Archive | October, 2011

Is love stronger than fear? – a commentary on public education

21 Oct

Do parents love their children more than than they are afraid for them? Do children love learning more than they are afraid of not being liked by their peers? Do teachers love children and teaching them more than they are afraid of “getting into trouble” with their supervisors for speaking out? What does it take to be brave and stand up for the right thing?

I work with a whole bunch of people who are scared. They are scared that they will get pushed, punched, kicked, slapped, or worst of all – ignored. These are the fears of children, but I also work with a bunch of frightened adults. My colleagues fear that they will be judged, misquoted, verbally attacked, sued, fired, or worst of all – ignored. And last, but certainly not least, I work for a whole bunch of scared parents. They are terrified that their children will come to school and get bullied – by either other children or by the teachers, treated unfairly, or worst of all – ignored. For parents with resources, this is frustrating at its worst, but they can find ways around it with private tutors, lessons, or simply by providing enrichment activities for their children. Many parents with means have found a way around it by choosing private or home schools. But for parents with no resources, this fear is blinding because if their children are ignored, what chance do they have to learn? Children who cannot read by the time they leave elementary school are astronomically more likely to never graduate high school, never have a decent paying job, and most frightening of all – to go to prison. These parents at my current school, most of whom are black and brown, know that if their children get ignored at school, the price is huge. The saddest part about my job is this: all these fears are totally warranted. Our prisons are full; our school systems spend thousands on lawyers; teachers and administrators are exhausted and leaving the profession in droves.

After 13 years in this business, I chose to work in an inner-city public school in Durham. Durham is in the heart of North Carolina in the deep South of the US. When people think about the South, especially people who are not from the South, they immediately think something along the lines of “Gone with the Wind” – or so I have been told. There is an awful lot of baggage that comes with having been a former slave state that seceded from the Union and then lost The War. And in some small part, all that is here, but there is much more to the story and certainly much more to the complexity of the current state of public education. The “much more” or remaining part makes NC just like every other state in the US. We are struggling to fund public education; struggling to fight crime; struggling to employ our citizens; struggling to trust our politicians in a very disparate reality where those with money (and power) are arguing very loudly that we cannot increase government revenues; that we should not regulate banks, but we should absolutely regulate the hell out of public education – which is just what the No Child Left Behind Act did. In a way, the NCLB legislation shined a bright light on the shortcomings of public schools who were failing to educate children with disabilities, on children from low economic status, and especially on children of color. What it did not do was provide answers to the institutional racism that plagues public schools. Yes, I said it – racism. While most will argue that the issue is about poverty and generational illiteracy, blah, blah blah. Study a little slice of African-American history and you begin to understand why the number of blacks who are poor is so disproportionately high. Discrimination lives on and it plays itself out daily in public schools everywhere. The Achievement Gap is about race and it is the water we swim in. With a black man in the White House, at least people are starting to have the race conversation openly, but effective action still feels unusually far away to this public servant.

When I decided to go into public service, I did it to serve all children. I love teaching and learning. There is nothing more exciting to me than to watching the ah-ha moment when someone “gets it.” I have two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel. I studied Middle Grades Education back in the 80’s, and I earned high marks in my Master of School Administration program, which was ranked 5th in the nation the year I graduated (2008). I am Highly Qualified (HQ) in three areas and licensed to be a principal. I know what I am doing in public school. Yet, like everyone else, I am afraid that I am being ignored or that I will “limit my career” by speaking out about its current state. In fact, I am sure my fears are true.

The parents’ fears that their children are being ignored, are true, too. The children are being ignored by their teachers because the teachers are overwhelmed by their plethora of duties which include trying to keep the children safe. These children are literally punching, kicking and slapping each other. Why is this behavior so rampant? Well, the children have been taught by their parents, aunts, uncles, peers and in some sad cases even their teachers, that they must stand up for themselves and not take anything off anyone. “If somebody messes with you, hit’em back. Don’t let yourself be bullied.” They make sure they enforce the street rules that you hit back and never “snitch.” Yes, it is craziness. sadly, all this fear is fueling the reality that the original fear is based in. The kids all have hair-triggers. Every time they have to line up, if someone gets jostled, there is an incident. The punching and kicking happens. It takes all kinds of time to sort it out. There are forms to file and phone calls to make and not to mention, getting bags of ice for the bruises – and all this time, no one is learning. And to me, there is an even sadder part: no ones is teaching these kids to use their words. When you ask the kids about ways to handle their conflicts they offer, “Walk away” or “Tell a teacher.” When I asked “But what can you say?” a strapping young boy came up with, “Please don’t hurt me” in a soft and apologetic voice. I laughed out loud. That will not keep you safe here in an inner-city school. It is ludicrous.

What is not ludicrous, though, is saying those words forcefully, with conviction and volume so that everyone turns around and takes notice – especially the grown-ups. “Don’t hit me! Get out of my space!” Yet, no one is teaching the children to do this to simply stand up for themselves without making threats. Ironically, I learned about this tactic in a parenting class about how to keep my own precious and privileged children safe from sexual predators. Sexual predators, like all bullies, rely mostly on coercion and manipulation. Direct refusal, showing personal strength, standing up and saying, “No!” like you mean it, works 99% of the time. The problem is, in a culture of fear – and fear is the basis of racism – no one is standing up for themselves effectively. Everyone is afraid to stand up and say “No!” in a loud and convincing voice. Instead they just take it until they snap. Children snap with a push or a punch. Parents snap with a call to a lawyer or a supervisor, or the Board of Education. Teachers snap with a letter of resignation or a demeaning remark to a child. School leaders snap with another mandate and more testing. Wouldn’t a loud a convincing NO! be easier?

The children need to stand up and say NO to being bullied and NO to being ignored. All children deserve a quality education. They deserve to love school and to love learning. Love needs to win.

The professionals need to stand up and say NO to unnecessary testing; NO to bullying from parents; NO to bullying from colleagues and supervisors and especially NO to bullying from politicians, especially those who really don’t know anything about education. Teachers deserve to love their jobs because their jobs are so hard and so important. When teachers do their jobs well, everyone, our whole country wins. Changing a young person’s life for the better is the most fulfilling work there is. Love of teaching needs to win.

Parents need to stand up and say NO to overcrowded classrooms, to underpaid teachers, to substandard facilities, and to out-dated curriculum and techniques that leave children feeling ignored and depersonalized. Should your child’s teacher have to hold a second job just to be able to afford to drive a car to work? Parents need to say NO to testing that relegates their children to more of the same ineffective instruction that is punishing their children out of elective classes in the arts and humanities and places them in “remedial classes.” Parents need to love not only their own children but other’s people’s children enough invest in and support public education. Believe me, these children who are not finding success at school are angry and hurting. They exist and they will grow up and be part of our society one way or another. Love of children needs to win.

We all need to stand up and say NO to a society that continues to create a gulf between the haves and the have-nots. A society that does not put children first and allows precious resources to be lavished on certain groups of children but not on others is just plain wrong. The wider this gulf gets, the less safe we are all. The haves cannot continue to keep the poverty out of sight and out of mind. This current path is not sustainable for a peaceful society. Love for one another must win.

I don’t have any answers about how to help love win. I just know it has to. For the first time in a long time, I am short on hope for the state of the Union. I do know that for me personally, when I have searched my heart and said YES to love and NO to fear – things get better – a whole lot better.