privilege in the new school year

In 2 weeks I will start a learning  journey with a new group of 4th graders. My students represent the United States in their ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic class, family make-up, and personalities. We are America. But, at the head of the class, I am a very particular American.

My European heritage, white skin, and upper middle class lifestyle is pictured as typical. Despite rhetoric celebrating our multicultural heritage, we still put up a picture of someone like me when we want to show “American”. And, because I fit that image, I have a privilege in this country that most of my students do not. I need to keep this privilege in mind as I plan for our year together. So, I’m going to start (and hopefully keep up with) a series with the theme “white teacher” to give me a place to think about my role in perpetuating white privilege and my responsibility as a teacher of less privileged people.

It’s going to get uncomfortable for me.

It already is.

My instinct is always to point out that I didn’t always have it this good. As the youngest of 10 kids, I learned early on how to share and what it meant to budget. But never in my life have I gone without the essentials – food, shelter, education, healthcare. Never. In fact, I have taken a few risks in my life knowing that there was always someone I could turn to if I failed, and my family was always there when I fell.

So, my life is little like the refugee students who have left their extended family and social network behind to start over. It’s nothing like the child who is taken from a parent unable to work through her own struggles enough to care for the kids. I don’t know what it’s like to visit your father in jail or suffer through the conflicting emotions when he is released. I’ve never had to make the choice between feeding my kids or paying the rent. No one ever glared at me because they thought I didn’t belong in this country. I’ve never been followed around in a store. I always knew what schools expected of me, how to behave on a job site, how to interact with government agencies to get what I needed, and where to find information. My neighborhood is well-lit, my house is wired for high speed internet. I have enough money in my checking account so that I don’t have to pay additional fees and can cash as many checks each month as I want to.

Fourth grade isn’t exactly the place to talk about all of the social and government policies that create my white privilege, but it is certainly the place to begin to make observations about how the world works and reflect on how we each engage with the community. My morning meeting, Social Studies, and literacy lessons will all support this critical observation work. My goal is to become a better teacher for every student who walks through the door. I’m looking forward to connecting with teachers around the world doing the same work.


perspective matters when kids act out

The kids were working in groups on their regions of the United States project this afternoon in between shows. Changes in routine are never good for my crew but they were doing fairly well. They sang all their rainforest-themed songs for the kindergarten audience in the morning and returned to class eager to work on their projects. I was checking in with a team who had let every sparkling light distract them from the task at hand when I noticed Lucy sitting apart from her team, folding wads of paper. Fiddling with paper is one of Lucy’s “tells” – something was up. I wrapped up with my unfocused duo and made my way across the room. I started with her team. It’s usually best to let Lucy overhear a possible solution than to try to work out things directly.

The team had been working for two days on a rap of the states of their region and while it was a terrible rap, it was a great example of teamwork. But then, as they were practicing, another student mentioned that they had put in a few too many “yeah”s. One teammate agreed and Lucy lost it.

I know what you’re thinking. If you are not a teacher you are thinking this kid needs to toughen up. If she’s going to let a minor critique derail her, she’ll never get anywhere and coddling her is only making it worse. But, if you teach in an inner city school, you’re probably wondering what sort of trauma Lucy has lived through or if she is safe at home, you may be wondering if she has a diagnosis that allows her to have special support or has an undiagnosed disability.

Lucy’s a kid with issues, issues we are still trying to figure out. But most days she’s the most sought after basketball team mate in the fourth grade, a go-to Math helper, and a much-admired singer.

And, she’s a kid who has a hard time recovering from frustration. Lucy can stubbornly refuse to tell you what’s wrong for hours. She just won’t talk, won’t work, and sometimes won’t move. Often, all we can do is wait for the storm to pass and hope she can talk afterwards.

Once I got the story about what was happening, I went to sit by Lucy. I saw she had broken a half a dozen popsicle sticks and had them scattered all over the chair and floor. I mentioned how dangerous it looked, all those jagged edges and made a show of brushing the one’s off the chairs in a way to avoid “getting slivers.” I talked to her a while, well, talked at her knowing she wasn’t ready to talk back, and once I saw that she was calm enough to at least not knock anything over, I left her to work with some other kids. When I looked over I saw her collecting the rest of the broken popsicle sticks using the same safe method I had used to avoid slivers. A few minutes after that she asked if she could take a walk. And when she got back, she just went straight to work.

Today was the 170th day of school. It must have been Lucy’s 70th “episode”. And it was the first time I have ever seen her recover herself.

She has made some progress after all.

sick leave

I’ve been looking up information about paid sick time in my state, happy to note that most employees are eligible to earn and build up a bank of sick time. There’s a lot to like about Massachusetts. Still, though the law requires payment, many employees probably still feel reluctant to take time off, even for a sick kid.

As a public school teacher, my paid sick days are regulated differently. The reason I’m thinking of this law today is that I woke up with a massive headache and promptly puked my guts out. I suspect that my darling student shared his germs with me. When he arrived at school yesterday, it was clear something was wrong. “I was up all night throwing up,” he told me. Um, so why are you at school? “Mom said I had to come.”

Yeah, anger at Mom was my first reaction. Grabbing some spray cleaner and a rag to try to control the germs was my second. It took two trips down to the nurse and throwing up into the trash can before I could get him sent home. Not soon enough, apparently.

Though, as a privileged middle-class Mom with a husband and extended family to share the sick-care burdens, my first reaction is to think less of this Mom, it only takes a moment’s reflection to remember that not everyone is as lucky as I.

Massachusetts Law requires most employers (those with 11 or more employees) to offer paid sick time, I know that it’s not that simple. Parents who need to take time off for sick kids, for doctor appointments, for school events, for household emergencies, and for their own illnesses can face sanctions at work including loss of the job itself. There were plenty of times I kept a kid home from school only to have them running around fit as a fiddle by 10:30am. It can be worth the risk of sending in a sluggish kid, hoping for that miracle cure instead of that dreaded phone call.

My student’s Mom took the risk. I am annoyed at being caught in the crosshairs here, but I know she didn’t declare the war, she’s just soldiering through the best she can. It’s time we took serious care of our children and their working parents and put some safeguards in place to make sure Moms don’t have to send in their sick kids.

Judges welcome

Constantly judged. You feel that way when you are a teacher. The thing is, I like feedback, I like conversations about how things can get better. But, it doesn’t always sound like dialogue to build ideas and improve my work. Sometimes it feels like scolding.

This week, I’ve been thinking about this feeling of being judged and what I’ve decided is that it’s all in the hearing. If I assume that all the comments sent my way about what goes on in my classroom, and what doesn’t, are intended to open a constructive dialogue to ultimately get at what’s best for students, then isn’t that what they become? As much as I may disagree with some of my colleagues and administrators, ultimately I do believe that they all want to do a good job for the children in their care. So, any comments or actions are pointed to that end. I decided to look at a choice judgment sent my way this week in just that light.

I was at a professional development workshop all day Monday so a substitute teacher was covering my class. This person did not follow my plans and perhaps didn’t read my notes at all. One important note she failed to read was about dismissal and so a little boy who was supposed to stay after school for a science program was instead put on the bus. Fortunately, his grandmother forgot it was after-school program day and was at the bus stop to meet him, so no big crisis arose. However, his mother was justifiably upset and sent me a kindly worded note that essentially asked how the hell that happened and what was I going to do so it didn’t happen again? My first reaction? Defensiveness. I had left the instructions. I had done my job. What more could I do?

And then I really asked myself that question.

What more could I do?

There was more. I talked to the Vice-Principal about the problems. I wrote a complaint to our principal so this person would be monitored more closely and not asked back to our school if problems persisted. Come to find out, she had already been written up for issues like coming in to school late and not going to duty stations. She had been in the office to discuss and remedy these problems already. If I had not brought these new problems to light, administration may have thought that she was now on the right track. So now admin was aware of the problem; step one complete. The next thing I had to do was see how I could change things in Room 102 to avoid these problems in the future. I looked at the sub dismissal notes, which seemed perfectly clear to me. I had a friend read them to see if they made sense. She said they did. So, perhaps the problem was that the substitute wasn’t reading them. I can’t be there to make sure the sub does her job, so I have to give more responsibility to the kids. From now on dismissal notes are not just on the clipboard that I carry out to the bus line, they will be posted on the wall by the door. Each student can check where she is supposed to go on which day. There will be a place for changes in dismissal to be noted on the board, like when Ann is being picked up instead of going on the bus or when Girl Scouts is cancelled. With a little practice, I think the kids will be able to run dismissal on their own, whether I’m there as a guide or not.

Teachers are judged every day. I’ve decided to listen to hear where the judgment is coming from, listening with the ear of the learner. I want to be a better teacher, a better colleague. I want to do better.

Judges, I’m ready for you.

(Still, it would be nice if you handed out a “good job” sticker every now and then.)