Isn’t Anyone Teaching Working Class Kids Well?

There was an interesting thread on the Working Class Studies listserv today. Someone asked for recommendations for materials for teaching a class of K-12 teachers about class issues. The poster said that he had plenty of good texts and films about class issues but was coming up short on materials of actual successful teaching in classrooms with working class kids.

I answered off-list, and others may well have, also. But the answers from the group were, I believe, representative of the fairly limited discourse about educating working class kids:

  • The first response was the cynical [not a direct quote] “well, you just need to respect them, provide relevant materials, teach them to think. There are no special methods. But doing even those things would require dismantling of the whole system, so that’s not going to happen”.
  • Next came a posting from one of the organizers of the The Rouge Forum, who claimed that his group was the “only” coalition of teachers, professors, parents, students, and community activists working on class issues and social change. On their website are papers on policy issues, some materials on teaching social studies, quite a few photos of people meeting in various cities, but, from what I could see, nothing from classroom teachers on how they might teach. From their website:

We had modest success in defeating the standardized test, the MEAP, in Michigan. We work in faculty organizations and unions to deal with the racism and sexism in academia. We try to press forward questions of class size, curricular freedom, anti-racist pedagogy, real inclusion, and a just tax system. As part of the Whole Schooling Consortium, we have sponsored forums in the U.S., uniting hundreds of people for democracy and equality.

All worthy causes, but I’m not clear what they do to work on classroom practice in working class schools.

  • Someone else, of course, mentioned Rethinking Schools publications.

When class is discussed in teacher ed, I see the conversation constrained within essentially these same arguments.

Students often come to us with a sense that they have chosen a good and noble profession through which they will be able to do some good in the world, and then, often in their first weeks in the program, we run them through a deep and scathing critique of the institution of schooling and the constraints on the teaching profession. And I teach these courses, too, but I long ago learned that we have to go beyond the limited “We’ve critiqued it, now you have to fix it” model within which these courses are commonly taught.

And to a point, I’d agree with the Cynical Poster that solid teaching methods go a long way for most kids. But solid, generic teaching methods dont’ enable kids to understand and to act upon the particular life circumstances within which they find themselves.

And yes, we have to teach about teaching within community contexts, about building relationships with families, about the essentially politicized nature of their work and their need to become involved in policy issues. And yes, some teachers will eventually become activists in their communities. But these are not the same things as being effective at working with children in classrooms.

I trust that short of dismantling the entire school system, we could find teachers who are doing excellent work with working class kids in small towns, in rural areas, in suburbs, in cities. I trust that there are classrooms where all kids feel respected and hopeful, where the honest messages of schooling are not simply that hard work will be rewarded, but that there are strategies for facing down the obstacles. I trust that there are schools in which kids are supported as they negotiate delicate relationships within their own families as they begin to aspire to lives elsewhere. I trust that there are schools in which all kids get a solid education, not just those singled out as the “smart ones” amongst the mediocre.

Until very recently, university faculty sustained a monopoly on dissemination about information about teaching and schooling. Teachers now can by-pass conventional publishing altogether and talk directly to one another about the things that they’re learning about teaching. And their practice can be subject to the daily supportive critique of others as they blog, post videos, publish student work on the web, participate in public forums.

I’d argue that if we’re serious about preparing teachers to become effective with poor and working class kids, part of teacher ed has to be about making practice public, about forming networks of support and critique, about making successes more visible.

That said, given the hundreds of teacher blogs, on-line forums, and listservs, where are the examples of effective teaching with working class kids? Why are these teachers so hard to find?

Caring for Kids Across Class Boundaries

In my last post, I wrote about the limitations of the ideal of the “heroic” teacher whose deep care will enable poor and working class students to engage in school in profoundly different ways.

That same afternoon, I was reading Stephanie Jones’ terrific book Girls, Social Class, and Literacy. She writes of the complicated relationships between children, their mothers, and teachers when mothers do not have access to the cultural, economic, or social capital to live up to the social construction of “ideal mother”. When poor and working class mothers have long been subject to the judgments of teachers, medical professionals, social workers, neighbors, or Child Protective Services, they have good reason to be wary of middle-class teachers who try to insinuate themselves into into the lives of their children.

Jones write that as a teacher, she had to come to understand that “students who walk into classrooms do not possess autonomy to build relationships and attachments with any concrete other. … The relationships educators build with children may continue to position them in tension-filled spaces between home and school if we don’t realize the necessity of building genuine relationships with caregivers as well”.

We seem to have come somewhat full circle, then. Loving children into learning can never be enough for poor and working-class kids. Yet, when teachers have too much to do in too little time, it will take an element of quiet heroism to also invest in the risky business of initiating relationships with wary parents across class boundaries.

Teachers and Class in Popular Culture

In today’s New York Times, Tom Moore, a high school teacher, writes an opinion piece about the distortions inherent in movies like the recent Freedom Writers. He writes:

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.

I talk often with the teachers I teach about the popular portrayals of teachers in the media, about the inherent contradictions between the mythology of “hero amongst the rabble” and a more systemic understanding of the reforms that will be necessary to make schools work for poor and working class kids.

For a class taught by one of my colleagues, they read Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and many are quite simply overwhelmed as first encounter the gross inequities in U.S. public schooling. I want my colleague to push them further, however, because as they grapple with reconciling their initial belief in schools as essentially good places for kids with the conditions they read about in Kozol, they almost inevitably settle on one central image: that of the Chicago teacher with the rocking chair in her classroom who loves her students and works impossible hours to make them and their families welcome in her classroom.

This is who they want to be.

This is a powerful image of a teacher making the best of impossible conditions.

And I get mostly blank stares when I ask my students why this terrific teacher should have to put up with the conditions within which she works in the first place.

For many, their decisions to teach are shaped by films like Freedom Writers. They’ll be the One True caring teacher, and their students will grasp their ankles begging for more at the end of each class section.

I work hard with them to press the questions of whether, in the long run, poor and working class kids might not be better served by schools populated by an entire teaching staff that had the resources and support to do their jobs well.

I want my students to become heroic teachers. I want them to have models of heroism beyond the solo, self-sacrificing, teacher whose self-identity depends at least in part on maintaining smug distance from one’s colleagues.