“The struggle for justice does not end when the school bell rings.” – New York Collective of Radical Educators
I recently visited a job fair organized for young and aspiring teachers interested in urban education, after being encouraged to do so by one of my employers. The fair was held in the cafeteria of a wealthy private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and virtually every attendant was a current college student or recent graduate. All the major organizations–TFA, Uncommon Schools, Teaching Fellows–had booths set up around the room, along with six or seven other groups focused in urban education.
After walking around and glancing at some of the various displays, I decided to stop and talk with one woman who was representing an organization I did not know called the Academy for Urban School Leadership. She informed me that the Academy, which is based in Chicago, specializes in “school turnaround,” a buzz-term I recognized but was unfamiliar with. What I learned is that for AUSL, school turnaround translates into firing the entire staff–literally, from of teachers and principles to cafeteria and cleaning staff–of a school deemed “under performing,” at which point the school comes under the control of AUSL. AUSL is a private organization which, though it does receive funding from public sources, is governed by a board of directors, most of whom are the high-ranking members of private corporations and business-oriented organizations. The representative proceeded to hand me a small stack of pamphlets which documented students’ raised test scores following AUSL’s turnaround of their local schools, and asked me if I was interested in applying. I told her that what I was interested in was social justice-oriented and radical education, intending to suggesting that the organization did not sound like a good fit. To my surprise, she perked up and replied, “Well, you can’t get any more radical than what we do! We take a school that’s not working and rebuild it from the ground up with the help of students like you!”
This interaction, particularly the statement made by the AUSL spokesperson, struck me as representative of our current moment in education, as we contemplate the future of schooling for oppressed communities. Modeling schools after corporations, trusting private organizations with the dispensing of human rights and resources, purposefully undermining workers’ rights and the unionizing of school staff, and replacing local teachers with those of other geographic, class and ethnic identities are all common trends in urban education, and real concerns which live in this exchange. Yet the statement made by the AUSL spokesperson was specifically telling of what is, for me, an even more concerning trend in mainstream attitudes towards urban education.
That the idea of radical justice could be applied to a project which privatizes, de-unionizes and standardizes the education of oppressed people is terrifying to me, but is also precisely the attitude that anyone pursuing or exploring urban education will encounter. Very much in the model of Obama-era liberal politics, sometimes-undefined terms like “equality” and “social justice” have become mashed up with missionary projects which beseech the wealthy and the formally educated to save poor, brown, urban communities by becoming their teachers. Many of us have become convinced that anything done in the name of “helping” oppressed people must be inherently progressive, opening the door not only for corporate philanthropy in the public sector, but also for a model of learning which is more about relieving the guilt of the privileged than it is about providing accessible, empowering and community-committed education to all people. These models have tricked many of us into falling in line with the most conservative agendas, furthering the plight of poor, working, immigrant and brown people, even as we convince ourselves that we are saving them. Equally, they all define formal education as the key liberating factor for oppressed people, rather than imagining protest and community organizing outside of school as the ways which the needs of our communities should to be met.
At a symposium I attended this past semester on Academia and Activism, radical educator Claire Potter noted an enormous uptrend in recent years of college grads pursuing (usually for a limited amount of time) urban education, a shift which has been greatly supported by their alma maters. She stated that where once student movements for social justice had railed against their academic institutions, corporate power and the perpetuating of oppressive economic orders, now what people call social justice are colonial projects which implant the privileged as saviors in oppressed communities, all with the support of private education and the funding of the cooperate sector. She expressed a fear that education as an acceptable pathway for the post grads of elitist institutions is actually siphoning energy away from more militant, radical and genuine struggles for justice. The question she asked is the same one I would like to ask of all educators, even those who believe they are beyond the conservative teachings of programs like Teach For America and AUSL: Are more teachers what our communities really need? Is the classroom the only, or even the primary place, where we should fight to manifest justice?
A close friend of mine recently quit her job with NYC Teaching Fellows after sticking with the program for three full years. Teaching Fellows, which is a national organization, places aspiring educators–many of whom are young, recent college graduates–in classrooms within the most in-need urban school districts, while simultaneously enrolling them in subsidized masters of education programs. My friend, who was originally expected by the strictures of the program to complete her masters within her first two years of teaching, spread her courses out over an extra year, seeing how many of the other members of her original cohort of teachers were suffering mental and emotional breakdowns due to the intense amount of work placed on them. Even with the extra year in her masters program, she still left NYCTF without completing her degree. During her stint as a fellow, I visited her classroom in the Bronx, NY several times. She was–and is–an incredible educator, who engaged and managed her class expertly, going above and beyond the curriculum to get students debating about race, immigration, language and economics. In the end, however, the incredible amount of stress generated from running a classroom while taking graduate classes, and interfacing with the Department of Education and the conservative administrators of her program, was taking such a toll on her health and sanity that leaving NYCTF seemed the only way to preserve her physical and mental well-being.
Teaching Fellows is one model for urban education of which their are innumerable copies, all focusing on putting young and inexperienced teachers in some of the most demanding learning environments in the country, while at the exact same time expecting them to earn a masters degree. The idea behind this model is that it gets large numbers of new teachers credentialed and in the field as quickly as possible, and pays for their masters as incentive for the bumpy ride. This model, however, is totally unsustainable. The first year in the classroom–as I have heard teachers from a wide range of backgrounds describe it–is the hardest one for any educator in an type of classroom, as the most basic skills which might be taken for granted by experienced teachers must be learned by emerging educators. Add to this the fact that urban schools are traditionally underfunded and under-resourced, that students may be dealing with particular learning and emotional difficulties for which there is no structural support, and that a poorly-supported district may result in classes of students with huge ranges of academic abilities, including their grasp of language and communication. This situation, a reality in many urban school districts, would be difficult for even the most expert and venerable educator to balance single-handedly. Expecting young, inexperienced, and usually untrained teachers (my friend told me that NYCTF had never taught her how to make a lesson plan) to effectively navigate the teaching of such a classroom is almost ludicrous. That they should then be additionally expected to earn a masters degree at the same time is, to put it lightly, a recipe for burnout. How did this become the predominate model in urban education? Why do suffering schools and aspiring teachers remain in line with so many of these programs?
The intense realities of urban schools and classrooms are the result of the intense realities of the lives of poor, brown, working and immigrant urban communities. Programs like Teaching Fellows, Teach For America and other urban education programs with similar or identical models, promote the idea that young teachers who are the high-performing graduates of elite schools should somehow have the power to manage the inequities in their classrooms and “turn around” whole school systems. These programs and their leaders chant “no excuses,” a mantra which we find really means that if teachers (workers) and their students (oppressed and deprived urban communities) would just try harder, spend more hours of the day in school, and get higher test scores, we would suddenly obtain a just education system and an equitable society. These programs, and the steep demands they make of the teachers and learning communities they come into contact with, do nothing to challenge the economic orders which generate inequity, nor do they hold accountable the individuals, groups and bodies which violently extract opportunities and resources away from oppressed communities. In fact, quite the opposite is true: Many of the major urban education organizations are directly funded by corporations, investors and other wealthy private bodies with some of the most heinous corporate records on the planet–see Teach For America’s donor list. How did the responsibility for justice come to rest squarely on the shoulders of working and poor people, with none whatsoever being dealt to the obscenely wealthy bodies which have themselves engendered the inequities with which oppressed communities wrestle?
My friend’s story of burnout with NYCTF is not an isolated one. For one thing, it is commonplace for young, urban educators to only be able to sustain their intense efforts in the classroom for a few years–a model which is, in fact, beneficial to the groups which hope to create an easily-managed and non-unionized teaching force. Yet more than that, it is indicative of a system which despises the working and poor, and expects them to pay their own tab without ever asking how they ended up in the economic straights in which they find themselves, or demanding those who put them there be the ones to pay up. Justice will not come from oppressed people working harder, with young college graduates cracking the whip. Resisting these unsustainable teaching models is not merely about maintaining the health and mental well-being of teachers, but about fighting for real justice in oppressed communities, demanding forcefully that public education be recognized as a human right to which all people need equal access, and that the resources controlled by the extremely wealthy and powerful be redistributed immediately. We as teachers and members of oppressed communities need to riot against corporate force, connect public education to economic justice, and burn out the wealthy, instead of the other way around.
As an oppressed student, it was ingrained in me from early on in my educational career that attending college was not only the key to justice, but a revolutionary act. As a member of learning communities where students of color and from low-income backgrounds where often the majority, I was used to seeing college banners and insignias hung up on the walls of classrooms and hallways, accustomed to teachers wearing sweatshirts with the familiar names of schools emblazoned on them and hearing stories of their lives there. As I got older, I was advised by counselors and educators to do everything I could to stay on the college path, including changing my manner of dress and speech, and leaving the social circles of which I was a part, which I was told were “holding me back.” It wasn’t until this latter phase of my educational career that choruses of “college is the answer” began to sound suspicious to me.
Even now as an aspiring teacher, many of the programs of which I have been a part have placed college entrance as the primary goal of their students’ trajectory, citing the number of graduating students which go on to four year institutions as a mark of their organizations’ success. In orientations and training sessions for these programs, I have been made to pour over statistics which prove without a doubt that first generation college students will “end poverty in their families forever.” I have visited public and charter schools which take the school recognition which I was exposed to as a young student to whole new levels–naming lunch tables, classrooms and entire class years after the names of elite educational institutions, believing this to be a means of setting the high expectation of college admission for their entire learning community.
There are a number of reasons why I think this is a problem. I believe it is irresponsible to brand students with the names of colleges and universities–which are businesses–and would feel just as uncomfortable calling a learning space “The Harvard Room” as I would calling it “The Halliburton Room.” I also refuse to endorse obscenely-endowed private institutions who garner their wealth from all manner of seen and unseen sources, and which I hope learning communities would be in the process of resisting rather than celebrating. But stamping children and their learning spaces with the logos of complexly conservative organizations aside, there is another reason why I believe making college the goal of education sells our communities short.
When we gear education toward the sole goal of college admission–especially in the case of oppressed students and communities–we make it about careerism, middle-classness, and individual achievement over community empowerment. What is most abhorrent to me about this is that it forces students to create dreams and futures for themselves inside of the same educational and economic models which have engendered their positions at the lower end of the social ladder in the first place. Instead of engaging students in complex conversations about disparity, economic justice and the power of class identity, college-geared learning makes escaping ones immediate class and community the desirable outcome of education–a message which demonizes families, friends, neighborhoods and older generations, instead of imagining a kind of education which unites and empowers them. It creates a conservative structure for learning, one which supports the idea that individual economic success is equivalent to community uplift, when I feel it is fairly easy to argue that the opposite is true. The far more radical and responsible goal of education, I believe, is to resist its hijacking for the purposes of class mobility and economic conservatism, and to imagine success as a far more complex idea than admission into a four year institution.
John Dewey, the well-known education reformer, made some radical assertions in his time, arguing that education should prepare students with knowledge that would help them navigate the world beyond the classroom, and that every student had the right to find knowledge in their own way, and should not be forced into one streamlined kind of industrial learning. His own arguments would be pilfered from him by his more conservative predecessors, who used his works to justify vocational training for poor and working communities, and tracked classes for students of color. I want to be careful to avoid having the same thing happen here. When I tell friends that I do not intent to make college the goal of my classroom, they often accuse me of making decisions for my students and deciding their futures without their consent. (I do think it is interesting that schools which put students on a college track as early as kindergarten are rarely accused of deciding kids’ futures without their consent.) They worry that I am saying I will never talk about college as an option, never speak on my own experiences as a college student, and never encourage students to continue to pursue their own educational paths, on whatever terms they see fit. What I am instead trying to say is that the goals of a learning community should be devised by all members of that community, and with the radical benefit of the entire community in mind. I am trying to say that there are a million ways to be successful, and we should help our students imagine ones which include and connect them to the community at large, and which challenge conservative institutions rather than feeding into them.
“Being flexible with your curriculum is not about sending the message to students that the curriculum is unimportant. It is about sending the message that it is important in a different way.” – Claire Potter
This semester I have been working in a sixth grade classroom at the public elementary school which I attended as a kid, aiding and observing one of the school’s most experienced teachers. The class itself is a little more than half students of color, and is genuinely economically diverse. The teacher–a Black man who was of the first generation of his family to attend college–was my teacher when I was a sixth grader, and has been working in the local school system for over three decades. At this point in the semester, the short time which I have spent in the classroom has already been hugely challenging and revelatory. I am learning new techniques and ways of organizing lessons, and am pushed to come at education from whole new perspectives. Yet above all else, there is one element of the classroom that has been more eye-opening than any of the countless others.
As an aspiring educator and young teacher, I was initially shocked to see how much free time students in this classroom receive. From side conversations with their table mates, to jokes and stories which are encouraged by the teacher, the class is full of students’ own voices and ideas, ones which often are completely unrelated to the curriculum. When a piece of technology isn’t working, the teacher lets students talk amongst themselves until the problem is fixed, then gathers their attention again. When a group finishes a problem set early, they are allowed to hang out at their table until the rest of the classroom catches up. When an individual student is having trouble focusing on an assignment, she is allowed to take a walk in the hall, or even sit in the teacher’s chair to gain her focus back. And in the midst of introducing new concepts, the teacher stops to let students share anecdotes, ask personal questions, and demonstrate new dances, actively making room in the class for tangents and diversions.
In many of the teacher training programs in which I have been involved, allowing for this type of unfettered and undirected use of class time would be viewed as the ultimate failure of the educator. Much of modern education training–especially that which focuses on urban student populations, and is directed by the private sector–prioritizes classroom management as a means of minimizing side conversation and distraction, with the goal of eliminating them all together. Every minute of every lesson is planed out carefully, with the aim being to cram as much information and skill-drilling as possible into every moment of classroom time. Doug Lemov’s infamous book Teach Like a Champion–which has become a sort of education bible for Teach For America, Breakthrough, the charter school movement, and many other conservative sectors of educational reform–lays out tens of techniques, many of which push the classroom to function at a breakneck pace, and are designed to ensure that every students is vigilant and engaged with the lesson for the entirety of an instructional period. These techniques, which are quickly becoming the standard for modern education reform, force students to spend so much time in orchestrated participation and information absorption, that there is virtually no time left for processing, questioning, challenging and relaxing.
That these techniques are being ruthlessly enforced among brown, low-income and urban student populations, but are much less so in suburban, private and wealthy districts, is something we must pay attention to. That these techniques and their authors put an incredible amount of pressure on teachers and support staff, forcing them to become the crowd control management for enormous and in-need classes, yet put no pressure on urban school districts or private powers to fund smaller class sizes or better resource schools, is another important note to make. That the purpose of these techniques is to cram students’ minds with measurable skills and information, preparing them solely for tests, college, and work which supports the private sector–and that it is the private sector itself which advocates for the implementation of these techniques–is reason not only for concern, but for outrage. Yet all these troublesome and crucial points aside, there are even more important reasons why allowing free time in the classroom is radical.
What I’ve learned from observing a highly experienced teacher in action is that allowing for free time in classroom prioritizes students’ mental health and happiness, and provides them with just the leverage they need to challenge the system of which they are a part. It gives students the room to process new information and make it their own, rather than filling them with disjointed facts, and expecting them to regurgitate them immediately afterword. It leaves them space to react, respond and critique the curriculum, allowing them some say in what is worth learning and what is not. And perhaps most significantly of all, it teaches them that their voices are valuable, that their own ideas, experiences and expressions have a place in the classroom, and that learning should engage every part of themselves, not just their academic or intellectual sides. When students are allowed to joke, to dance, to laugh, and to get off topic, they are allowed to be their whole selves, to share every aspect of their being with their peers, and to learn more from their peers than they ever could in an overly regimented and skill-based space. This prioritizes the classroom as a genuine learning community, not just a cell for the drilling of oppressive knowledge.
A few months ago I was teaching a somewhat uninspiring writing curriculum to a group of sixth graders as part of teacher training program. As young educators, participants in the training were expected to prepare original lessons from a pre-written curriculum and teach them to classes of about twenty students on a daily basis. We were observed by mentor teachers several times a week, and met with those mentors about once a week to receive feedback on our growth as aspiring teachers. Even with many great supports in place, my colleagues and I were struggling to make the curriculum our own, as well as making it engaging for our students. The program, which was private and in league with many of the standard “reform” movements of the day, put a great deal of emphasis on preparing students with the skills they would need to excel in elite academic institutions, and very little on social justice and community empowerment.
For one of my initial lessons, students had been assigned a short story for the previous night’s homework, preparing them to begin writing a simple summary in class that day. At the beginning of the lesson I asked students to describe what they had read and how they had interpreted the course of the events for themselves. Immediately hands shot up as students clamored to give their own interpretations, and I as I began to listen I quickly realized that members of the class had not understood all the events in the same ways. One student, Kelvin, was particularly adamant about his interpretation of the ending of the story, and a debate broke out amongst different students about what had really happened by the end of the tale. Even as I encouraged students to find evidence from the text to support their claims, I was excited to see their enthusiasm around the assignment, their ability to articulate and problem-shoot their own interpretations, as well as to see that each student had brought their own lens to the reading. The lively discussion was by far the most encouraging event in the class at that time, and as I had been frustrated with my lack of success in engaging students with the material and finding ways of connecting it back to their own lives, this seemed like a step in the right direction.
When I met with my mentor teacher later that week–a compassionate but by-the-book Teach For America alum–one of the first lessons he wanted to discuss was the aforementioned summery class. Specifically, he wanted to discuss the debate which the students had had around the events of the short story. “Kelvin was wrong,” he instructed me. “It was irresponsible for you as the teacher to let a student with a wrong interpretation have so much room to speak. You should have stopped him, corrected him, and made sure that every other student in the class knew what the right answer was. If a test was given to the students right now, I guarantee that few of them would be able to describe the events of the story correctly.” When I countered by saying that I thought giving the students the opportunity to argue their own perspectives allowed them to cement their understanding of the story more deeply, he replied, “But if they’ve cemented it incorrectly, then you have failed as the teacher. If they are wrong, you need to correct them. It is your job to give them the right answer, and if they try to argue with you, to assert your authority as the instructor.”
This meeting jarred me, and gave me a great deal to think about in terms of my responsibilities as an educator. On the one hand, I was confronted with the reality that as a teacher I do have to think about the real obstacles that my students will come up against in their lives, and providing them with the necessary skills that will need to navigate those obstacles. On the other hand, I recognized that I must also think about the systems and codes which oppress my students–the same ones which oppressed me in my own education–and aid in creating a foundation for them to fight those systems. Finding a balance between giving students the tools they need to survive world, while simultaneously preparing them to transform the world into a place which does not merely have to be survived, is a constant struggle for teachers dedicated to radical learning, and this meeting was the first time that I, as an aspiring educator, had come up against it. Yet, I would argue, given the current climate of public education across the globe, this is the key battle in which we as educators and advocates must engage in. As charter schools become the imagined wave of the future for oppressed communities, as massive corporations and hedge fund managers take control of the public sector, and as Teacher For America and other privately-funded organizations become primary training grounds for young educators, demanding that education remain in the hands of the public and that classrooms serve the communities they teach becomes not only a radical act, but a threatening one. Helping students pass while also encouraging them to resist a set curriculum and the invasion of their communities by private corporations becomes the feasible but fraught goal of the educator, and one which is not met without a real fight.
To be true advocates for the intellectual growth of our students, and to remain genuinely committed to the radial purposes of education, teachers must become voices of protest in the face of privatization, and the hijacking of learning for mere vocational and occupational preparation. This means asking difficult and unpopular questions of ourselves and of the institutions which employ us, the same types of questions which I attempted to pose later on to my mentor teacher: If I want my students to see the world from multiple angles and perspectives, how can I tell them that there is only one correct interpretation? If I want my students to challenge power, how can I run my classroom as an unquestionable figure of authority? These are not frivolous quandaries, for answering them for yourself as an educator can be the difference between creating a classroom which mirrors the dominating social order, and one which works to fight it. Acting upon them can make one even more unpopular (while my mentor teacher entertained my questions, he was resistant to their actually being given priority in the classroom, and was not pleased when I refused to make certain changes to structure of mine), but if our goal is to empower our students to stand up in the face of oppressive and conservative institutions, we must learn to do the same alongside them. This is the definition of a true ally.
This piece was also featured on Cooperative Catalyst.
Having become more interested in pursuing education as a career while I was in college, I applied to work for an urban summer teaching initiative. This particular program recruited high school and college students to work with “academically promising” middle schoolers from low-income backgrounds, with the goal of preparing those students for college themselves. After joining up with the organization, I came to find that it was extremely conservative, and was itself a pipeline for Teach For America, Teaching Fellows, Uncommon Schools, and all manner of other privatized forms of education. The middle school students which it recruited were, of course, bright, eager, talented, and devoted enough to their own learning that they elected to spend six weeks of their summer taking extra coursework. While I enjoyed my students and grew concretely as a classroom educator by participating in this program, I noticed many troubling things in my short time there.
In the two summers that I spent teaching with the organization, the curriculum, which was already stilted, became even more “skills-based,” focused on drilling students with the quantifiable knowledge required to pass state tests and entrance exams for mostly private schools. The students, dedicated as they were, tended to stomach this learning with little or no complaints or questions. Everything presented by teachers and program directors was accepted as fact–the best and most necessary type of learning which would provide students with the tools they needed to be “successful.” Teachers and directors alike would often acknowledge how lucky we all were to be working with such “ideal students.”
I also spent most of my college career working at an after school program in the local community at which I attended school. The program was community-based, student-run, and supported a wide age range of youth who all lived in the Section 8 housing development in which the center was located. The students in this program were often stigmatized by members of their surrounding neighborhoods, and by the teachers and administrators of their schools, as being dangerous, belligerent, and incapable of learning. While these common conceptions naturally infuriated me, they also confused me, for the students whom I worked with during the years I spent at this program were the smartest, wisest and most enthusiastic kids I had met anywhere. The reason, I came to understand, that these kids were often labeled as bad (in addition to obvious classism and racism) was that they ask questions: “Why do I have to do this?” “Why are we learning this?” “How is this going to help me?” “Who says this is what I need to know?” were all common questions at our program during homework time. As a tutor, these questions often frustrated me when I could not come up with concrete answers. It was only when I began to look critically at my own educational trajectory that I came to realize how important–how radical–the questions that these kids were asking were, and that it made sense that I could find no good answers for them. These students could see, far better than I could when I was there age, that the tasks their education was calling on them to perform had nothing to do with their history, their knowledge, or their needs as oppressed people. Rather than following along blindly with the curricula which had be laid out for them, they were actively working to challenge that material, and, whether they knew it or not, to challenge the bodies which had determined that curricula, to these students’ detriment.
Traditional models of education have other words for ‘bad’ students: ‘Resistant,’ ‘non-compliant,’ ‘disobedient,’ ‘defiant.’ In a radical form of education, aren’t these precisely the types of students we want? Aren’t the questions that the students at my after school program were asking the exact types of questions that all students should ask if they want to get to the root of what their learning consists of, who determines it, and what good it is going to do for the larger world? When we expect students to comply with the agendas that we, the state, or private bodies have set out for them, we are expecting them to be comply with the status quo, to examine the world through the terms in which it already exists, rather than with their own critical lenses. A radical form of education should determine the curriculum with the aid of student input, and should put aside skill-drilling for the sake of asking the questions that really matter, and which connect the learning community back to the world in which it operates. The questions that our students pose to us are pathways into this radical type of learning, and should be welcomed, appreciated and treated as serious points of inquiry, not dismissed as a lack of dedication. Insubordination should be celebrated in the classroom, for only when the students themselves begin to question the lawful order therein can it really begin to come crashing down.