When I teach about social class and education, we examine discouraging labor market data. We scrutinize graphs and charts documenting funding inequalities among the schools attended by middle-class, working-class, and poor kids. We analyze disparities in college attainment.
And the teachers and wanna-be teachers inevitably ask “But what do we tell our students?”
The Education Wonkette generated discussion about exactly such things here. While she (and her readers) have moved on to other things as I’ve been chipping away at my Google Reader backlog, the question remains:
What do we tell the kids?
It’s an interesting question…and I wonder if its intent is to direct our attention away from their clear responsibility to change the system. Perhaps they are projecting their helplessness onto the kids they’ll eventually teach.
Denial is a great coping mechanism.
I think that for many teachers, the tension is that while the system clearly has to be changed, there are living and breathing children in front of them every day who have to chart out their next steps in life, and to paraphrase Dorothy Holland, what do we do while awaiting the revolution?
Do we urge more kids to go to college? Do we encourage them to go to work and to reinvigorate unions in the service sector? What do we do when kids who have never known material comfort just want to strive for their own piece of the pie? Do we tell them, instead, that it’s their job to forgo the day when they can finally pay the rent without worry, because they’re obligated instead to work for the greater good? How do we talk with parents about the dreams that they have for their children?
When the entire system now is organized around the empty promises that children who score well on high-pressure tests will do well in life, how do we frame a counter-story with young people?
I think that it’s a complicated question that plays out pretty powerfully in the day to day work of teachers.
I can imagine it’s hard to stand in front of a room of children and not ask these questions. And I’m not a teacher so I have no place answering the questions. I can talk about my experience as a student and the one thing a teacher did to change my life.
For my K-9 school years, I went to schools that were populated entirely with other working class kids. We were all taught to get the right answers to the right questions and do what we were told. In middle school, I was required to take two quarters each of metal shop, wood shop, home-ec sewing and home-ec cooking for two years. I was advised to go to a vocational school for my high school years, so I did, to learn short hand and typing and keypadding and filing and secretarial ethics.
I went to a high school (10-12) that was 90% working class/poor and 10% middle class half of my day, and the other half was spent at the vocational school. And for the first time in my life, I had a teacher (Mr. Reese, geometry) ask me why I wasn’t considering college. He told me he’d work over the summer to teach me Algebra II so that I could catch up in math to the other college-bound students. In 11th grade, I dropped out of the vocational school and set my sights on college, all because of one teacher.
I can’t help but wonder that if my other gifts had been recognized and nurtured a lot sooner (I was always very good at reading and writing), I’d have finished college in 1989 instead of 2007, if I’d have already been a published author instead of just now, at 40, starting a writing career filled with doubt about it all.
I can’t help but wonder if, instead of being pushed into business leadership, George W. Bush had been recognized and nurtured for his innate gifts, if he’d be baling hay today.
So encouraging everyone to go to college isn’t going to work. Encouraging everyone to go to work to reinvigorate unions isn’t going to work. Encouraging everyone to forgo financial stability to work for the greater good isn’t going to work.
We change the world by changing one heart at a time.
Mr. Reese changed me by one simple act: acknowledging and nurturing one of my gifts.
And that creates a more powerful story than promising a child that if s/he scores well on a test, s/he’ll be successful.