The Racism Card

I’ve been noticing a trend in our school for students to play the “racism card”.  We have a very diverse, multicultural, multi-faith population.  The majority of my students are first or second generation immigrants, and the generations-deep Canadians are the minority. It’s really neat.  The teachers, however, are predominantly white, been-here-a-while Canadians.  And all female except for one,  but that’s how it seems to go in elementary.  We have one teacher from Lebanon,  and she’s a Muslim, but as she specifies, “the drinking kind”.  (Hilarious.)  Because we are mostly a bunch of white, deep-rooted Canadians, accusations of racism are inevitably slung  our way.

Before I go any further, I should clarify my stance on a few things. I absolutely believe that white privilege is ingrained in our social structures, whether intentionally or consequentially.  I understand that my hair products will be found in the general and not “ethnic” section of Shoppers Drug Mart, and that band-aids are made to match my skin colour, and the shade “nude” looks kind of like naked me.  But I also believe that Arab privilege exists in Middle Eastern countries (I don’t think my white skin would get me any favorable treatment in most places there), and I’m going to guess that in most (but not all) countries, privilege exists for anyone who embodies the physical or social characteristics of the dominant founding or colonizing people.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.  I haven’t read enough about the topic, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

The thing with this concept of “white privilege” is that it is now being used as a criticism and judgement against white people in a way that is entirely counterproductive, kind of like when “feminists” start vilifying men.  I wholeheartedly believe that white privilege needs to be acknowledged and considered when decisions are being made about the well-being of all people living in Canada.  But I don’t believe that it should be used a as method of devaluing the ability of white people to work with people of other ethnicities and cultures, and this is what I’m noticing in teaching as of late.

Last summer an article went around the Ontario teachers’ group on Facebook about how white teachers are inherently racist, even if they think they aren’t.  We’re racist by virtue of ingrained, subconscious beliefs we can do essentially nothing to correct.  I voiced my concern that this argument is really just another form of racism, because telling me I am “inherently” and inescapably anything because of who am I culturally seems, well, kind of racist to me.  And if not racist, at least unfair.  If you’re saying I can’t do anything about it, then why criticize me for it?

One especially patronizing commentator suggested a few books I should read to enlighten myself, like Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  What this fellow educator doesn’t know about me, among many things, is that I have a mother with a Ph.D. in education who has taught me about such philosophies and has raised me to think about them constantly.  I grew up  questioning all of my beliefs.  She took me to church but let me make of it what I wanted.  What this fellow educator also didn’t know about me is that for the last twelve years, I have read extensively about Buddhism, Taoism, and New Age thinking.  What you learn when you read about these philosophies for twelve years is that all these concepts like “white privilege” and  “cultural appropriation” are what Hamlet would call words, words, words.  They are different labels for the same thing.  Ultimately, what we’re getting at, what we’re always getting at, is the need to return to a  love for all beings.  Unconditional, unfiltered, unrestrained love. This is what the Buddha teaches; this is the ultimate lesson of the Tao.  Just take a moment and think of any conflict between people. It can be boiled down to a lack of love, and a prevalence of fear, in their hearts.

The last wisdom that my dying grandfather imparted on me was that for any idea to work, it has got to be simple (his emphasis – I can still hear his slow and wise voice saying it).  He was a man who had thought about the world, philosophy, religion and life at great length. His words stay with me because I know he was right.  Everyone yearns for simplicity.  The best products are simple or create simplicity.  The Tao preaches living a life of simplicity, of removing complexities from your life.  What I’m getting at is that I don’t think I need to read Freire’s book or other complicated philosophies (which are available only to the fairly educated, I might add, and could also be viewed as privileged concepts) to understand that what has caused white privilege is quite simply a lack of love in the hearts of the humans of the world.  If you want to delve into it, I think you could find a correlation between the rise of Christianity and the existence of white privilege.  I don’t want to get into it, though – it’s too complicated.

The article I mentioned before cautioned white teachers against saying things like, “I’m not racist, I look at all my students the same – I’m colourblind,” because it implies that you don’t acknowledge the uniqueness or diversity of your students.  You should see their many colours and their cultural particularities and their idiosyncrasies.  I agree with that, just as you should acknowledge the many differences you can find within two white or two Asian students.  In my class, I sometimes notice more commonalities between an Arab and a white student than I do between two white students who come from extremely different home lives.

Quite simply, I love children.  My whole life, beginning with babysitting, I have been good at working with them because they sense my love for them.  You can’t fake it.  So I find it frustrating when I’m trying to help children grow as people and I am accused of being racist.  I have one grade six student in particular who claims that any attempts to discipline him are “biased” or “racist” (ideas we later learned were being ingrained at home when we had to suspend him for essentially strangling another child).  The thing is, I love this kid.  Even though he drives me bananas, I feel it well up inside of me when he grins at me or does something cheeky.

This child has a lot of social difficulties and has an incredibly hard time seeing things from someone else’s point of view, almost the way a child with autism does.  You cannot reason with him or help him see how he contributed to a conflict.  This makes it very difficult to work through his issues, and he ultimately falls back on the accusation of us being racist, and so does his mother.  The other day he left scratches and broken blood vessels on another student’s neck after dragging him by the hood across the basketball court.  He was definitely and unquestionably provoked by that student through taunting and, allegedly, spitting (although we have yet to get a straight story about that).  What he and his mother couldn’t understand was that the retaliation didn’t fit the crime.  According to Canadian law, self-defense must be “reasonable in the circumstances”.  If someone calls you a mean name, you don’t get to strangle him or her.  The mother accused us of being racist because we only suspended her child for the strangling and we didn’t suspend the white student for provoking the strangling.  But I know for certain that had the roles been reversed, we would have suspended the white kid.  It’s about the strangling, not the colour of the skin on which the blood vessels were broken.

We also have a group of Muslim males in grade eight who tend to throw out accusations of racism when they don’t agree with a disciplinary measure.  It’s exhausting because we’re just desperately trying to prepare them for high school and keep the school safe and functioning.  Thankfully, our drinking Muslim teacher will step in and try to help them see it from a teacher’s point of view, sometimes with success and sometime without.

Throughout my teaching career I have caught myself on a few occasions wishing I were one of two things:  male, or not white.  I try not to speak in absolutes, and remember that this blog is just my perception, but I have noticed that parents and students tend to question male teachers’ decisions less, and I have especially noticed that from the Muslim males I have taught (but of course, not all).  I have also wished I weren’t white so that I didn’t have to feel like I’m always walking on eggshells, paranoid of inadvertently offending someone with my whiteness.  I just want to teach.  Ironically, I just want to teach my students to be open-minded and to question everything the way my mom taught me.  When I catch myself wishing I were male or black in order to have more cred, I realize that I’m not practising what I preach.

When students and parents play the racism card unfairly, it makes it very difficult for us to do our jobs of raising responsible youth.  In fact, I think that unfairly playing the racism card is ironically in itself an act of racism against white teachers who are simply upholding the standards of practice of the Ontario College of Teachers.  (Freire would probably argue that those standards of practice are ingrained with white privilege, too.  But I can’t be expected to single-handedly fix that. I can’t even fix the photocopy machine.)  I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that an Arab or African teacher taking the same disciplinary measures would not be accused of injustice.  That does make this a matter of race.  I know that history is cyclical, and perhaps with our changing Canadian population we are seeing the rise of Arab or other privilege, and maybe it’s simply our turn to experience prejudice.  But if I’m teaching my students anything at all, I hope it’s that history doesn’t have to repeat itself.  That we can learn to view each other from a perspective of love rather than race.  Anyway, I won’t stop trying.

Dunce 2

The “D” Word

The “D” word:  Discipline.  The word no one’s allowed to say at school anymore.  Somewhere along the way it has become a taboo concept, avoided by principals and abandoned by teachers.  In its place we have “restorative measures”, yet another concept that works best in the theoretical world (along with differentiated instruction and guided reading groups).

Today a colleague told me about how in a recent parent/teacher/principal meeting, the parent announced that he and his wife would no longer be picking up their child from school when he was sent home  because, “You’re professionals: figure it out.”

Couldn’t an equally fair response be, you’re the parent, you figure it out?  Your kid is seriously messed up and we’re pretty sure it’s your fault?  Could you clean up after yourself?

(The sad truth here is that we know that the parent can’t figure it out or we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.  The other sad truth is that there’s pretty much nothing we can do about it, so we can’t even figure it out for him.)

Sure, we are professionals.  In education.  In child development.  But we’re not psychiatrists.  We aren’t educated like they are, nor are we paid.  So when a child demonstrates behaviours that we can’t figure out, our job is to refer the parent to someone who can.  Kind of like when your family doctor refers you to a specialist because he or she isn’t qualified to treat you for that growth (and neither is he or she supposed to be).

On a daily basis, I feel that I teach my students more about how to exist peacefully in this world than I do anything else.  In the morning they walk through the door already bursting with life problems.  Today one of my students was upset because the other kids were accusing him of saying a swear word that he was insisting he didn’t say.  For the record, this is a grade six class and many of my students would know how to deal with that without adult intervention. But kids don’t develop at the same pace and this particular one is well behind his peers.  Also for the record, this kid swears like a sailor.  He routinely tells me that he “didn’t do shit!”.  The other day I told him in an almost-impressed-but-mostly-pissed tone that it was a pretty ballsy thing to say to a teacher. (I didn’t say ballsy). So this morning I reminded him of the time he told me he “didn’t do shit” and he insisted he had never said that, either.  Then I realized that I had just sworn in class by quoting his previous swearing and it wasn’t even 8:30 and I hadn’t even taken attendance yet.

When you’re teaching children how to be in the world, naturally you need to have some consequences at your disposal.  What’s frustrating about being a teacher is that we really have none, which is why my sailor student can swear and not much comes of it.  Besides whatever petty leverage we can creatively concoct (missing recess, writing an apology), we can’t enforce a whole lot.  Most of our lame consequences aren’t effective enough to alter negative behaviour that is clearly in some way rewarding to the child.  We can’t send students home unless they’ve done something to seriously threaten the safety of others.  We can send students out of our class, but that rarely has any effect because they end up in an overcrowded office where no one has time to properly address their behaviour.  They are usually given a quick “talking to” and sent back to class, some of them feeling like rebel heroes.  The effectiveness of administrative discipline depends heavily on the experience and personality of the administrator.  But regardless, principals are pressured not to suspend (suspending = disgruntled parents = disgruntled School Board) and are also forced to come up with their own creative consequences that fall short of being influential.  While I know that suspensions aren’t the ultimate solution, I think that not suspending causes an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude in our parents.  How long would you allow your child to be an asshole at school for if you had to leave work to pick him or her up every time?

We certainly can’t physically punish a child (and we’re all in favour of that), but we can also hardly defend ourselves when being attacked by one.  We aren’t allowed to use any force on a child, even if he or she is being entirely non-compliant and causes us to uproot our entire class and change locations. We aren’t even allowed to use an intimidating voice, because heaven forbid we hurt the child’s feelings.  In school, the child has a lot of power. We spend our days praying they don’t all figure it out at the same time.

But, what happens in the real world when you are non-compliant with the authorities?  After a warning or two you are restrained by force; not enough force to harm you (in theory), but enough force to prevent everyone else from being impacted by your bullshit behaviour.  And yes I know that there are corrupt authorities and there are those who believe that the majority of police abuse their power, but those people are a) wrong and b) usually the people whose kid we’re trying to keep from pencil-shanking others with our “I feel” and “If/Then” statements.

The other day on yard duty I had to confront a group of grade eight boys who were using the basketball nets that were supposed to be for the Juniors.  It had been previously decided that the grade eights could use a certain set of nets, but they were playing at those designated for the younger students.  As I tried to explain to them why they couldn’t be using those nets, the seven or eight of them circled around me and started yelling accusations of injustice.  I felt instantly overwhelmed and powerless because my pleas for them to hear me out were flattened by all of their yelling.  I felt mildly panicked because I didn’t know how to deescalate the situation other than to remove myself from it, but that would mean submitting to students who needed no more reason to believe that they were in charge of the school.   By some grace of god my principal came out on a hunch, and with her at my side we were able to divide and conquer them.  I actually can’t remember what the final outcome of that situation was – all I can remember was feeling so helpless.  Because of thirteen-year-old boys and a basketball court.

It was that day that I started thinking, if school is not only a microcosm of but also a real part of society, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interested if it functioned as such?  If consequences were similar to those in the so-called real world: restraint and detainment?  Possibly confinement?  I’m definitely not saying that these measures are all that effective in correcting adult behaviour, either, but I’m saying that this is the way it is in our society until we figure out something better.  Had I been a police officer in that basketball situation, I would have called for back-up and I would have likely arrested a few for non-compliance.  At school I have no reliable means to call for back-up, and either way my back-up is usually busy dealing with its own legit situation.

In conclusion, I think that we need three things to change in order to improve our approach to discipline:

  1. We need to be allowed to make parents more uncomfortable when their child is misbehaving.
  2. As professionals who work with hundreds of children, we need to be allowed to provide kids with behavioural and mental health services whether or not the parent agrees to be involved.
  3. We need to have consequences that reflect the “real world”, and students should essentially have the same rights as citizens: the right to a mediator, and the right to remain silent  (…if only).

Dunce 2

 

 

 

So a Ministry Lady Came Today

I fell off the blogging train over the past couple of weeks due to the giant life sucker that was report cards.  That and I had some personal issues that needed working out which filled up any free cranny in my brain that wasn’t already crowded with learning skills comments or next steps.  I find writing report cards to be all-consuming, which doesn’t work out too well when I’m still trying to do a half decent job of teaching.  Especially when doing just a half decent job takes a good eight hours a day as it is. (Three-quarters of a decent job requires some weekends.)  Throw in a personal crisis and you’re just screwed for leisure time.  I’m not trying to complain because I really do love my job, but I hate how it feels like the only way to do a really good job is to completely martyr yourself to the cause.  It’s for the children, after all, as the government likes to remind us ad nauseam.  Anyway, that’s for another post.

Today we had our School Improvement Plan meeting which I was actually looking forward to because I love talking about teaching.  It’s refreshing to be able to sit down and chat with adults once in a while.  The nice thing about adults is that they usually – ok, sometimes – give you a chance to speak your piece without interrupting.  That is a non-existent luxury in a grade six classroom full of boys.

A woman from the Ministry joined us for the meeting and her title was something like Student Achievement Enforcer… or was it Officer… either way it should have been Student Achievement Wizard because she had so many whimsical suggestions for us.  You can always tell when someone has been out of the classroom for too long because their suggestions are so utopian.  Don’t get me wrong, I know they mean well, but Board and Ministry people truly haven’t a clue what it’s like “being in the trenches”, as my principal puts it.

We were asked about some of our biggest challenges, and I shared that I felt I was so focused on keeping the drowners afloat that I couldn’t get to the rest of the students who equally deserved my attention.  The Student Achievement Wizard said, “So it sounds like what you need are strategies.”

Strategies?  Like, scaffolding?  Differentiated instruction & assessment?  Balanced literacy? Three-part math?  Open-ended and authentic tasks?  Inquiry-based learning?  Guided groups?  Learning goals & success criteria?  Student-led learning?  Those strategies?  Lady, I got strategies.  What I don’t have is the chance to even implement them because the typical classroom is not exactly filled with compliant beings.  It’s filled with little crazy people whose sole mission at school seems to be to resist all of our strategies.

I then clarified myself because what I had meant to say was that I felt that all of my time and energy is given to the students with focus issues.  Because really, most of my drowners are only drowning because they won’t stop writhing about long enough to put on a life jacket.  It’s really hard to help a student who can’t even write their name on a paper before they are up and checking out what everyone else is up to.  (You’d think that when they realize that everyone else is up to writing their name on a paper, they’d maybe go back and do the same, but for some reason it doesn’t work like that.)

The Student Achievement Wizard then said, “What we need to ask ourselves is, would the students still have a focus issue if the activity were fun?

….

….

….

That’s me taking some deep breaths.  Really, Student Achievement Wizard?  Is that all I need to do?  Make everything fun?  Well. Why didn’t you just say so on my first day of teaching?  I don’t think I ever got the teacher’s guide for how to make metric conversions a real party.  And you know what, there probably is way to make it fun, but it likely involves baking things, and call me a bad teacher but I don’t really feel like taking on the task of making cookies with seventeen boys who routinely (albeit unintentionally) hit me with items they have made airborne.  Not to mention the fact that I’d either have to bring in all the ingredients myself or ask for donations and then coordinate who all is sending in what, and then find a parent volunteer or two to lend a hand, then bake the cookies in the staff room on my break.  I know all these details because I’ve done it.  And I remember my parent volunteer saying, “It’s really hard because they just don’t listen“.  Um, ya.  They don’t even listen for cookies.  Think of how things must go with fractions.

I know that many teachers try really hard to make things as fun as possible, given the limitations of our classrooms, resources, and the curriculum.  But as one teacher lamented in the staff room today, some kids can’t even handle unstructured “fun”, and what’s supposed to be an innocent game turns into absolute mayhem during which zero learning happens.  If anything, negative learning happens because not only is the activity a waste, but the time it takes to calm everyone down and restore order afterwards cuts into other potential learning.

I can just hear the Student Achievement Wizard now.  She’s whispering, “They can do fun activities – you just have to train them.”

Sometimes I wish that my life were like an episode of The Office and I could just look over to the side camera and give an unimpressed look.

Dunce 2