In the days following November’s presidential election, my students shared with me – in conversations and in writing – their fears about our current president. Many feared the abrupt severance of their families – extended and nuclear – through his proposed policy of mass deportation. Some raised concerns about the possibility of civil or foreign war. Nearly all expressed outrage and grief over the growing normalization of overt racism and bigotry that were already far too present in their lives. Their fears were not unfounded. Throughout the state, my students’ friends and cousins reported chants of “Build the wall, deport them all” echoing throughout hallways and cafeterias. In a nearby middle school, a Muslim student had her hijab pulled off and thrown to the ground. The prologue to Trump’s chapter in American history was being written, and it was penned in ugliness and hate.
As a person of color raised by immigrant parents, I listened to my students’ fears with shared anxiety; I, too, know the immense burden of loving – with my entire being – a nation that often declares I do not belong. But as a highly educated, middle class, straight, cisgender man, I listened from a place of privilege that allowed me the distance to hope that Trump would not follow through with his destructive agenda.
That margin for hope has closed, and my students are the ones left on the outside. Trump now looms in my classroom every day. I see him in the student who will miss school when cuts to Obamacare threaten their health, or the health of someone they love. I see him in the student who carries the heavy weight of intergenerational trauma as our government continues its policy of placing corporate interests over the human rights and sovereignty of indigenous peoples. I see him in the faces of those students who will hear the message – in silences louder than screams – that, in this city upon a hill, some lives still matter more than others.
Nowhere will Trump’s fingerprints be more present than in the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. If Trump’s only qualifications are that he is male, white, and wealthy, Ms. DeVos’ resume is similarly brief. Never in history has our public education system been commanded by an individual who has never worked in public education, yet has built a political career trying to dismantle it; who is vehement in her stance on school choice, yet cannot unequivocally denounce guns in school or commit to enforcing campus sexual assault laws and protecting taxpayers and students against waste, fraud, and abuse in the student loan industry; who claims she will fight for all students, yet was not aware of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the bedrock law guaranteeing protections for students with disabilities; who champions a platform of disrupting broken systems, yet is herself compromised at every turn by flagrant conflicts of interest.
If Ms. DeVos is confirmed (an outcome that, despite admirable and vigorous protest from leading Democrats, seems inevitable) it will cement into place an official national education policy of hypocrisy that begins with Trump himself. We will find ourselves teaching students to invest in their education, while our leaders are doing the exact opposite. We will teach them to treat each other with respect, while their president promotes an ideology of division and flaunts, with impunity, his own history of sexual assault. We will teach them the value of reading and writing, while our president’s own literary habits rarely exceed 140 characters. But we will also teach them to resist, and if the history of passionate young people in America is any guide, they will listen.
One of the fundamental strategies of good teaching is a concept called scaffolding. It describes the process through which teachers provide various supports for a student learning a new skill, then gradually remove them as the student gains mastery. Like training wheels on a bike, scaffolding helps a student bridge the gap between what she can already do and what she aspires to do. Teacher education programs try to scaffold the experience of their students, too. My graduate program, for example, put me through a rigorous process beginning with academic theory, followed by field observation, co-teaching with an experienced mentor teacher, and finally, solo student teaching.
But no amount of scaffolding can fully prepare anyone for first-year teaching. The gap between teacher preparation and real classroom conditions spans a chasm unimaginably wide and unspeakably deep. This is not the fault of teacher education programs; rather, it is simply the reality of the profession. In graduate schools across the country, teacher candidates are being taught to use “proximity” to subtly redirect student misbehavior in the least intrusive manner; they aren’t being taught what to do when an adolescent who has just lost a relative to police violence tells them to fuck off in response to a request to put away their phone. They are being taught to modify complex texts by bolding important passages for struggling readers; they aren’t being taught how to teach the same text, simultaneously, to a student reading at a college level and her classmate who is reading at a third grade level. They are being taught to take time for self-care; they aren’t being taught that self-care will inevitably take a back seat to meeting a grading deadline. They are being taught to hold every student to the same high standard; they are not being taught how to fairly grade the student who works himself to the bone and still struggles to write a claim against the student who rarely attends class but is already writing well above grade level.
Lastly, they are being taught that they can make a difference. Although this belief is true, it is dangerously incomplete, for the difference that teachers can make is both limited and selective. A teacher’s impact is limited because factors beyond the school walls – trauma, poverty, racism – don’t adhere to a bell schedule. And it is selective because no teacher – no matter how talented, passionate, or effective – can be a transformative figure for every student, especially when they might have 150 students at any given time. Among the many things that teacher education programs do not teach, one of the most dispiriting is that committing yourself to giving a student the individual attention she needs necessarily means neglecting five others who need it just as urgently. The unspoken truth about teaching is this: even the best teachers fail much, much more than they succeed. This is a lesson that no teacher education program can – or should – teach. Instead, it is a lesson that is learned only through the hard crucible of experience.
As a first year teacher, I am riding a steep learning curve, or rather, several steep learning curves. I’m learning how to create lesson plans that are effective not only in theory but also in practice. I’m learning how to build social capital in a profession that is notoriously isolating, particularly toward educators of color. I’m learning how to meet my kids where they are, especially when that takes me to difficult places. But mostly, I’m learning that, if we are serious about providing a quality education for every child, we need to radically rethink our priorities and restart a national dialogue about education. We have just endured a presidential election cycle in which, for every major candidate, K-12 public education was hardly an afterthought. This does note bode well for our students. We need to demand that our elected officials bring education back to the forefront of local, state, and national agendas. Even if politics divide us in our approach, we need to agree that education is still something worth fighting over.
Student trauma is real and pervasive. Addressing it needs to be the foundation of educating our most vulnerable students, not a supplement to it. My thoughts in today's EdPost Blog.
I'm honored to have an Op-Ed about teaching as "Dilemma Management" published in today's MinnPost. Check it out here.
My wife is a psychologist who specializes in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), an intervention used to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder. One of the cornerstones of DBT is embracing the paradoxical relationship between acceptance and change. Only when an individual accepts herself or her circumstances is she able to change. Whether they are aware of it or not, every educator lives this dialectic day in and day out.
On the one hand, educators must accept – radically accept – an enormous amount of circumstances that are beyond their immediate control. Some of these circumstances may be relatively small: I do not have reliable parent contact information, my school does not have enough books for all of my student, the 2nd floor printer becomes sentient and intentionally malfunctions when I desperately need to use it. And some of these circumstances are large: structural inequality is real; district politics exist; and – as much as we wish it were the case – teenagers do not have fully developed frontal lobes. As educators, each of these circumstances is difficult to swallow. This difficulty is precisely what makes our acceptance of them radical.
However, on the other hand, acceptance is often the very ingredient that catalyzes change. My school does not have enough copies of Beloved for all of my students, and I can raise funds on Donors Choose. Institutional racism isn’t going away, and I can do my best to chip away at its edges. What is crucial, then, is that educators do not conflate acceptance of unfavorable circumstances with resignation to them. Radical acceptance is not giving in; rather, it is an orientation toward reality that allows one to see – with clear eyes – a path forward amidst the tangled vines.
When stuck in quicksand, rather than thrash about, one is supposed to relax and allow the body to work its natural buoyancy. Radical acceptance is that moment of pause – that deep breath – that allows us to redistribute our weight and pull ourselves free. (*Full disclosure: I have never been stuck in quicksand, but I imagine it is a lot like first year teaching, except that only in the latter case are there thirty witnesses watching you drown)
As a first year teacher, I find myself repeatedly returning to a mantra that captures the dialectic between acceptance and change: I’m not there yet.
I’m not there yet with that 9th grader whose trust I haven’t earned. I’m not there yet in creating systems that hold my students accountable but don’t leave me neck deep in paperwork. I’m not there yet in finding and murdering the person who invented that goddamn bottle-flipping game. But someday, I’ll get there. Maybe.
This is the power of yet. When we radically accept, we acknowledge that we aren’t there. But when we add that simple word, we open up the possibility for change. By changing our language, we transform our mindset, and by transforming our mindset, we redefine what is possible. All of us educators are capable of doing this, even if we aren’t there yet.
In October of my first year of teaching, my wife sent me a blog post written by Tom Rademacher, the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. In it, he wrote, “There’s no better sign that things are going poorly in a room than a teacher who always thinks everything is going just fine.” By that measure, things were going exceedingly well in my classroom, because I didn’t think a single thing was going just fine. I had one class that collectively would not talk, and another that collectively would not stop talking. Over half of my 9th graders were reading below grade level. I’d already broken up two fights, and on multiple occasions, a student had told me to fuck off. My curriculum was disjointed, my lessons neither interesting nor properly scaffolded. My sole classroom management strategy consisted of shouting, “Quiet, please,” and making empty threats to call home. In the evenings, I banged away at my laptop, desperately trying to salvage the steaming pile of shit I called a lesson plan. All the while, I neglected my wife, my dog, my personal hygiene. Keep in mind, this was October, meaning that it had taken less than two full months of teaching (by the most liberal definition of the word) for the profession to break me. Everything was not going just fine.
Before becoming a teacher, I lived a successful life. I had a fancy Ivy League degree, I’d worked at Google. I was used to being good at what I did. I cared about kids of color, and decided to become a teacher because I thought I would be good at that, too. It took me a few years to switch careers, and during my last few years working in tech, I read as much as I could about public education. I read Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. I pored over studies by Angela Duckworth and the Gates Foundation. Over and over again, the experts insisted that teacher quality – not race, or income, or zip code – was the single most important factor in determining whether students succeeded or failed. If only we could get better teachers in front of students, the logic went, the achievement gap would vanish. This argument made sense, and more importantly, it appealed to my ego. I would enter the teaching profession, I assumed, and student success would inevitably bloom from whichever petals I touched.
As I type this, I have taught for four months, and I can assure you, nothing of the sort has happened. I have yet to be able to define what success looks like, let alone enable my students to achieve it. Under the best circumstances, first year teaching is like trying to put together 150 different puzzles from a single pile of pieces. Under the worst circumstances, it’s like trying to do this from within the eye of a hurricane. Teacher quality matters, a lot, but for even the best teachers, success is often little more than assembling the frame for four or five of those puzzles and hoping that someone else down the line can fill in the gaps.
My students bring tremendous amounts of skill into the classroom. They are artists, poets, and actors. They bring creativity and energy. But they are also navigating school systems that incentivize compliance to curriculum, behavioral norms, and epistemological frameworks that are largely defined by people who neither look nor live like them. Thus, teachers inherit the impossible task of motivating and empowering students to succeed within systems that are deeply oppressive and flawed. Make no mistake: when we place the sole burden of closing the achievement gap on teachers, what we are effectively asking them to do is reverse 250 years of systemic racism and structural inequality, fifty minutes at a time. Well-intentioned policy makers and education reformers are right to emphasize the importance of teacher quality; however, they are wrong to do so without acknowledging the heavy thumb of racism, classism, and trauma on the other plate of the scale. To use an analogy: focusing on teachers while ignoring structural reform is like stepping outside in the wintertime buck naked, save for a warm hat.
Teachers matter. I would not be in this profession if I did not believe that wholeheartedly. But like a hat in the wintertime, although good teachers are necessary, they are rarely sufficient. It is humbling to enter this profession knowing that – despite excellent training, Herculean effort, and fanatical care – I will still fail over and over, every day, in ways big and small, and that what few successes come my way will be modest and precariously preserved. If we are serious about seeing results at scale, then we need to create change at scale, too. And the first step to doing that is for us, as a society, to collectively look at the glaring inequalities – social, economic, and political – that our students are being asked to overcome in their pursuit of education, and to admit, as painful as it may be to shift some of the weight of responsibility back onto our own shoulders, that everything is not just fine.