“Back to School”

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If you’ve spent any time on social media this week you have probably seen scores of photos of smiling Black children and teenagers in spiffy new clothes (or school uniforms) heading off for their first day of school. The photos represent the hope, promise, and yes, the mythology of schooling in the United States. In the best of circumstances those smiles represent children and youth who will find school to be a welcoming place that will challenge their minds and encourage their dreams. For some school will be a site of growth and safety. It will do everything it advertizes and the results will be amazing.
Unfortunately, far too many of our children have something less optimistic lurking behind those dazzling social network smiles. What the camera cannot capture is the anxiety, fear, and mistrust that those children experience. Similarly, the proud parent or other family member who snapped that photo may also have those same thoughts and feeling.
Most parents send their children off to school with an odd mixture of feelings–both optimistic and fearful. That’s to be expected. Sending our children off to a bigger world is scary. But the anxiety and fear I am speaking of goes much deeper than the “separation anxiety” of a loving parent. This is the fear and anxiety of a parent or guardian who knows that there is a high probability that the adult who is supposed to be her child’s teacher is woefully under qualified and inexperienced. There is the fear that the teacher will not work hard to meet the child’s academic needs. There is the fear that the child’s behavior will be interpreted as “deviant,” “aggressive,” or “non-conforming.” There is the fear that the child will hear things that suggest she is “dumb” or that her parents “don’t care about her education.”
My thoughts about what “might” happen this school year are supported by mountains of statistics. More than one quarter of the Black boys will face suspension (sometimes multiple times) this year. Black girls will have a 12 percent chance of being suspended while their White counterparts have a 2 percent chance. Although they are but 13 percent of the public school population, Black students make up 39 percent of the special education population and 47 percent of those designated with “emotional disorders.” I also know that 75 percent of those Black students who, based on their PSAT scores are predicted to be successful in an Advanced Placement course will never enroll in one.
This is my 46th year of teaching and I begin every school year with the same hope exhibited by the parents and children in the social media photos. I WANT to believe that each year will be different. I WANT to believe that all of our children will be in classrooms with caring, effective teachers. I WANT to believe that schools are willing to “stand in the gap” for those students who have other life challenges. However, just as I question what’s actually lurking behind some of those “school smiles” I also question what’s lurking behind the school house doors. What about you?

Stay Black & Smart!

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3 thoughts on ““Back to School”

  1. I don’t know that, as a white woman, I’m who you had in mind when you ended this post (eloquent as the rest of Black and Smart’s) in a call for comments, but today I had a nearly three hour difficult conversation on this subject with a friend of mine, so the topic is very much on my mind as I find it often is. I hope my interjection will be seen as sincere pursuit of insight rather than intrusion.

    There are a lot of things wrong with what’s going on in school’s today and White society has no excuse for our inability to be part of a solution. I can’t help, however, but feel defensive when I hear or read criticism that seems to go out of it’s way to paint teachers as enemies. I think your points about inexperience and a lack of qualifications are certainly fair, but it is your belief in a lack of caring that I come up short in understanding. In all of my experience in and with students and schools, I feel I saw so much caring for students of all backgrounds, even as I saw much cause for concern. I can certainly understand how a lack of qualifications could manifest in a way that feels to a student like a lack of caring, but is that really what it is? Though I feel defensive (I love a lot of teachers and school staff), I am genuinely asking to understand more about this particular point. You certainly have no obligation to explain this to me, but I’d be grateful for any further thoughts!

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    • Allison…I wrote that post as an insider…as a public school teacher, a parent, grand parent, and teacher educator. Nothing in the post invalidates the work of caring, dedicated teachers (of whom I have written numerous articles and several books) but the data re: school failure, suspension, & expulsion is startling. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist and I can’t pretend the parents who call, write, and show up on my doorstep aren’t real. My own latest affront…my grand daughter was told by her teacher she didn’t choose her for class jobs because “she wasn’t blond!” Fortunately because of my intervention THAT teacher is gone. This past week a group of NYC teachers wore NYPD t-shirts in solidarity with the Ferguson, MO police officer who shot Mike Brown. Just what does that convey to their Black & Brown students and their families? When former Philadelphia School Supt. told the teachers that they’d better ACT like they liked the students he was acknowledging the often hostile environment far too many of the students face. Of course it’s not ALL teachers but if the bad one is your child’s teacher than it’s too many!

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  2. Those are sad stories for sure. I had read about the NY teachers and thought what they did was horrible but I guess I (maybe naively) chalked their action up to extreme (and obviously problematic) ignorance.

    I think my biggest worry is the connection between the “teachers are the problem” argument and the “unions have to go” one, because I vehemently fear a world without teachers’ unions. I do, however, know that that there is a certain amount of privilege in that fear.

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