Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

“Let’s not sugar coat manure”

Last night a graduate of Clarke Middle School, Nikema Stovall, stood up to ask us to stop speaking around issues of concern and to start speaking up for positive change.  He was with friends, a mom and grandmom, whose young son is repeatedly bullied.  He is afraid to ride the bus.  His struggles are real, recurring, and worrisome.  Ultimately, his mom said to do what he had to do and fight back.  This should not be any child’s school experience.  Because we were at the parents meeting yesterday we were able to meet and I was able to learn more about life from her perspective in the African American community.  She expressed a concern shared by many: we are not serious enough about discipline.  We are not impacting families’ enough to help them change and support children who are respectful in schools.

But the principal did not sugar coat the manure.  He bravely showed us the statistics of just how many “events” teachers have reported from August to February–over 800 incidents in more than a dozen different categories of misbehavior.  He shared with us how these events and students are disaggregated by race.  82% of all events reported concern the African American students* at the school; 92% if you count those identified as multiracial.  Let’s not sugar coat the manure, Nikema’s truthful words.

I feel lucky I was close enough to this family to hear their concerns, to know they are working with a district professional, Kecia, who is helping them plan talks with Black parents in our community.  “Do you want to come?” Yes, I said and gave them my number.  I would like to be the minority in the room, a room filled with Black parents who love their children and want to look at what’s happening.

Instead, we were sitting in a room mostly filled with white parents and over a dozen incredible teachers there to support their well respected principal.  The trigger was that our beloved band teacher quit suddenly, claiming this was about persistent underfunding of the music and arts programs as well as about the verbal and physical abuse he experienced from students on a regular basis in an overcrowded classroom.  This was just after an extraordinary band concert that left everyone in the audience amazed at what one man can do with that many students over the span of 6th to 8th grade, from “hot cross buns” to complicated ensemble pieces.   Many of us were there to grieve the sudden loss of a successful teacher.  Many of us were angry or fearful that what he said was true.  Could it be that we were willingly sending our kids to an underfunded, under resourced and dangerous place?

An entire team of teachers were there shaking their heads, no.  They were disappointed in their former colleague–they value the band teacher as a human, a friend.  But his message undermines their strengths, the entire school.  His public email of sudden resignation added fuel to the fire of distrust in public schools.  We wanted someone to be wrong, we wanted something to be fixed.  Why did the band teacher leave us like that? Real problems unmet? Maybe.  The principal, who is new to his position, said he had already discussed changes to add another teacher next year and reduce numbers.  No support for egregious discipline problems? Not true–the statistics show 100s of cases of disciplinary actions when teachers call for help.  Disincentives from the school and district to report discipline? Too few disciplinary options that don’t just prevent kids from learning (suspensions, expulsions)? There are layers of issues, some that can be addressed in the short or longer term and some are layered in a society still trying to figure out how to live fairly together in a system where cycles of privilege and poverty continue and the split widens.  Public schools may be the only places where we can still see and feel the split.

We puzzled over the statistics provided.  Why are so many of our African American pre-teens and new teens (how many students constitute the 82%* of cases?) experiencing disciplinary action at school? What are some answers?  Because of this meeting I got to meet and talk with a small number of African American members of my community.

Racism and teacher bias? A community overwhelmed by intergenerational poverty and the violence that can often accompany situations of desperation and need? Adolescence and changing bodies and problems no matter what race you are (Don’t I know it)? Single parent households? Subpar housing conditions? Limited work opportunities? One can quickly get overwhelmed by what’s underneath the sugar.

But even after we complained and grieved, I feel better after the meeting. I made new friends.  I have a new level of complicated understanding.  I was impressed by the many incredible teachers at the building well into the night to support their principal and listen to parents’ concerns.  I spent time with people with whom I might never otherwise engage.

I believe the healthy future depends on having many more conversations across different perspectives.  What is the principal experiencing? The teachers? Our kids–all kinds of kids? The parents, a diverse group of humans with different levels of affluence and worry.  I feel it is a civic responsibility to support public schools even if that means asking the hard questions and staying late to figure out what is in our control to change and what is beyond our control.  To name it and make peace with it, some of us with prayer.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

We are rich in diversity in my community but only if we live with it–sugar and manure, all of it.  This struggle laid bare will make us stronger.

*It is unclear to me how many students make up the different reported events–if 82% of the cases of disciplinary action represent a handful of students who repeatedly misbehave or many more than a handful.  This is a question for the administration.  Another questions is why all other students experience such low disciplinary action. A mother of an LGTBQIA student said her child is repeatedly the victim of bullying by white boys which goes unaddressed. The problems are complicated but can and are being addressed through a courageous new approach called “restorative justice.” One can see a trend that the disciplinary cases are going down each month as the school year progresses and the principal would ask of us: patience.  To see if the proactive practices they have just started will start to yield more positive effects.

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