When there is a law on the books, this is an easy and measurable target to combat. When my great grandfather went to school, they could keep him out by virtues of laws targeted at Indians and mixed-raced kids, so they just got to keep him out of school legally. By the time I came around, they had to get more creative and do things like have counselors tell me I didn’t need to go to college and wrote complex, arcane zoning laws. Either way, we got locked out of education but the fight was different. It may seem that challenging that de jure is easier, or that this is a sign of a lack of progress but the simple fact remains that I graduated from Stanford, my great grandfather didn’t because the binds of culture don’t have the same enforcement power as the bounds of the law and the state. It may seem like police brutality has gotten worse, but so far as I can tell, it hasn’t changed in my mom’s lifetime. I mean, lynching was legal when my great grand-father was a kid. IT WAS LEGAL FOR PRIVATE CITIZENS TO HUNT DOWN AND PUBLICLY HANG THEIR NEIGHBORS. The sad fact is: that is the first time it’s felt like a viable target because things have changed so much. Many people had to fight over many generations to get rid of lynching and because of that we now actually ask ourselves whether its ok for the police to kill and especially disproportionately kill, poor people, for trumped up reasons. I, too, am deeply disturbed that it has taken this long. These de jure changes have only happened relatively recently and our culture reflects the fact that while extremely critical in shaping culture and bringing justice, changing the law is a necessary but insufficient condition for ideological liberation. Most of the work we are doing now is in this cultural realm, which is both less powerful and more nebulous to counteract, namely because it is really hard to make people think what you want them to think and its also ethically problematic to even try to do so and comes with the inherent risk of oppressing the thoughts of others.
So the question becomes, how do you effectively change culture without turning into some sort of Orwellian nightmare? The good news about cultural change is that unlike the laws, this is something over which each individual and collective has a say about because culture is essentially the things we do on a day to day basis to live our lives. Cultural change happens both at an elite level with scholarly work and at a sort of kitchen table level and its something that all people can exercise their agency in and for which all people can be included. So how do you change the thoughts so that expression changes in a way that’s empowering, rather than oppressive? Well, how do we shape thought now? How do we socialize humans to have certain beliefs, practices and expressions? We need to take a human and raise them to be a certain kind of human. Sounds kind of a lot like education, doesn’t it?
Here’s the secret about really good activism: we all have to be educators. Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves and I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Changing the thoughts of both the masses of people and the ruling classes are essential to any liberation, but it turns out that there are some really good ways to teach and socialize and that we know a lot about this because our species is uniquely good at it. I did this at a professional level as a government and history teacher and I’ve learned some key things along the way.
- You cannot control the thoughts of others
- I know you want to. I know it would be easier. I know it is frustrating and exhausting but its not going to happen. Even under the Nazis people resisted, and we don’t want to be Nazis. Some people, like myself, will resist attempts to control thought on the principle of the matter regardless of what the rest of the belief system is.
- People don’t learn to change thoughts and thought patterns without a whole lot of trust, love and respect
- I wouldn’t let someone who I didn’t think trusted, loved or respected me play around with my mind either and I certainly wouldn’t trust an abuser’s opinion on politics
- Although you cannot control the thoughts of others, the thoughts of others will surprise you in really wonderful ways
- I’ve seen racist, aggressive little white boys turn into little mini-Howard Zinn’s in a semester in classes with 35 kids. I’ve seen kids who were illiterate and easily tricked into bad behavior by their horrible classmates become well spoken and confident individuals in a year and I’ve watched a large number of quiet Latina girls become not-so quiet Latina boss bitches. My babies are ridiculous but here’s the fun fact about them: they weren’t special and they are everyone’s babies, your babies are ridiculous too. The trick is though, that you have to believe that about them before they will believe it about themselves. That’s part of leadership. Trust the people.
- You can love people for who they are, or you can hate them for who they are not
- People are actually really good at identifying bad logic
- Most people just don’t know this is what they are doing because they haven’t been given the academic vocabulary to identify it, but when someone says something didn’t “feel right” about an ad or argument, what they mean is that they identified a strand of shitty logic, when you give people the vocabulary to identify it they do with stunning accuracy. Even 15 year olds.
- If you violate the trust of the person who you are trying to educate by using misleading or poor reasoning they are either going to lose respect for you, thereby meaning you will never be in the educator position again OR they will assume you don’t respect them and they will stop listening. This is a good human trait; we should be glad that people intuitively don’t trust bad logic.
- All cultural production is a form of argumentation
- This is a broader philosophical point, but my point here is that our actions and expression reflect our beliefs unless we are talking about basic survival. It’s the moment when we have choices that we start exercising our belief systems. As one small example, everything that currently sits in my shower is “organic” and “natural”, I blame this on sensitive skin, but I also just get to exercise my preference for ethical companies with my purchases (and presently have the freedom and privilege to do so). This fact becomes even more obvious when we talk about the things like writing and music that we typically think of as high culture. If artistic production weren’t reflective of belief systems, you wouldn’t have people studying the humanities.
- If you can’t support your argument with good logic, including evidence and reasoning you don’t have an argument
- This was a classroom rule and the thing that kids most feared I’d find in their papers. But it stems from this, if I can’t explain why my ideas are the best and why I deserve leadership then I lack the legitimacy to be in that position and my arguments aren’t as good as I think they are. The Catholic Church thought they were doing the right thing too, which is why it was so dangerous that they punished people who questioned their actions because it made it much easier to do the wrong thing. Mao thought the Great Leap Forward was going awesomely because his underling feared the consequences of questioning the party line. Worst. Famine. In. Human. History.
Taking all these points together, I hope you see where I am going with this. We need to focus our efforts on positively changing thought patterns and empowering people to do so. This makes us educators, and we fortunately actually have a lot of knowledge about how to socialize people. People will be able to make up their own minds when they’ve been given the habits of mind and information to do so and we can help facilitate that by making sure that the arguments we make are as tight and widespread as possible while resisting the urge to call for thought police.
Seriously. I see any calls for thought police and that’s when I start to worry that I need to leave the culture.
It never ends well for those of us who question things.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to remember that kids can’t learn under stress, so creating, a calm, safe, warm environment is the most important thing to focus on. What that looks like to you will mean something different, but it helps if the space is calm and you are calm. And if you aren’t calm, that you explain to the child that it’s not their fault because they will pick up on whatever energy is out there.
Trauma can make it difficult to focus, so often it is helpful to provide warm redirects and to understand that children facing trauma will often have shorter attention spans and will need patience and more breaks. Set more realistic goals for attention, get a baseline read by finding out the amount of time it takes for them to get overwhelmed and then work five minutes back from there. So if they freak out after 15 minutes, you know that they need a break at ten and slowly and gently work your way up. Breaks look different for every kid but the little ones benefit from physical movement, which can be walking or dancing. The older ones benefit from being able to stop sensory overload. I highly recommend music breaks or walk breaks.
It helps if you vocalize things for the kids. So in my case, I used to flinch if people touched me, someone broke me of it by noticing I was doing it and saying, “hey, you flinch when you are being touched, why is that” and then I could be both conscious and aware that my trauma wasn’t normal, this is especially important for victims of early childhood trauma and kids who went through years of trauma like I did.
I had a pass in my room where I allowed kids to step out at any time if they needed to gather themselves. It was used, very rarely, but it made the kids who needed it feel safer because they knew they had the option and they knew I was aware and they weren’t going to get in trouble for their trauma.
Some kids benefit from having a peer age buddy they sit next to or can call on if they need them. I gave my students input on the environment so they felt more in control of the situation.
Trauma can make kids feel uncontrolled frustration and anger and most of the time this is what leads to kids acting out. I’m a big believer in giving kids things like stress balls or stuffed animals (if they are little), this can give them a physical way to deal with their emotions and it’s something they get to be in control of. I also allow doodling as long as it doesn’t get in the way of work, I doodle myself and also often make comics or basically provide running commentary that are definitely not notes that I used to get in trouble for but it kept me from getting frustrated or blurting things out. In fact, I’ve used this for non-traumatized kids too.
If something happens and a kid starts to become defiant, DO NOT escalate by yelling at them in public. Ever. Ask them to take a break outside and go talk to them. Yelling will automatically trigger a negative response. Don’t take it personally, don’t assume they are just being a jerk or trying to engage in a power struggle. Be the adult in the situation and calmly tell them to take a break and then go talk to them. Kicking kids out of class and to the principal’s office ought to be reserved for students who are a direct physical danger to others, otherwise you are just sending the message that these kids are “bad” and unwanted and unlovable. Kids who have this self image will act out when a teacher loves them and likes them, because they will want you to confirm their image of themselves. That’s the worst thing you can do, instead you should break them down over time by loving them everyday no matter what they did the day before. Give your students a clean slate everyday. Are they likely to disappoint you by misbehaving on a given day? Yes, but in the long run, their behavior will change over time. And besides, you are the adult here, their job isn’t to please you or to make life easy for you, your job is to teach and love them. Be the adult.
And the most important thing I can say is to remember that if a kid is acting out, he’s not being an asshole. There’s a reason for it. The best way to diffuse a freak out is to say, “hey, this isn’t like you. Is something going on? How can I help?”
And finally, it might seem obvious but I rarely see teachers do it, develop a rapport with students and open up a line of communication and ask them what they need to be successful. Giving them agency is critical and it sends all the right messages to them about their power and rights after being robbed of that. Some kids might not immediately turn into the compliant happy kids you want, some will take all year and some will take decades but if you are consistent, loving, kind and professional, you can take solace in knowing that they will remember that you provided the counter narrative and a model for what a good adult looks like.
There have been a lot of recent suicides and a lot of talk about how much stress children are under and also how difficult it is for poor children in school. The stress crosses all boundaries, school has become an oppressive nightmare that is harming even privileged children. There are a lot of reasons for this, a bad economy, income inequality, Ed reform, testing. These are all things teachers can’t control but there are things that teachers and parents can do at the local level to make things better. Academic accomplishments are nice and all but are unlikely to result from stressing kids out, it has been scientifically stress actually hampers performance. Besides that cynical reason, I’m imploring you to care about the amount of stress kids are under because kids are people and what we are doing is oppressive and hurtful to them, especially when there are so many things teachers can do in their own classroom to make lives better for students. I made a point of making sure to design my classroom around student health and despite all the “concerns” about whether or not my kids could perform, my kids actually did extremely well on standardized tests and their final projects. They were doing primary source documents everyday as sophomores and I taught high school sophomores, most of whom were poor and Hispanic, to do research at a very average public school. So you can have rigor and good health at the same time. A lot of these problems stem from asking kids to be the same, not everyone needs to go to Stanford. In fact, very few people do, if we paid everyone a reasonable living wage and didn’t demean anyone for the work for they do there wouldn’t be so much pressure on kids to fit one very narrow image of success. There are kids literally dying because of this, so here’s some things we can do immediately to curb some of this and parents have the RIGHT to demand these things for their children and teachers have the RIGHT to implement them and advocate for them.
1) Be Careful About Assigning Homework
Unless the work is for practice or an independent project or reading it has no value. And most of the time the practice has no value either because you have no idea who actually did the homework. Independent projects are ok to assign for outside class time IF you’ve provided the appropriate structure and some class time to complete it. I got all the way to Vietnam last year, without assigning homework to my sophomores, while using primary source documents and with a month left to spare for their research projects. And by the time they got to their research projects they could do them independently while I was out suffering from injuries for the last month of school. The reason I was able to do this is because I very carefully paced the year out for them to do that, and I didn’t just pace content, I also paced skills out as well for things like essay writing, even though most history teachers leave that to the English teachers. So there is probably no good reason for you to assign homework, especially if you are working in a low income area where the kids don’t have the home life to do it anyway and if you are working in a rich area you don’t even know whether it was the parents or the students who did the work. Cheating is rampant, so all homework does is punish your honest kids and your disadvantaged kids. If you teach math or English, 15-30 min of practice or reading should suffice, IF you feel you must assign stuff outside class time. It’s not the kids’ problem that you can’t plan well enough to cover things in class, if you are struggling to cover things then either the standards are wrong or you need to plan differently but you don’t have the right to punish the kids over it.
2) Think Carefully About Your Deadlines
Before picking a deadline think about what your limits are and move back from there. If the kids are struggling to get it done in time, consider the possibility that you weren’t being realistic and move it back. Does your deadline fall on another deadline like when applications are due for college? Does it fall in the middle of other stressful times in their classes? If you can get them together, the grade level team can get together and make sure they aren’t over scheduling mastery assignments. Even teachers sometimes get to say, “hey this wasn’t a realistic deadline” to their bosses. As professionals we move deadlines all the time and we expect our bosses not to completely bury us if there is a hard deadline with another thing that can be put off, there is no reason to hold children to arbitrary dates we made up.
3) Accept Late Work
If you don’t accept late work you are simply punishing those students who lack support at home or who need extra time for your own convenience. And I’ve been in a lot of jobs now and I’ve never seen a boss say, “no, I won’t take the work you did because it’s an hour late!” Kids aren’t at school by choice and they aren’t adults so they should at least be afforded the same compassion we expect to be afforded. No one failed my class last year. One of the big reasons was that I took late work.
4) Don’t Grade Attendance
Grading kids for attendance is cruel, it punishes those who lack family support and the ill. I had a chronic condition growing up and missed a lot of days of school and you know what? I made it through Stanford with a 3.5 GPA. That happened in part because my high school teachers had the good sense to accommodate me but I’ve seen lots of teachers punish kids for attendance. I had an especially bright young man in my classes last year who was struggling with a serious chronic illness, so he and I developed a plan to make the work up while he was hospitalized. I got yelled at by my boss because my class was the only one he was passing; this was a college-bound senior. That is wrong and it shouldn’t have happened and in the end, he got his work in. I’ve seen kids infect other kids because they came into school sick to protect their grades. I’ve watched kids choke back tears after finding out a close relative died because they didn’t feel they could take the time to mourn because they thought they had to be at school. We don’t have to do that to children.
5) Consider Extending Accommodations to All Children Regardless of their Status
If a child has an IEP or a 504, then those are legally binding documents and you are required by law to give the students those accommodations. < I would like to assume people know but I’ve seen so many people fail to accommodate that it would be a foolish assumption. Those accommodations exist so that kids can be successful and I feel that we should treat all children like they all have IEPs, which means Individualized Education Plan, because each kid is unique. I gather a lot of data on my students and treat them accordingly. So if I can extend a deadline for a kid with an IEP, I can extend it for a kid who is sick or in foster care or working. If I feel it’s educationally sound to provide more scaffolds or more assistance or a shorter assignment to a kid with a 504 then I see no reason to not give that to every kid who would benefit from it. And if a kid is bored, I give them more challenging work. If you explain to the kids that you do this and you do this because you believe in equity and you apply this to everyone you will NEVER hear whining about fairness. And for the record, I have never seen a kid use a scaffold, like sentence frames, if they didn’t need it and making them all use it when they don’t all need it because you don’t want to have to do the work of differentiating is wrong. If you do this they learn to trust you and will tell you when they need extra help and they won’t try to play you because that line of trust has been established.
6) Don’t Grade Everything and Think Carefully About What You Grade for
It was my policy that class work and home work, which are not “mastery” assignments was graded on a pass fail basis. I would read it to check for understanding and inform my teaching and give points to whoever did the assignment. In my sophomore class mastery assignments were worth 70 percent of the grade, and “work to support mastery” was 30 percent, in my senior class that was an 85/15 split. So you could pass my class solely based on whether or not you had mastered the material. I didn’t grade for participation, I graded things on a pass fail basis. And you know what? The kids still worked their butts off every single day in my class, because they knew that everything we did had a purpose and was building to something larger. Chaos didn’t ensue, no one was slacking and because I didn’t give homework to the sophomores and minimal homework to the seniors, I didn’t have frequently missing assignments. And the sophomores did all of their mastery assignments in class too so I never had any missing mastery assignments. I also graded group work on a pass-fail basis to avoid the common pitfalls and the stress that frequently results from group work. I believe in group work, it has value and kids need to be trained to do it. I don’t do it everyday but a lot of teachers cut it out entirely because they don’t want to deal with kids being upset that their grade is impacted by someone else’s performance or because there are kids goofing off. So I assign it but don’t grade it and the kids got along better, everyone got to contribute and there was a lot less complaining and a more supportive atmosphere. The only people the kids should be competing with are themselves if you can avoid competition. They should be working to better their writing and their skills and worrying about their individual performance. But I was ruthless in my grading of their mastery assignments, all of which were writing assignments. The kids said I was the hardest grader for papers they had ever had but that I was fair and they were happy to have the challenge.
Some competition between groups is ok, for fun and glory, but not grades. My seniors ran a campaign between two classes last year and they got really into it, and it wasn’t perfect but a lot good came out of it. If I could go back and do it differently I would have taken even more competition out because it just created a hostile environment. Some student populations liked it more than others so I kept competition in for big simulations and group things, like the campaign my kids ran in the sophomore classes or when my kids came up with their own country but it still wasn’t graded. The mastery assignment was and it was what mattered because their grade should reflect their master over the material.
7) Think Carefully About the Schedule
Any teacher that has been to PD knows how difficult it is to sit in a desk, in a room for 8 hours without breaks and snacks. The behavior of most teachers during PD is appalling, they talk over each other, stare at their phone, work on other things. They complain endlessly when they don’t get breaks or can’t check their phone or don’t have food. Basically all of things we expect the kids not to do. The schedule for kids is brutal during the day and you should consider things like their hunger levels, or what time class is, or whether or it’s 1st or 5th period or how long they’ve been doing the same kind of work or stuck in desks when designing your schedule for the day and then add in some things to mitigate the problems that might arise from that, I frequently changed the order or the method of things between periods of the same course. I would even change it based on the personality of the class or their specific interests. And it made it such that we got a lot more done and everyone was happier, even in my “difficult” class that had a lot of kids who were “bad” in other classes.
8) Add a Revision Policy
Let kids make up assignments. In writing this allows them to continuously improve their work and on everything else it allows them to review the material until they are certain and you are certain they have mastery over it. This allows you to differentiate by giving low performers more time to grasp the material and giving your high performers some semblance of control over their grade and a break if they have an off day.
All of this really comes down to remembering that our students are people and empathizing with them. Treat them kindly and like they are human beings and they will respond accordingly and you don’t even have to change anything else.
We suck at giving constructive feedback. People tend to either believe constructive means “fixing mistakes” only or only giving nice compliments. Good feedback is neither, good feedback helps people to develop independent processes to improve, it helps them find themselves and understand how to work with their own strengths and weaknesses. Good feedback is not about the structure, a compliment sandwich is useless if it looks like this:
You tried really hard!
But your grammar is bad.
You are nice.
You are good writer
You should add more commas somewhere
This is fun to read
None of that is specific and useful and while I simplified this I’ve seen feedback that looks that way and I’ve also seen feedback that is nitpicky, overly critical or vague.
We have a tendency to also think that the positive part is only for self esteem boosts but good positive feedback illuminates and teaches. People, for example, rarely give me good positive feedback because they assume I already know or don’t need to hear it. That’s not the case. I’ve learned more from the positive feedback I’ve been given that’s useful because I’m far more likely to be able to see my errors than I am to see my positives. Some people are trained to see the reverse and neither is truly helpful because we all are complete beings with both. Overly critical and nitpicky feedback also causes the person to be focused only on the negatives of their work and that’s not always helpful. Good feedback should teach them to enhance their strengths, mitigate their weaknesses and hide the work that goes into writing. The following formula works for me in most cases, unless I’m dealing with an arrogant student who has never gotten any critical feedback and needs it (or else they don’t learn anything! It’s a simple way to differentiate, give even to your brightest students feedback).
1) overarching comments about the voice and style
2) positive feedback that explains how the positive technique is used to the author’s advantage
3) negative feedback and how to move forward in improving it
4) explanation for the grade given or for my overarching thoughts
Giving good feedback up front can save you a lot of work in the long run because your students will begin to see these things for themselves and won’t need you because you have illuminated their process for them. It’s a simple way to make sure that everyone gets what they need without doing things like having leveled readings or making your slower students feel bad or your smarter students feel embarrassed. These interactions matter far more, than whether or not your classroom is pretty or whether or not you name the objective everyday. It is through this sort of dialogue that people process and grow.
I had my students fill out an exit ticket of all the things that are working for them in my class. This is what they said. Notice, nobody called me cool.
Multiple essays to enhance essay writing
Taught us how to annotate documents
Uses primary sources
Has us practice with difficult vocabulary so we learn from it
Helps us to write essay to prepare for the CAHSEE
Is teaching us how to write a research paper
Teaching us how to annotate documents so we are prepared for PAUSH
Helps us with our writing skills
Shows us how a country/government runs
Shows us how to tell if something is propaganda
Tells us we need to use credible evidence with our arguments
Gives us support in this and other classes
We take notes
We look at lectures
She helps us a lot on our essays
We watch video clips
She works with us to understand topics.
Spends one-on-one time when needed
Treats us with respect yet also treats us like young adults
Believes in “us”
Pushes us to the limit, yet pushes us to succeed
Cares for the students
Lets us know when we do good things
Outlines for essays
Not much homework, we already have enough from our other classes
We get to choose our seats
Lots of group work
Teaches well which makes it easy to understand
Gives us time in class to work on things
Makes learning interesting
Gives reliable life examples and experiences
Lets us eat in class
Is more realistic than other teachers
More motivational than other teachers
We have group discussions
We have class debates
She ties things into modern issues
She makes sure we are comfortable
She uses a lot of vides and resources and FUN!
She gives us opportunities to do make-up on essays
She’s kind but very direct and patient
She makes learning very fun
She makes us feel comfortable
She teaches assignments in fun and intuitive ways
Doesn’t force certain ways of thinking that almost all teachers good or bad do here which is bad for students, instead lets us for our own opinion which makes education fun
Is constantly pushing us toward success which includes one-on-one time, help in all subjects, and even help on critical thinking skills
Teaches us how to shorten long passages
Is very descriptive and detailed when teaching
Helps us to understand history in another way
You make sure we understand the work
You believe in us
Never say no to helping
Makes sure we are ok in our daily lives
Helps s get work done in class so we don’t have too much to do at home
Connects with the class
Knows what she is talking about
Can relate with some stuff
She taught us how to source and it actually helped on the CAHSEE Prompt
She taught us how to write an essay
She gives more freedom than anyone else, she lets us work in groups
She leaves us thinking
She doesn’t teach history, for she teaches us how to use our minds and question things and how to think critically.
She makes it soooo easy to get help
She doesn’t just wish us luck on our assignments but she gives us help
She understands us.
She shows good historical movies
Inspires us to challenge ourselves
Takes time to help us individually
Teaches us how to write proper essays
Prepares us for standardized tests
Understands individual needs
Makes sure everyone is heard
Gives us notes that are brief and get the point across
She trusts us that we will get our work done
She provides us with documents that are very helpful when writing essays
Her lectures are short but filled with everything we need
Whenever we need her to elaborate on anything we just ask.
She lets us use our phones to look things up and do work
She lets us listen to music.
We do a fair amount of writing that helped us make a well constructed 5 paragraph essay
We have intellectual discussions
We look at multiple sources to distinguish evidence
She teaches us how to think on our own.
“Ms. Charles is such a sweet lady who dedicates time to help us achieve whatever we do in her classroom. Ms. Charles understands that I have anxiety and she works with me so I don’t get behind in classwork. Ms. Charles also makes her classroom feel like a home. I feel very comfortable in her classroom because she doesn’t put pressure on us. She always motivates my classmates and I to always try our best and never give up. I love Ms. Charles and I think other teachers should be like her or follow some of her classroom expectations.”
“The things that have helped me a lot have been the one on one talks and how you teach, you give us a lot of work and you help us through it and explain thoroughly. I don’t really get help like this in other classes.”
“Ms. Charles is a very sweet lady. She cares about her students as if they were her own kids. She makes the classroom feel very welcoming.”
“Ms. Charles is awesome!! The way she teaches is better than any other teacher, she gives us powerpoints, videos, and she explains everything in words we understand. She uses video clips and taught us how to take notes in our own words. She lets us share our perspective, makes topics interesting, she uses thing that happen now and compares them to history. She treats us with respect and gives us equality in the classroom and trusts us to get things done and we do because we have equality and we all look up to her and have respect for her. “
“Ms. Charles won’t let people fail.” I have a virtually unheard of pass rate and my sophomores are also doing research and reading primary source material daily, they also write daily. I work at a comprehensive, large, integrated public school. About two thirds of my students are ell and a little over that is poor. I’ve been dragged into a lot of meetings by bosses this year because my pass rate freaks them out. They think I’m cheating or letting the kids run wild. The truth of the matter is that my behavioral and academic standards are insanely high. My kids do more intellectually rigorous work in my class then any other. My AP seniors squeal all the about how hard I am and they all pass my class and most of them pass their released AP exams. Most of what I do might not be replicable. I have a B.A. from Stanford and an incredibly strong research background, I have SPED training and experience and I was a key activist for poor students undergrad and I have my masters from Stanford, I trained under crazy good teachers and at 26, I have worked in nearly every educational environment imaginable. I’m also nuts and probably unique but there are some things I do that are immediately and easily replicable and would benefit the majority of students.
There are three foundational principles to this.
1) Don’t be a dick to kids
Adults aren’t as productive at work when they are stressed out, miserable, uncomfortable or depressed. Why we would expect children to perform under those conditions is beyond me. Make your room as comfortable as possible and the kids will do better. People are more motivated by love and community. We perform better for people who inspire us than we will for people we fear, kids are no different. Teachers are leaders, first and foremost.
2) From each according to their ability, to each according to the need
IEPs and 504s are legally binding documents so if you aren’t implementing those you are breaking the law. You have no right to an opinion about whether the kid needs it, ever. But there are lots of kids who fall into the cracks, and very few people have the temperament, ability and motivation to be successful in the industrial model of schooling. So all of my kids get all of the accommodations they need to be successful. I have high but realistic and individualized expectations for all of my students and I provide as much structure as they need to get there.
3) I take personal responsibility for each child’s success
The quote above is commonly said in my class. When they told me that most teachers were failing half their kids I wondered how they slept at night. Notice that I said “failing their kids” not “half the kids are failing.” My job is to train them to be productive members of society and to help them a achieve their fullest humanity. When they fail, I’ve failed them. My kids know this so well that when one of them says something about not doing an assignment the others say: ” dude, you know she’ll find you and make you do it.” Failure is not an option in my class. They don’t have the choice, I am an efficient and benevolent dictator.
So again, not everything I do is easy to do but a few are
1) Don’t assign homework unless it’s for practice
Homework is unfair and unnecessary in the vast majority of cases. It’s ok to assign a little bit of reading and some math and science practice but it should be avoided. Some kids go home to moms and dads who do it for them and some of them don’t have a home. It doesn’t tell you anything about their learning because you have no idea how it got done. With homework, school, extracurricular and family commitments (some of my kids are working full time or raising their siblings) kids are pulling more than 8 hour days, usually much more. That’s not right and it’s unhealthy and they aren’t gaining from it. It is also incredibly unfair for educators to ask their students to do something they haven’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t do and very few teachers have had to be successful in our high stakes environment while raising their siblings and working.
2) Accept late work
If you don’t accept late work you are grading them on organization, how good their home life is, and compliance. Most of my Hispanic kids won’t turn in work unless it perfect out of respect for the teacher, some of my kids don’t know how to keep track of their work because their home life is chaotic and some are just forgetful. It is a bald-face lie to say this is preparing them for the real world. Find me an educated adult who has never asked for an extension, forgotten paperwork or refused to do something they thought was stupid and I will find you a liar or someone who is really into compliance which is only good for bureaucrats.
Allow the children the opportunity to revise
The goal is everyone getting mastery, yes? So some kids do that at different times, if you allow them to revise it will encourage them to reflect and improve. It you make them feel terrible for not understanding at your preferred pace they will develop fear and poor self esteem. When you screw up at work, your boss tells you to do it over. They don’t say, you’ll never do this right and you should have done this earlier. If they do, they are a bad boss and most adults won’t succeed or tolerate that for long.
Don’t grade attendance, compliance, tardiness, the number of times they speak or neatness
Unless those are the content and skills that you are measuring in your area (which would be SPed, AVID, or advisory not math, English or history) their grade should reflect mastery of the content or skills only. Does your boss micromanage you and tell you job is inadequate when it got the job done? As adults we know that would be bad management so you aren’t preparing them for anything valuable. Most kids have little to no control over attendance and tardiness because they are minors and also because they don’t have magical healing powers. 9 times out of ten they are out or late for reasons outside of their control and the tenth isn’t so egregious that you can’t deal with it individually.
There are a lot of things I do beyond this but these are the easiest and quickest to implement, it won’t guarantee every kid passes but a lot more will pass than if you are doing the opposite. As teachers we should be continuously reflecting and improving our practice to ensure that we don’t fail our kids because it is good teaching but also because it is the best way to teach personal responsibility.
I am very protective of my students. I feel like a Mama Grizzly Bear and I feel like that about all of them. I call them “my kids” and I don’t even want to have my own kids. I love teenagers, I really do. I find something to love, something that is beautiful about each and every one of them. They get under my skin sometimes, and I may not always like what they do, but I try to look for the good in them. I am not unusual in this as a teacher. I also feel a great deal of responsibility for my students. If my friends at Facebook make a mistake, they might cost Facebook money, they might feel bad, it might not look good for a while, but it can be fixed. If I make a mistake, if I have one bad day, if I give a child the indication that I don’t love them, that I don’t believe in them, the consequences are dire. Every friend of mine has vivid memories of how they got the message that they couldn’t succeed, we remember those words. Sure the kid might not perform in my class, but that is not the more important concern. For some of my kids, one bad day, one use of the term lazy, or bad, or even the slightest messaging that implies that I don’t think they can succeed and I am putting the nail in a coffin. That is not a metaphor.
The charters I have been at have been on the progressive end of the spectrum, but even then I saw some of my kids “exited” meaning they were encouraged to leave and go somewhere else. They were told that they couldn’t be successful at that school. The charters are under no obligation to educate every child. The two I have been at were mostly good about this, but the reality is that both Summit and EPAHS are special places. The vast majority of charters follow the KIPP model. Some of them are doing some good work for some kids, but in the long run, even if they educate the few they do have well, some of their policies have lasting and incredibly damaging impacts on not only the students but also the community that far outweigh the fact that a small number of kids scored high on some tests.
A lot of people don’t realize what is going on. In the charter world, they call it exiting the kids. They tell SPED kids and ELL kids, and behavior kids, that they can’t be successful there, and they do this before the kids even walk into the door. If the students can make it past that gate then they have to deal with a set of rules, and if they don’t score high enough the charters will encourage or find a way to make them leave. It is an open secret that charters recruit kids before funding kicks in and then drop the kids off back into the public schools that make their lives difficult before tests happen. Comprehensive schools then have to pick up the slack with less funding. Charters serve a self-selecting and small population. A population of students that are told that if they follow the rules (including walking in lines, chanting when they are supposed to, doing work under unreasonable conditions) that they are good and that the other kids from their home community are bad. Charters already start with a self-selecting population because few parents have the cultural capital to apply to the charter. Then once the kids get there they leave in mass. There is a charter in New York that was praised in the media. They started with 55 middle schoolers. 16 entered their freshman year. That is a horrific attrition rate. KIPP, which is probably the best in the bunch, loses 40% of their kids. Charters get a lot of outside funding the publics do not get. Then they educate a much smaller percentage of kids, an already self-selecting group, and then they get rid of anyone who makes trouble.
I am not going to mince words here. If you have 55 kids and only 16 make it to 9th grade, and you also have more money than the public schools, I don’t care what the scores are. Any teacher can get 100% proficiency with 16 top performers, and on top of that, they also run their staff into the ground and have massive turn-over. If you have to run a slave operation on your teachers to get 16 well-behaved, higher performing, better resourced kids, to get proficiency, your model is not working. It is failing. That they have so many kids dropping out, have so many more resources, have teachers working under horrific conditions, and can only get a small percentage through, and that the percentage that does finish goes to but can’t finish college, then you are doing something horribly wrong.
This is all statistics and data to me, and it matters, but I want to talk about the emotional ramifications. These charters pull kids out of their home communities, isolate them, use awful tactics to train them to act appropriately privileged (a lot of them us SLANT which means Sit UP, Look at the Speaker, Ask Questions, Nod, Track the Speaker- follow them around the room- all things I don’t see many privileged kids doing anyway), tell the kids that they are somehow better than their friends from the neighborhood and that their neighborhood is the problem and that they are personally responsible. Then they have crazy discipline policies, some of which violate the Geneva Convention clause on group punishment (yes, seriously, I’ve seen the archives of charters applying to districts), and they lose their kids. Disproportionately, they lose their beautiful, brilliant, fun and charming young black boys. So let’s look at this from the kid’s perspective. You’ve just been told that your culture and community is bad, that if you fail it is your fault and that the charter is your only hope for getting out. Then you behave like a child, and your principal and teachers, your community, your only contact with mainstream society, tells you that you can’t be successful in the place that was supposed to save you. Just so we are clear, kids are getting kicked out for things that I did fairly regularly, things that privileged kids do all the time, things that are perfectly normal for kids to do. If you look at the behavioral contracts at some of the charters kids can get kicked out for defiance, for not going along with specific programming, for not doing homework and for not performing. So basically, if I had gone to a charter I wouldn’t be writing this right now.
What do you think the consequences are for the children who get exited? Well, they’ve just discovered that school is not a pathway they can be successful on. Since school is the only legitimate way to get out, where do they go? Prison. Drug dealing and using. Prostitution. The streets. I am not being melodramatic, this is the reality of the situation. They are done. They will give up on school entirely. The small percentage that stays and gets a “good” education (high test scores, and access to resources the public schools don’t have because they get outside funding) would probably have been fine at a fully integrated and well-resourced comprehensive public school. The kids that leave should not be sacrificed on the alter for our unwillingness to honor our Constitution and our unwillingness to fund public schools. This is ultimately the thing that made me decide to not go charter this year. There are some good charters out there, EPAHS and Summit are both offering things the public schools in that area don’t have and filling a need that needs to be filled, and for the moment at least doing a good job of it. But wouldn’t it be easier to have comprehensive public schools that are dedicated and designed for equity? And Summit is an outlier, most fit into the No Excuses mold of that school I mentioned in New York and of KIPP. I love my kids too much to continue to watch this happen. The public schools are far from perfect. I went to one and it was awful, but it was also not integrated and didn’t have resources. We can’t get around the resource question. We can’t get around Brown v. Board of Ed. The consequences are too serious. If we want to fix education, we have agree that we have a responsibility as citizens of this democracy to provide a true meritocracy with equitable access to education. Rich parents have to stop trying to get around the rules to give their kids advantages. Frankly, since most of them believe that their children are geniuses who earned everything they have, maybe we should see what happens when they have to deal with real competition, because the system right now is rigged to make it as easy as possible for them to maintain their position. That is racism. That is classism. We have to stop dancing around the issue. Integrate the schools. Fund them equitably. Because right now, as far as I can tell, some of these corporate guys are funding the charters so they can continue to get around our constitution.
Teaching is hard. It is so much more difficult than anything I have ever done. I fail at it constantly. We ask our teachers to be brain surgeons. We give them a group of kids that is completely random, a set of standards that rarely make sense, ask them to teach kids important life skills like writing and then hold them accountable to tests that don’t measure their ability to do those life skills, we give them no resources and ask them to act as counselor, teacher, friend, mentor, and sometimes parent, as well as all of the other bureaucratic responsibilities they have. We change, at will and seemingly randomly, policies and ask teachers to adopt fads created by people who have never taught, and then we blame them when they can’t overcome poverty, which is an issue we never address systematically. To be a good teacher, is incredibly difficult. You have to not only have a deep of knowledge in your subject, but you also have to understand how kids develop and work, be able to respond to those kids as individuals, and still meet all of your requirements. I am not complaining. I love this job, if I wanted to do something else I would have done it. Notice I didn’t even bother mentioning pay. And, yes, we do work during our “vacations.”
Teaching is just as hard as being a lawyer, as being an entrepreneur, as being a doctor. I work way more and do far more challenging work than most of my friends in tech. My job isn’t any less cognitively challenging than the job of the engineers I know who actually make things. And we have none of the benefits of that work. We aren’t paid well, we don’t have flexible hours, we have to respond to a million different people’s demands. But the biggest difference is that we get none of the respect. No one trusts us to do our jobs. I would never ever walk into my engineering friend’s work and tell them how to do their jobs. Despite this, I have to have an argument with someone at least once a week about what they think is best for kids they have never taught, have no interest in teaching and that they have developed an opinion on from reading New York Times articles by people who showed up and spent one day at a school and bought the sells pitch.
This happened recently, and I was told that my degrees and experience (and it is minimal for a teacher, but my more experienced teacher friends get the same treatment) was irrelevant. This person was in business, I wonder how they would feel if I told them their experience in their industry was irrelevant. I wonder how they would like it if I showed to their office and started nit-picking because I read some business research on my lunch break, and by research I mean I read someone’s agenda on teaching which pretended that there was research to support it. Everything I do in the classroom is backed up by research, I am not just making this up. There is instinct and talent sure, but I also have a master’s degree from Stanford and if I didn’t I wouldn’t be as good a teacher. I’d be fine, I’d figure it out, but it would take me a really long time.
Everyone thinks they are an expert in the schools because they have been to school and because we have de-professionalized the teaching profession. This is what happens when you tell recent college grads with a cursory and missionary interest in teaching who have no intention of sticking around that they are better than the trained professionals, which is backed up by no evidence anywhere. The good friends that I have in TFA who are good teachers would be even better if they had gone through ed school and they wouldn’t have been in hell for their first year. But the vast majority of the people doing this do it exactly as I described. One of them is an ex of mine, we broke up for many reasons but our fight over this issue is illustrative of why we didn’t need to be together. He called me shortly after breaking up and told me he was doing TFA, I was in STEP at the time. I explained to him why I thought that was a bad idea and he said “teaching is fine for you, but I don’t want to be a teacher forever and I want to move up in the ranks of liberal politics, and it doesn’t make sense for me to take out loans for grad school when I have no intention of staying.” I assume he said this in his interviews too, since TFA encourages this kind of behavior. In fact, one of their stated goals is to train future leaders. In fact, this ex had told me that teaching was beneath him. He ended up trying to do the same job I did as a para, he was terrible at it. When he tried to teach a small summer school class, he failed and that was with advanced kids and my attempts to coach him. The fact that he thinks he is more entitled to his voice in the education field makes my blood boil. He is one example but I have seen this over and over again.
Or we could, you know, make it possible for trained professionals to have opportunities to actually use their experience to contribute to the dialogue. No, not going to do that? Would rather have finance dudes running the medical system than doctors (to be fair, we probably do, but we also have massive problems in health care and people would be outraged if they were aware, this happens in education out in the open and is praised). This is incredibly insulting to teachers. It is also classist, and it is reflected in how we pay teachers. Teachers are not longer considered intellectuals in society, they might as well be blue collar for how we pay and treat them. You want better teachers in the classroom? If you are serious about this goal, then you need to be serious about ending these attitudes and problems.
There is also some latent sexism in this. I hear this from men more often and men are disproportionately represented in the highest seats of power in education. We have fewer men to begin with but the few we have who do teach, teach for a few years and then move up or out. I have had a lot of men say “teaching is fine for you.” As far as I can tell the only difference between us is that I am a woman. In our society the careers that get the most glory and pay are dominated by men. It has nothing to do with the difficulty of teaching, teaching is hard, most people can’t hack it. For the most part, men don’t go into teaching because we don’t value teaching, but if they go into education, or if they are business people who decide that education is their pet project, they assume they know more than the women on the ground doing the actual work. I can’t help but feel like some of this issue is just more mansplaining. But either way, I wanted to lay this out, if you haven’t taught, you have no business thinking you know more than the teachers you meet. They’ve read all the research you have, plus. They live it every day. Shut up and listen. In fact, in most things in life, it is best to shut up and listen before you open your mouth. You have the right to say whatever you want and I would defend to the death your right to say it, but you are never going to learn anything if you don’t hear what other people are saying to you. Trust me, I know, there is research and I also teach.
I am notorious for many things, one of them is keepin’ it real. I am a pretty big fan of keepin’ it real. Keepin’ it real means being really honest about the world as it exists. I strive for honest and kind, sometimes, because I am human, I fail. Most people who have been through the kind of trauma I have lie about it. People pretend to not be poor. People pretend they aren’t struggling. People suggest to me that I should lie to the children, as if children are blind and can’t figure it out. I want to tell you as a trained professional that they can and have already figured it out. Children are beautiful, and brilliant, and amazing and have no filter and that is why I work with kids and not adults. Kids are still raw, they are still honest and because of that they have the power to grow and change, and ultimately to change the world. You cannot grow if you can’t take risks and you can’t take risks if you lie to yourself.
I’m honest because when we aren’t honest we end up in a world where white children grow up being lied to about their privilege. We grow up in a world where black children learn to blame themselves or become angry without knowing the cause of their suffering. We grow up in a world where bills can be named ridiculous things that have no basis in reality, like No Child Left Behind. We grow up in a world where we have a feminist movement defined by blaming women for not working hard enough. This is a world in which nothing structural and systematic gets fixed. I get it; people think that if we are honest, people will lose hope and give up. I have to respectfully disagree. There are people who survived the Holocaust, Slavery and Genocide. There are people that resisted those things. People are so much more resilient than we can possibly give them credit for. This is especially true about children, who have the amazing ability to adapt to anything and to strive and learn even when they are told not to.
The other argument is that people will find out and stop having personal responsibility. This is a rather shallow and foolish view of humanity. People have accomplished things under conditions that are absurd. Malcolm X knew he was going to be shot, he spoke anyway. My mom told me how messed up the world was, and then she told me that was no excuse for failure, and despite being a severely abused poor kid I made it to Stanford. I know how hard it is to overcome things, I also know how incredibly strong and beautiful humanity is in the face of adversity. This is why I trust my kids to handle the truth.
The kids are never uncomfortable with the truth. It is the adults who are. This is why when I said I wanted to teach about the Black Panthers I had Stanford kids tell me they weren’t comfortable with having high schoolers learn about that. My response was that they already knew; I grew up in the shadow of the Militancy of Civil Rights and so do all of my students. We aren’t supposed to talk about violence and I have seen more stabbings than I can count, I have had students who have watched people be murdered; they were twelve. They used the experience to connect with other human beings. They were incredible, conscious, sensitive, chatty, and adorable 12 year old boys. I hope that whoever has the fine pleasure and honor of teaching them now sees how beautiful they are and helps them develop their voice. Do you have any idea how powerful it is to watch 12 year poor children find their voices and enter debates about Civil Rights when they know what is going on? It does not weaken them. Kids are better than that. You cannot stamp out their drive, humans have an innate desire to contribute, to provide, to be part of this grand and mysterious world. I sincerely have never met a lazy child. I have met kids who didn’t do what they were being asked, but I have never met a kid who when given a task that is both accessible and rigorous and of interest to them, who didn’t do the task. Not one. Ever. In any context.
My friends from high school are really good examples of this. None of us were great students (we have who was worst contests, the jury is still out). One of them, a boy with a keen mathematical mind and test scores that are ridiculous, failed most of his classes but asked to take community college classes he was interested in. He’s been working since we were 13. He can run his own business. His pool game is absurd. Another is a profoundly talented artist, she almost failed school because they put in her the lower classes because she lived in the projects, so she stopped showing up. She is now a professional artist, she graduated from Berkeley, with honors. Another one only excelled in the classes he was engaged in, he had what rich people call business skills and what we hustling that would have rivaled anyone I know in business currently. He teaches kids to read. He lived in a shed in college so he could get out. And me? Well I was defiant, I rarely did the assignments I was supposed to, sometimes just for fun I would do other assignments in protest, I was known for getting the whole class to turn on a teacher. I ditched most of 8th grade science. I went home during lunch and made pasta only to never return. I got into fights. I only behaved when I was differentiated to. Now I am a teacher with two degrees from Stanford. All of us had profound struggles. Poverty, racism, sexism, familial challenges, a neighborhood that was unsafe, abuse, neglect, everything you imagine about urban kids is represented in just three examples. We were set up to fail. But we got out. We got out because we wanted to contribute. Those are the most brilliant among us, but to this day I don’t have any friends or family members that I know that aren’t trying to contribute, aren’t trying to love the people they love in their lives, aren’t trying to care. They don’t always do it successfully, but they try. I have seen sociopaths, and the faces of evil, they are rare and not reflective of humanity but of deficiencies in their ability to be human and they aren’t lazy.
My mom is a radical lady. I was raised in a house where race, class and gender were discussed openly. But this was the norm. There isn’t a black kid in America that hasn’t gotten a lecture on race, that hasn’t woken up and realized that they are oppressed. There isn’t a poor kid I know for whom that isn’t true either. How could you not know? We all knew. We just had different understandings of the root causes, and those understandings were ultimately what defined us. I was empowered by how clear the system was to me and was made to me by my mom and the number of good teachers I had. I wish my friends could have had that too, maybe more of them would have gotten out. That is why I teach history. Be honest because the kids already see what is happening, but if you don’t explain why how will they ever know the right way to get around it. How will they know the rules well enough to break them? Because that is ultimately what is required. And while you are at it, if you are serious about making it so that they don’t have to break rules just to survive and provide for their families, do some work on addressing the structural inequalities. If you want to be super helpful, the next time you are at dinner with someone who doesn’t know how the world works, especially if they have power, keep it real.