I just finished reviewing a manuscript for a publisher yesterday. In this proposed book, urban teachers spoke often of their students, and they seemed to be simultaneously fascinated and appalled by their students’ families. They wrote of substance abuse, of drinking, of mothers having multiple partners, of fathers being irresponsible in their relationships. The only parents (or grandparents) they mentioned actually meeting tended to be those who came to conferences at the school to weep in gratitude at the progress their child was making under the loving care of their white teacher. As they spoke of their work, each of these teachers clearly understood herself to be something of a solitary savior of her students.
When I talk about teachers understanding themselves to be their students’ saviors in my courses, I talk also about how those teachers might ever come to understand whether or not their students actually need saving. We talk about how this narrative of saving children from drugs, sex, and drinking may mean that teachers don’t bother communicating with presumably incompetent parents, that they may not be able to hear what those parents are actually saying. They may come to see what they understand children’s needs while missing their strengths completely.
And almost always, I can also point to some current version of this story of privileged people abusing drugs, binge drinking, veering well beyond romantic, monogamous sex.
We talk then about our perceptions of those who live pathological lives and those who merely party hard.
It’s not so much that I was bothered by how often the teachers in this book spoke of behaviors of their students’ parents that they could not have witnessed themselves.
It’s much more that this was almost all that they talked about when they spoke of children’s families. There was almost no room in their narratives for other dimensions of these parents’ lives.
The same (or worse) behavior that is bracketed as a weekend aberration for students at Brown– and other elite campuses where promiscuous students regularly drink heavily and abuse drugs– is sometimes understood by teachers to be all they need to know about their students’ families.
And in the end, TFA will even recruit Brown students to staff up urban classrooms, where they’ll be encouraged to understand themselves to be saving children from their families and communities.