Author Archives: Hope Teague-Bowling

Thank a Woman of Color in Education

Note: this blog was originally posted on hope.teague.com under the title “Women of Color In Education Should Be the Norm”

Ate Josie (pronounced a-taay, meaning “big sister” in Tagalog) had a stern face. She was no-nonsense when it came to Children’s Church at TayTay New Life Christian Fellowship. It was 1987 and we were going to learn about Jesus, come hell or high water. It didn’t matter that we were sweating buckets because the ceiling fan had stopped working.

Ann Chau spent every Saturday night at Harvesters Youth Group actively listening to awkward and dramatic teenagers, her eyes simultaneously empathetic and judging. She always listened.  Trustworthy and loyal, she taught us that compassion for others was more important than popularity. She encouraged our crew of misfit, tri-culture kids from around the world. Ann made me feel valued and through our relationship I realized I wanted to do that for other teens.

Christina Tsu was my youth pastor and the “boss” of my senior year internship at a local church (I was still living in Hong Kong). She counseled me as I decided who my closest friends were and what college I would attend. It was under her leadership that I became self-disciplined, learning how to passionately serve others, and how to listen to God through prayer. She shaped my notions of self-worth and my belief in God. This is the year I realized I wanted to teach high school and not become a nurse (plus body fluids are nasty!).

These women left a fingerprint on my life. While my exposure to women of color in leadership and education roles is a little nontraditional (I didn’t attend school in the United States),  it has shaped how I viewed women in power. I grew up thinking that women of all colors could be in positions of power and authority while leading their respective communities. This was my norm.

My experience is not the case for many students of color in the United States today. There are systemic reasons for this exclusion that are embedded in our history of institutional racism. Often, educators of color serve in auxiliary roles such as paraeducators, office personnel, or career counselors.  While this is important and without a doubt these educators change lives, only 18% of certificated teachers are of color. With such a low percentage, it is likely that most students will never encounter a teacher of color in their K-12 career.

Disclaimer: I want to acknowledge that women–particularly women of color–have always been marginalized teachers in society. As mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and sisters, they instill the most important life lessons about the world in their children, grandchildren, and siblings.

Just a couple of weeks ago I lurked in the background of an #EduColor chat titled “Her Struggle, Her Power: Women of Color as Educators.” I felt this chat was one of the most important conversations I’ve joined–not because I actually had anything to say, but because I had everything to learn. A few things stood out to me:

Women in teaching deal with a lot of the same crap from a system that doesn’t value them enough. Teaching was one of the first professions open to women in a society that didn’t view us as intelligent or capable (ironic considering we’re the ones educating future generations *Kanye shrug). So now we’ve “proven” ourselves, but we’ve also proven that we will tolerate poor working conditions and mediocre compensation packages.

Women of color have it even worse than white women. In addition to being poorly paid, teachers of color aren’t treated the same way their white counterparts are. Often they are disproportionately subject to working with “hard” cases and seen only as disciplinarians rather than instructional experts. Furthermore, in addition to gender discrimination, they face straight up racism from students, parents, colleagues, and the system as a whole!

Women of color in education reach students in a way that interchangeable white ladies need to learn from. I’d argue this is probably my most important takeaway from that Twitter chat. But it’s also the most challenging. I’m still grappling with what this looks like. I don’t think this means you awkwardly pretend you understand the WOC experience or say anything weird about how their race must help them connect with all kids from ____ racial background. Maybe start by reading this article by Christina Torres Under Pressure: Being a Woman of Color in Education. Then, go read the transcript of that Twitter chat and comment here with your own reflection.

I am the white woman I am today because of women of color.

SB 5607: Weighted Per Pupil Funding Model

There’s an old saying “money won’t solve problems” but usually that’s said by someone who owns a house, has a car, and isn’t worried about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Washington State isn’t the worse at funding public education but it’s not part of the top ten in the country.
Needless to say, if the Washington State Legislature was fully funding education, we wouldn’t be in the midst of a lawsuit (see McCleary breakdown).

The recently released Senate Republican’s bill SB 5607 tries to address concerns about funding education by including a brief discussion of levies and an extensive description of weighted per pupil funding. I am not an expert in these matters but I think it’s important for all educators to try to engage with these issues.

A little bit of context:
First, in order to think about school funding it’s necessary to realize that levies are a significant factor. As Highline Public Schools explains it, “Levies are for learning. Bonds are for building.” Thus, levies include everything from staffing (teachers, instructional aids, nurses, librarians, etc.) to supplies like books, computer upgrades, athletics, and arts, depending on what a district has rolled into its levy. It is all this “stuff” that is usually used to calculate what a district pays out in their per pupil costs (have you seen this incredible map?!).

Hypothetically, a district’s funding looks something like this pie chart, but every district has a unique set of concerns exacerbated by its location (urban, rural, suburban), its economic stability (employment rates, etc.), and the needs of its students. Thus, some districts rely on roughly 20% of their budget coming from levies while others might rely on as much as 25%.

Second, when we say “per pupil expenditures” we basically mean how much money it “costs” to educate this child. This can include a gamut of things and–from what I understand–might include a portion of a teacher’s salary or costs for programs to mitigate special needs.

I took a dive into Part I: Weighted per Pupil Funding Model of SB 5607 and when I came up for air here are a few of the things that stood out to me. I figure a pros/cons list is one of the easiest ways to address this.

The Pros: A stated focus on equity.

  • In the setup of the case for equity is laid out explicitly. “The legislature further finds that the current system unfairly drives more money to wealthier districts, on a per pupil basis, for low-income, special education, and transitional bilingual students than to poor districts.” I appreciate this because while most classroom teachers understand inequity in education funding, it often seems like those who inform education policy do not.
  • The term “equity” and “inequities” are weaved throughout the document. This again stands out to me because often in education so much of this system is set around standards of fairness and equality when in fact we need equity. Some school districts or schools within a district need different allocations of funds so that students can be served.
  • As someone who teachers AP Language and Composition, word choice matters. I love that the stated objectives of this section of the budget is to provide ampleness, dependability, equity, and transparency.

The Cons: A heap of unanswered but important questions.

  • While the objectives are clearly stated, as I read through the budget I continue to ask myself is this budget really ample, dependable, equitable, and transparent? At times the numbers don’t seem to add up.
  • Where are the additional dollars for schools coming from? This isn’t clearly outlined.
  • How will districts and schools be held accountable for new money, including what are the accountability measures for ensuring money is spent where it is supposed to be?
  • Since it seems we are creating a new system, how will district personnel be trained in the new system?
  • Since the Senate budget calls for additional funding for special populations of students (ex. ELL, Special Education) can students be counted more than once? For example, will a student be counted as ELL + Poverty + Highly Capable? Is this in-line with the objectives of ample, dependable, equitable, and transparent?
  • Are there other special populations (no mention of foster kids anywhere) that are missing or will they be added later–if so, when and by whom?
  • What about equity within a school district? If the money goes to the district, but say most of the students with “additional funds” attend one or two schools, how will it be ensured that the money will follow them to that specific school?

There is much to consider in this budget proposal. I encourage you to do your own research, pose more questions for us to ponder, and read this clear, succinct analysis of SB 5607 released by the Equity in Education Coalition last week.

#ObserveMe II: We Need Perspective

Last August I discovered the #ObserveMe movement. Within a few days, several brave staff members took on the challenge at Lincoln High School. I wrote about this process in my post “Goals for a New School Year.” What I’ve learned the most from this experience (so far), is that others see my classroom very differently than I do and I need their perspective in order to grow professionally.

I like to think I have teacher hearing and eyes in the back of my head. But I know I miss things. Teachers are 1,500 or more tiny decisions each class period, trying to capitalize on each teachable moment and fix everything that is “wrong” in order to maximize the learning experience. I can simultaneously be thinking about how to redirect Mike, tell Josie to “sit like a scholar” and ask Gabe a question that prompts his reasoning. An outside perspective, shared through an #ObserveMe reflection form gives me a new point of view.

One of my goals this year states, “Consistently incorporates and values diverse multiple perspectives in the lesson and classroom discussions.” As I track who has/hasn’t spoken during a class period, I’m critically aware that Jonah has spoken 3x times already while Miriam hasn’t said a word. I sometimes finish a class period feeling guilty because although I told myself to bring in Marcus, I forgot to use cold calling—or any other tool in my tool bag—to bring him into the discussion. The feedback offered by outside observers provides snapshots of whether or not I’m actually meeting my professional goals. Here are the comments I received from four different observations of this particular goal.

  • Different ideas related to similar pieces of evidence.
  • Absolutely. Students were highly engaged in a discussion guided by the teacher regarding rhetoric. Students were able to provide varying perspectives that were acknowledged and validated.
  • Political cartoons relating to racial justice in the US. And political climate.
  • invites multiple students to contribute. Amplifies a comment from a para that provides insight into cultural traditions/insight.

The first comment tells me that I’m encouraging students to rationalize and explain their reasoning based on evidence. It also tells me that I’m trying to encourage students to see how the same piece of evidence can be used to support varying points of view. The second comment shows me that all the effort I’m making to help students feel safe to share opposing views is actually working. The third comment adds a new layer. It tells me that the observer noticed that I was including multiple perspectives in the texts we analyzed. Although I chose the cartoons intentionally, I hadn’t really thought about how choosing a text was helping me meet my #ObserveMe goal! The fourth piece of feedback reminded me that I am working to intentionally include my para educators (I have two) in the classroom as sources of knowledge and experience. Again, something I just do because it’s just what I do, right and natural to me but I’m learning–from conversations with my paraeducators– it is actually not that common. I know that I can be more intentional about using these women as resources to improves student learning. Are these reflections life changing? No. Do they help me see my practice in a new light and challenge me to be more intentional? Heck yes.

Early on I received feedback that I should use an online form in addition to my paper system. So I converted my observation chart into a MS form and added a QR code. Now half my data is in an easy-to-digest format online. If you are adept at using technology or want to grow in this way, I highly recommend providing an online survey option.

I personally feel that one of the greatest strength of this process is the openness and low-stakes nature of it. Since it’s non-evaluative I don’t care about how much feedback I get, how often I get it, or how it’s phrased. I’m not stressing about a pre/post observation conversations. I am not up late trying to craft a perfect lesson on my Graduate school lesson plan template that highlights my teaching strengths in 30 minutes. I can take or leave the advice I receive. Nobody cares–including me! For someone like me who struggles with a type-A personality and anxiety about living up to my students expectations, using #ObserveMe to improve my practice is perfect. And so far it’s a reminder that all the effort I’m putting into lesson design and instruction is working.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this kind of feedback loop works for everyone. When I asked my peers about their own results here are some of the replies:

  • Few people have given me feedback, but I’m still going to keep my sign up and see what happens the rest of the year.
  • I realize I need more consistent, on-going feedback from our instructional coach rather than drop-in feedback.
  • I love it. I hand a reflection sheet to anyone who walks in.

As you consider what to change or modify for second semester, I urge you to set up an #ObserveMe sign and recruit a couple other friends to try it with you. Not convinced yet?  Read Sherry Nesbitt’s impression or Nate Bowling’s experience and share your goals online with the #ObserveMe hashtag.

Goals for a New School Year: #ObserveMe

I first spotted the #ObserveMe hashtag on a leisurely scroll through my Twitter feed. This piqued my curiosity. Who’s observing me? What are they observing? As I spiraled down the internet, I found that Math teacher, Robert Kaplinsky, is challenging educators to rethink the way we pursue feedback by making it easy and immediately obtainable. It’s simple. Make a form that says something like “Hi I’m ____. I would like feedback on the following goals:_____”. There is no right way to set up your #ObserveMe sign. Then, adjacent to this invite place a reflection tool. From reflection half-sheets to QR codes connected to google spreadsheets, a teacher can embrace any way that is easy (and I’d argue most meaningful) for them to receive this feedback.

I discovered that while #ObserveMe isn’t quite trending yet, it’s catching fire even at the university level. In teacher prep, some professors are using it as a way to model to preservice teachers the need for a clean feedback loop. Today’s teachers are constantly working to fight the isolation that can happen in this profession. We are also always looking for ways to improve and receiving meaningful feedback on our instructional moves is hard to find. Here’s what I like about Kaplinsky’s challenge to teachers.

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It increases the frequency of feedback. With #ObserveMe, I don’t need to wait for my administrator’s scheduled visit. I don’t need to wait for end of unit or end of course student reflections. I don’t need to wait for my instructional coach to find time to come into my classroom. I don’t need to wait for a colleague to get a sub so they can meet with me about student learning. In fact, this has the potential to give me more, real, immediate feedback from a variety of perspectives than anything I’ve seen this far in my eleven years of teaching.

ObserveMe-5-300x232It forces me to have a growth mindset. If this sign is on my door, I am telling the world that I want to grow. I am inviting anyone to come in and comment on my instruct. Yeah, that’s a little scary. But it’s a healthy risk that models vulnerability and openness to others. Who could pop in? A visitor. A parent. The librarian. Another teacher on planning period. I’m both thrilled and terrified at the possibilities. The #ObserveMe challenge reminds us that teaching is relational and we need all types of perspectives to help us grow. This model is based on trust. By opening myself up to the community, I am making them a part of my learning process and saying that I value their voice in my growth.Alissa

It will definitely impact students. If we begin the year with this signage, we are modeling the culture of learning we are trying to cultivate in students. We should be getting feedback that we can implement the next day. I will have concrete date for how I implemented my feedback and can brag about that to my administrator at my evaluation (wink, wink). This has the possibility of transforming my instruction and hopefully inspiring the observer to work on something in their classroom.

 

So far, a handful of teachers in my school are ready with their signs (they gave me permission to include below). I’m hoping our vulnerability will encourage others in the school to jump on board, foster deeper conversations about goal setting, and improve our practice.

Nate

 

Anyone else up for the challenge?

If you’re on Twitter, post a picture and use the hashtag

#ObserveMe

Professional Learning Interloper

One of the greatest myths about public school teachers is that we have the summer off. Certainly, it’s nice to have a few days where the alarm doesn’t ring at 5am or to forget what day of the week it is, but most teachers, in fact, spend the summer finding themselves again as adults by connecting with family (and working out or going to the dentist), by working a second job to help pay for expenses, and by stretching themselves as learners–which means, finding relevant professional learning opportunities.

These professional learning opportunities create a space in which teacher can deeply reflect on what did/didn’t work last year and make the creative changes needed. Although exhausted by the last day of school, I anticipate attending workshops such as building retreat days, AP institute, GLAD training, or tech conferences that push my thinking. While research shows that the best professional learning is job-embedded and on-going, one-time conferences have a place–they’re a little surge of energy that’s just enough to wake you up. They give us a drone’s-eye view by showing us that we are connected to teachers across this state and around the nation.

However, this summer calendar was oddly clear. So, I decided to interlope. I tagged along with my husband, the WA STOY (see Lessons from the Road) to DC, Colorado, and Illinois. I eavesdropped at the Education Commission of the States during Happy Hour debriefing sessions. At the Aspen Institute Program on Education & Society (special invite only event!), I secretly read articles from the syllabus and chitchatted over dinner about policy with incredible leaders in equity work from across the country. The final conference of the summer was the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) where Nate gave a lunch time keynote speech. To my delight, the NNSTOY conference was open to “any teacher”. Alas, once I arrived, I learned that it really wasn’t any teacher (only a few of us were without titles like STOY or finalist of ___), but I was already there, my registration paid, and Katherine Bassett, the conference organizer, far too gracious to kick me out.

I was eager to release my inner nerd, especially because this year’s theme was “Bridging Theory and Practice.” If you’ve ever hung out with me, you know I’m obsessed with merging these two elements in my life. This theme was further developed by a focus on four strands keynoted by outstanding leaders in our field and facilitated by excellent teachers from across the country.

  1. Constructing Student Centered Classrooms
  2. Leadership Spanning
  3. Building Professional Networks
  4. Expanding on Teacher Leadership
  5. This conference delivered.

I walked out with a better sense of how to engage my students through technology. I was inspired by creative models for teacher leadership such as what Denver Public Schools is doing with their Teacher Leadership & Collaboration model. I heard exactly what Charlotte Danielson intended for the Danielson evaluation (omg! Geeked out that I heard the real Danielson!). I felt empowered to build my teacher leadership through blogging. I was challenged to keep equity at the center of everything I do. Finally, I was reminded by Maddie Fennell, an NBCT from Nebraska who works for the Department of Education, to get involved in policy work because “if you aren’t at the table, you’ll be on the menu.”

Most importantly, I met, networked, and collaborated with absolutely fantastic educators from Washington (shout out to the WA Teacher Advisory Council!) to Jersey.

This last takeaway is why I want to encourage all of you to interlope at an upcoming conference or training that you think will make you a better teacher or give you an opportunity to network with agents of change.

Although, the conference is over, I highly recommend you read the writing of James Ford “What School Segregation Looks Like” or watch Nate Bowling’s invitation to join “The Family Business” Also, go to Twitter and do some post-conference lurking…I mean learning… by using the hashtags #teachersleading and #NNSTOY16

Lessons from the Road

Growing up my sisters and I would play “imagination”, pretending we were orphans lost at sea (this meant swinging from our hammock in the yard), fighting dragons across dangerous moats (jumping from rock to rock) or even playing market (hey, I blame my imagination on my voracious reading habits!). What I could never have imagined was growing up to marry an amazing man who’d later be recognized for his achievements in the classroom, specifically being named the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year (WA STOY for short) and one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

Many people are confused about these titles or what they entail, but I’ll tell you this much–the selection process is rigorous and the responsibilities overwhelming. You must represent your students, your school, your state, AND your profession, while staying true to your values. You must figure out how to say “no”. You must say “yes” more than you really want to. You must write sub plans at 4:30 in the morning before you catch a flight across the country to speak truth to power.

As both a teaching colleague and wife, I have a unique view of the madness. It’s like watching your favorite indie musician finally get recognized and then accidentally volunteering to be half-time roadie/half-time backup singer for a year–or however long the tour lasts. Although we are seven months into the tour, there is still a long, unknown road ahead. I’ve been to DC three times, Aspen, and am now headed to Chicago (no, my trips aren’t paid for but I intentionally drive a KIA and have no children or pets).

I decided I should share a few of the lessons I’ve learned from this vantage point.

1. Don’t be afraid to speak truth.

  • My STOY doesn’t say what he doesn’t mean–it’s annoying at times, however, it’s one of the qualities I admire most. This has led to both adoration and criticism by those around him, but he continues to hold firm to the values ingrained in him by his faith, family, and community.
  • When I met the STOYs from other states, I was struck by the honesty and passion each person spoke with. They openly acknowledged the issues and challenges in their communities. They proudly shared the successes of their schools or state leaders. They spoke truth.

2. Learn to vet all opportunities against your values.

  • How you spend your time and what you spend your time talking about communicates your values.
  • Since the STOYs are now recognized voices in the profession, it’s easy for education groups to try to solicit them for speaking opportunities. My STOY carefully reads up on each organization or person that sends him an invite, and evaluates whether or not this will move the needle forward for our profession and  our students.
  • Some opportunities are just straight up AH-MAZING. Kick it at VP Biden’s house? Take a photo with Barack? Every STOY I talked to used their thirty seconds of one-on-one time with the President to bring up their students. Values.

3. Find your tribe.

  • Teaching can sometimes feel like an isolating profession. You work hard in your classroom and in your school but it’s easy to put your head down and just grind. But isolation leads to burn out and we must find our tribes–it could be colleagues you are close to, like-minded people in an adjacent school district, or a Twitter friendship.
  • If you have the opportunity to network, do it. Your tribe is bigger than you think–connect with the number of outstanding teachers across this country and you’ll feel rejuvenated.
    Not only have the STOYs been incredibly inspiring but many of their partners are teachers or work in education as well. They carry with them a fire, the spirit of determination and a special love for their communities. I was delighted to swap stories about our communities over dinner. I think about the new “friends” I’ve made as the WA STOY backup singer (it’s even Facebook official!) and I feel lucky to share these experiences and be a part of the work that is happening across this country.

4. Remember why you are doing what you’re doing.

  • It’s not all filet mignon and open-bars. There are hours and hours of emails, speech writing, phone calls, interviews, layovers, and plane rides. As I watch my own STOY and read through Facebook feeds, I will testify that these teacher-leaders are working their butts off. Somehow, despite the chaotic whirlwind of fame, they maintain their focus on their true love–students and teaching.

As my plane gets ready to descend into O’Hare airport, I’ll wrap up by saying I am proud of my WA State Teacher and the other STOYs across this country who are doing the work. And a special SHOUT-OUT to all the backup singers and roadies offering their support!

21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

My first two years of teaching, I commuted to work—45 minutes one way, an hour and a half the other. My gas bill was insane and I was constantly stressed out from the traffic. I wanted to move closer to my school, but didn’t really want to live in Kent. Although I loved the staff and the students, I knew I wanted to eventually work in a more urban school. Commuting was the norm for most teachers in our building, and a majority of my colleagues drove in from surrounding cities. We’d joke about the benefits of living out of district—time to plan in the car or going to a bar without worrying about running into parents. But, I always felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was so exhausted I didn’t feel like I was doing my best teaching. I barely attended after-school activities like dances, football games or musicals. I felt like I wasn’t supporting my students enough and only had a surface level understanding the community’s values.

Deep down, I knew that living so far away from where I taught was counter to my belief system. I grew up as the kind of missionary kid that actually lived in the village my parents worked in. My parents home schooled us so that they could integrate their ministries into our daily lives (that meant at age 8 I was helping deliver babies in the prenatal clinic my mom built in the garage). This is why, after two years at Kentridge High School, I eagerly accepted a job in Clover Park School District just ten minutes from my house. Now, I teach at Lincoln, eat my way up and down 38th street (shout out to Vien Dong, Zocalo, and Dragon Crawsfish!), shop at Cappy’s and the 72nd Fred Meyer, and live on the Eastside of Tacoma. I love it.

I believe in neighborhood schools.

I believe in living and teaching in my neighborhood school.

A strong neighborhood school has the potential to change lives. It can be community-oriented, a center of support for families. It’s the community listening as Clover Park HS seniors describe how they tried to change the world through their senior project. It’s Abe’s Golden Acres providing one ton of food for the Eastside of Tacoma during the summer. It’s the SOMA church donating toiletries and snacks for the Football team. It’s The Grand Cinema sponsoring a Film Club after school. Successful neighborhood schools are thriving hubs that facilitate strong community-school partnerships that promote real world learning experiences for students.

I find myself extremely excited about neighborhood schools that are an integral part of their community and that reflect the racial and cultural makeup of that neighborhood. But the nature of intersectionality prevents me from ignoring the overlapping venn diagrams where race and class meet school and housing policies. Because anyone who doesn’t live under a mushroom can see that the neighborhood school reflects the people living in the ‘hood. So we end up with whiter or browner schools directly reflective of historical housing practices (redlining) and current housing “choice” (aka white families fleeing the urban core).

As a result, our segregated neighborhood schools reveal an increased concentration of the have and have-nots. In my mind, the real issue is the concentration of poverty that accompanies the neighborhood.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many high-performing charters is that they are neighborhood schools. Many public charters are serving a traditionally marginalized, high poverty population. Programs like KIPP or Greendot are a response to long neglected neighborhoods and communities. And their students are thriving. The anti-charter crowd forgets that segregation already existed in these communities and that the charters went into rejected communities, targeted children that many believe couldn’t learn, and said they were valuable and could achieve. Charters schools don’t promote school segregation. They offer a solution (note: I did not say the solution).

So What?

If we want great public schools for all students then we need to be honest with ourselves about our current conditions. We need to recognize that the current housing and school policies work together for the betterment of some schools and neighborhoods and not others, and with that understanding we can do better. We need to prioritize. Is school choice most important? Does the demographic makeup of the student population really matter? Do we fight to desegregate our schools? Do we work to decentralize concentrated poverty? Do we invest in making amazing neighborhood schools regardless of the makeup of the neighborhood? All of the above?

Now What?

There is so much more to be said or explored. But for now, I want to end with a thought from Korbett Mosesly on my initial post.

“What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. It is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. It’s a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.”

Let’s continue to have those hard conversations.

21st Century School Segregation

baltimore-integrationThis post is the beginning of a series of posts I will write about 21st century school segregation. I want to start by acknowledging a few factors that influence my perspective and shape my writing.

  1. This topic is complicated and multifaceted
  2. Nuance is hard to write in a blog
  3. I’m a white lady without children
  4. My instructional choices and community activism is shaped by my evolving understanding of my role as a white, female educator
  5. I love metaphors and analogies

Recently, I met with two outstanding women—one I consider the “Godmother” of my teaching practice and the other a teacher, community activist, and all-around inspiration. Over a cup of coffee, we grappled with elements of a conversation that started on Facebook then moved to email and finally to Bluebeard Coffee Roasters. As white women, what do we do about increasingly segregated schools? What do we do about the segregated schools in our city? 

Grappling with these questions is like swimming the English channel–it can be done but it’s cold, choppy, and overwhelming. These questions are particularly relevant because I am part of that “interchangeable white lady” teaching force working in a school with a majority of students of color.

As a nation, we were founded on simple truth. “That all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” See that tension there: liberty and equality. At their core those two ideas seem to be at odds with each other. Which has more value? Personal liberty? Equality? Overall, good for the majority of the communities?

As Americans we value choice–what we eat, where we shop, and where we send our kids to school. The policy obsession school choice is undergirded by America’s obsession with exceptionalism. In my freedom, I deserve to have choice because I’m exceptional. We want to be special. We want our kids to be special. And we want to choose an exceptional, special school for our child.

The unacknowledged issue with school choice is that it really isn’t a choice for everyone. School choice is limited by a parent’s employment situation, their transportation costs and access, and the services their child needs. As noted in “Not Everyone Has a Choice”, parents lack access to all the information necessary to even make the best choice for their child. School choice is actually a privilege that is only readily available for middle and upper class Americans. It is these parents that have consistent access the innovative programs across town and can get their students there.

If we’re serious about doing something to stop our segregated school system we have to be honest about the beliefs that undergird the choices we make about where we send our children and why we send them there. We have to decide if we want liberty or if we want equality. As the system now stands, we can’t seem to have both. Due to a myriad of factors–among them underfunding, legislative incompetence, voter apathy, and a skewed sense of social responsibility–current policy conditions we don’t have the resources to make all schools exceptional. You can’t create exceptional schools without the commensurate support from the community.

So where does that leave us? Rationing. People with means use their means to provide themselves with choices and options. People with means in our society are more likely to be white, leading to school segregation.

As a childless, white woman I’m left pondering the way forward from here: Open enrollment? Options for parents in poverty are limited by ineffective and underfunded public transit. Charters? I am skeptical. Vouchers? Results are mixed at best and exacerbate existing underfunding of K-12. I really don’t have an answer, but I am hoping to stumble my way to one in this series.

Home for the Holidays

Winter, particularly the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Years, is especially challenging for many schools located in high poverty rural and urban communities. Teachers wrap up units and collect essays, anticipating days to rest, catch up on grading, and reconnect with their spouses and children. For many of our students, the holidays are not times of joy but rather a reminder of scarcity.

In response to that scarcity, each year my principal pulls a Commissioner Gordon, sending out the bat-signal and asking teachers and community members to collect peanut butter, jelly, and other non-perishables so that we can send home food with our McKinney-Vento students’ families. The McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law, requires that schools provide “educational stability for homeless children and youth.” Like many federal and state mandates, this program is underfunded. McKinney-Vento partially funds “educational needs” such as transportation, school supplies, class fees, and ASB cards (allowing students to participate in clubs, sports, and school activities).

Our McKinney-Vento students aren’t the only ones in need. Many LHS students rely on school breakfast and lunch to give them sustenance for the day. Teenage stomachs are bottomless pits. My students are hungry all the time. It’s difficult to imagine how they survive the winter break when their primary nutritional source is closed. This is why we do what we do at Lincoln—-we pack two weeks worth of easy to prepare groceries in order to offset the driving hunger. In additional to our McKinney-Vento students, my colleagues and I usually identify about forty families who need financial support. It seems that every year our list of families in needs grows longer.

This is why many schools, like my own, desperately rely on strong community involvementtoys.

When we sent out the signal in the beginning of Dec,  we expected some help from our usual supports. We hoped there would be enough to cover the increased number of LHS families in need this year. What we didn’t expect was 3x the aid!

  • Team Backpack gifted 102 backpacks bursting with PJs, toiletries, and a new jacket for each homeless student.
  • A church donated toothpaste, shampoo, feminine products, and other desperately needed toiletries.
  • Someone brought in 40 blankets.
  • The Iron Workers Union supported 70 families with gifts under the tree.
  • Absher Construction supported 74 families with Christmas dinners that included a huge
    turkey.
  • Compassionate individuals organized their workplaces to collect donations to purchase Christmas dinners for more Lincoln families.
  • Businesses like Tacoma’s Best Grooming sponsored specific families on our list.
  • Life Center, East Side Community Church, Soma, and other faith communities sponsored families dinners, and gave generous donations so we could purchase the items we needed to fill boxes to the brim with groceries for over 90 families AND send kids home with gift cards so they could have a Christmas!
  • Ken, a friend from church, connected us with God’s Portion who brought in an hundreds of boxes of Kettle chips & popcorn. There was so much that my ASB students stood outside the entrances to our school handing out bags of chips to each student!
  • Many others–names I don’t know– donated their time to organize, sort, and lovingly pack bags and boxes. You know who you are. Thank you.

I conservatively guess that 200-ish families will have a more joyful holiday because of the kindness of “strangers”. We are grateful for every last dollar or item donated.

We all know schools are grossly under-funded in Washington state. Although economic indicators tell us otherwise, many communities are yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008. School and community programs that support families are essential, and finding sustainable school funding is critical especially for the most vulnerable children in our society.

When Tragedy Strikes Over & Over & Over Again

 

Teaching in an urban, high poverty school isn’t like teaching elsewhere. The lack of resources, sporadic community support, systemic inequalities, and high mobility cultivates an environment filled with trauma. In this environment, it necessary to be in a constant state of alert. My kids are on guard. I’m on guard.

Tragedy is around every corner.

Literally. Every few months–it seems–there is an altercation that results in the death of a young man or a young woman. Usually a young man. A young man of color. It was Elijah yesterday.

Having taught in a suburban high school, I know this is not the same experience. Yes, there were deaths and sadness but there wasn’t an air of expectation. An air of resignation to the facts of life–that hardship, struggle, and sorrow are moments away. It’s an air of “we hope this never happens again” combined with a whiff of “we aren’t surprised anymore.”

Our students are constantly faced with loss and death, but are expected to be resilient and move on. They mourn in whatever way they can—through stories of precious moments, through over-sized T-shirts tagged “in loving memory” and through altars of remembrance. The district sends in extra grief counselors and we all pray the day hurries to a close so we can stop pretending to care about Shakespeare, transitive properties, and Government. Tomorrow will be better we tell ourselves. And it will.

But what about the days after the initial event? Who is there to help our students process this grief? How about the next tragic event? And the one after that?  Five counselors, two psychologists, and a few administrators can not carry the psychological and emotional weight of 1400 students and 90 + staff members.

Education administration professor, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, argues that urban youth are undergoing “toxic stress”. He further postulates that,

When we look at national data sets for trauma, the numbers suggest that one in three urban youth display mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. They’re twice as likely as a soldier coming out of live combat to have PTSD. In the veterans’ administration, this is topic number one. But in conversations about urban youth, it almost never registers. All data shows symptoms of PTSD are interruptive to someone trying to perform well in school and more likely to create risk behavior, [yet] the investment is being made on incarceration.

In a classroom of 30, that is one third of my students. Where are the discussions on mental health, toxic stress, or urban PTSD on the local and national level? Are we waiting to see how the Compton Unified class action lawsuit against the district for failure to respond appropriately to student trauma pans out?

I have my suspicions why few want to address these issues.  

Regardless, if our students are coming to school with more PTSD than a soldier, how are the staff in any building prepared to mitigate this? In 2012, the AFT published findings that 93% of teachers never received any bereavement training. The report elaborates that teachers are asking for it. Clearly, teachers want to be better prepared to serve all student needs not just ones related to Common Core. I think it’s just as important for Larry to know how to respond to his triggers as it is for him to read grade level texts.

Alas, when I browse through the catalogues of professional learning opportunities of surrounding districts, I notice I can sign up to learn how to set up a flipped classroom. I can get tips on how to use love and logic for my discipline plan. I can learn the ins and outs of the TPEP evaluation system. What I can’t find is anything on how to manage the grief my students bring with them to the classroom. I don’t see courses on mediating toxic stress for students or colleagues. I can’t seem to find a training on conflict resolution or tips for designing lessons that maintain academic rigour and give alternative activities to lower the affective filter. I can’t find a class to help me understand and respond to the differences between trauma and grief.

It is critical that schools with high percentages of students living with toxic stress receive more short and long term support addressing these conditions. Staff need more than momentary pep talks or a handout on the stages of grief. We need to acknowledge that it’s not enough to cry in the bathroom and then pretend things are fine and go back to teaching Things Fall Apart. We need to stop ignoring that our urban youth and their teachers have unique needs that aren’t being addressed system wide. We need professional learning opportunities that equip our teachers to handle grief—their own and a classroom full of it! If we develop sustainable programs truly addressing the whole child, then both our teachers and our students will be empowered to handle whatever is around the next corner.