, motivating their children and getting into college. They are responsible for closing the achievement gap. They are responsible for education reform.

…Yet, how did they end up in this position? Who forced them into segregated housing because they were not allowed to live near you? Who withheld schooling so they were unqualified for jobs beyond hard labor? Who introduced crack into those segregated neighborhoods and then closed the doors so those wanting to escape couldn’t? Who withheld civic rights so they had no say in choosing those who would pass laws geared toward maintaining such oppression? Who enacts laws arbitrarily so that when they jay walk, fight in school, or engage in minor theft they are given harsher and longer prison sentences?

What of the benefits you receive in this system of inequities? As long as they are in their schools, in their neighborhoods, with their teachers, they are not affecting you. Out of sight, out of mind. Because see, if they manage to implement true reform, your schools, your neighborhoods, your position will be disrupted. If their classes get smaller, yours may get bigger. If their buildings are renovated, yours may not be. If they get more desks, textbooks and chalk, you may have to learn to work with less. Fixing broken windows and heating systems means you may have to wait another year for that new air conditioning unit. Placing qualified teachers in their schools means they won’t be in your school.

After all, this is about you, right?

Upper-middle and upper class parents occupy a clever position in this debate where they can be politically and morally supportive while being economically and geographically selfish. They can attend town halls and vote in favor of sweeping school reform for them…as long as we don’t have to change. These parents have a vested interested in maintain the system because in order for them to remain on top, there must be a bottom.

Just think. What images would grace the covers of those suburban school brochures if their solariums, music halls, computer classrooms, and lacrosse fields could also be found down the street and across the tracks? What data would be touted by school administrators and politicians if all the schools had 90% of their students at or above proficiency? If every high school was graduating 95% of its students and sending 85% to 4-year colleges/universities? What advantage would your students have if AP, IB, and Gifted programs were offered at every school? Why would Mr. Campbell be considered a “highly qualified” teacher if all teachers had Master degrees?

These things you hold dear as emblems of your superiority are argued to ‘not be enough’ to fix ‘those schools’. Really? Would all schools not benefit from small classes, qualified teachers, a myriad of course offerings and extra-curricular activities? Of course they would. Which is why that menu is not on the table.

What you offer is a la carte. Education reformers may choose one option, but not them all.

  • You may have better teachers; here are some TFA corps members OR you may have smaller classes, but no increase in budget to hire new teachers or raise salaries.
  • You may have a new curriculum; take Common Core Standards OR you may have support staff to help students functioning below grade level.
  • You may have a music and art program OR you may have instruments and art supplies.

These tidbits—these scraps—though placed on a silver platter are still leftovers you are willing to share. Instead of making suggestions that require true sacrifice and systemic change, you employ a sleight of hand and while everyone is arguing over if smaller classes would improve test scores, you are hiring 12 new school counselors for a ratio of 1:8.

When questioned about changing school funding mechanisms from property taxes to a shared pot of money (is she suggesting socialism?!?!), you guard your purse strings with platitudes of ‘money won’t fix everything’ and ‘look at how they mismanage the money they do have!’ or my personal favorite, ‘it’s not my fault they don’t have books or good teachers. Why should I have to pay for a school my child doesn’t attend?’

Class was about to end so I had my students vote on the major motions and the amendments. In the end, they voted (15-9) to pass the motion of lower funding in Cherry Hill and higher funding in Camden. However, they also passed an amendment wherein the programs cut from Cherry Hill and the allocation of funds at Camden were to be decided upon later.

I asked them: what did you all accomplish today?

They replied: nothing. Camden still has no money or resources and Cherry Hill is still better. We just postponed the discussion for a later time.

Then a student asked: so what happened in real life?

I responded: they built Charter schools.

Another student: so basically, in the end, no one gave up anything and Camden didn’t get anything?

Me: exactly.

The Lost Prong of Professorship: Why Isn’t Teaching Peer-Reviewed?

In recent months I’ve joined four Facebook groups for academics each with varying themes (e.g., education, women, professors of color, etc) and have noticed a common trend across the groups (many of which share members): conversations are dominated by discourse on research and mentorship.

I can’t say I am surprised as research is the ticket to tenure and mentorship is vital to success for communities of color in the Academy. As an education professor who considers herself a teacher-scholar equally as much as a scholar-teacher I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to discuss pedagogy. I would like to learn new teaching techniques, see what other people assign for readings in an intro education course, exchange ideas for teaching difficult topics such as class and race to students who’ve never thought critically about social issues. I want opportunities to get feedback on my syllabi, my instructional methods, my assessments, my classroom persona.  I want to feel like the effort I put into teaching hundreds of students a year is as valued as time spent writing a literature review read only by other academics in my field.

I’ve suggested as much at faculty meetings and have been met with warm reception. My colleagues agree that teaching is important—it is the most important thing we do (admittedly we work at a liberal arts college so this sampling of professors is biased). Professors whom I’ve met through social media or at conferences endorse teaching less strongly, but still consider it a primary bullet point in their job description. Yet when pushed, very few of them can explain how they approach writing course objectives, choosing readings or designing assessments. They can easily explain their grading scale and rubric, but have a harder time measuring student learning beyond summative assessments. Most update their syllabi every couple of years while some haven’t changed course texts in over a decade. Words and phrases I consider endemic to teaching (e.g., pedagogy, formative assessment, curriculum) are foreign to many, even those with over 20 years in the classroom.  While these veteran professors are full of wisdom and well tested teaching strategies, I am left thinking: how can we expect our courses to be purposeful when our teaching is incidental?

Most graduate programs provide little if any training to be a teacher. I’ve heard of some programs that require PhD candidates to take a semester long course on teaching which is better than what I received: nothing. Some professors manage to leave graduate school having never been a TA. This is especially true if you are at a Research I institution and/or in a field heavily reliant on external grants. I find it fascinating that we graduate PhDs with the intention of filling tenure track faculty roles (though this is becoming less common in our current economic condition), yet we provide them with no preparation.

Teaching is one of the three prongs of evaluation in tenure and promotion but there is little guidance not only on how to teach, but also on how to improve your teaching. Teaching, like research, requires critical examination of clearly identified variables situated within a theoretical framework. When I say as much to fellow academics, I am met with silence and sometimes scorn. How dare you co-opt research terminology and apply it to the common sense act of teaching!

The silence surrounding this conversation is troublesome to me both as an educator and as an education scholar. What we do in higher education—the research we produce—informs the development and revision of policies across disciplines. The trickle down effect, especially in education, is a powerful weapon we are not wielding well. We’ve seen this with the introduction of online learning; with the prevalence of for-profit institutions; with the replacement of qualified instructors with easy-to-get cheap labor; with the downgrade of professorship as a full-time profession to an ad-hoc side job to help make ends meet. We are not setting a good example for other social institutions and certainly not for our students.

If we as the knowledgeable party in the classroom, the person of political and cognitive authority, do not take seriously our teaching, why should students take seriously their learning? Education is a dialogical process dependent upon equal contribution from teachers and learners. When you don’t know how students learn, what on Earth can you possibly contribute to the learning process?