Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What I Didn't Learn

Last week, I went to visit the school I used to work at, where my Little Sister attends school.  They had just finished standardized testing, and the very wise and probably exhausted teachers at that grade level were giving their students and themselves a bit of a break by having some theme days.  One teacher had a Hawaii luau theme.  That class called the classroom their hotel, wore leis and sunglasses, and read on beach chairs and towels.  (The teacher also told them there was no fighting in Hawaii and that seemed to work!).  Another teacher had a camp theme with baseball caps, fake campfires, flashlights, and other fantastic props.  The kids seemed so happy and relaxed to have a day out of the ordinary and I honestly wished I had thought of it.

I was talking to a couple of the teachers I knew from when I was there (I left 5 years ago next month).  We were talking about the differences between now and then.  The biggest difference is that the school is much, much calmer.  There are a number of differences.  I was there almost eight years (I started mid-year the first year) and we had 8 principals, plus one who had left the month before I came.  I think we had 5 superintendents/state administrators.  Our normal turnover for teachers each year was over 50%, with some teachers leaving after only a week.  Counselors and support staff changed frequently, when we had them.  Even the custodians and lunch servers didn't remain the same for long, although they usually outlasted the teachers.  By the time I was 31, I was the teacher who had been at the school the longest.

I was proud of my longevity.  I thought of myself as a survivor and someone who had stuck around for the kids when other people had let difficulties drive them away.  At the time, I didn't realize how detrimental this setup was to my own personal growth as a teacher.  I knew that the stress was making me sick, but I didn't realize that I didn't really know how to be a good teacher.  I had missed all the collaboration; all the learning from more experienced professionals; and all the learning, fun, and goals that can be accomplished by working with other talented people.  There were, of course, talented teachers, but they either left quickly or only concentrated on their own students (usually both) because, like me, that was the way they would survive.

Now it makes me sad.  I wouldn't trade the time I had with my students for anything but I really do wish I had had the chance to work with people.  I left the school feeling relieved and glad that it seemed to be in better shape and jealous that I hadn't been around to be a part of it and that I wasn't learning from and working with the people who are there now.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Feelings Paper and Anger

A couple more pieces I wrote for Teaching Tolerance:

My favorite thing I ever made, the Feelings Paper.

One of my favorite and most difficult students ever and his anger issues.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Guest Post - Frightening Black Men

A friend wrote this about her experience and thoughts about racism in the United States.  She makes an excellent point: "I believe that black men in the United States are considered particularly frightening by many, many people and black boys are men in training, so they are scary too."

I am a women of African origins and have lived  20+ years in the United States.  Over the years, one thing has been patently clear; living in the United States as an African American women is way easier than living here as an African American man. 

At some point in the past few years, I decided to sign an on-line petition through a website called change.org.  I receive periodic updates on petitions being circulated, like the one earlier this year on a $5 per month account fee Bank of America wanted to charge or something like that.  The petitions don't often catch my attention.  While I don't think Bank of America should start charging a new account fee, honestly, it isn't going to change my life one way or another.  So why don't I just un-subscribe?  Because of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. 

Recently, I received a petition pushing for the arrest of the black boy's killer.  Trayvon had been returning by foot from a convenience store near his father's house in Florida with some Skittles candy in hand when he was shot by a man who felt Trayvon was acting suspiciously.  More than 1 million people signed the petition and there has been national attention on this case, on the NRA-backed law that allowed the state not to immediately arrest someone who clearly killed an innocent boy, and I hope on an underlying issue: why a 17-year-old black boy is automatically considered suspicious?

I believe that black men in the United States are considered particularly frightening by many, many people and black boys are men in training, so they are scary too.  Trayvon would not have been shot if he was a white boy.  I don't think Oscar Grant from Oakland California would have been killed by the young, scared white BART officer if he had not been black because he just wouldn't have been considered as threatening.

So how do we change a culture that considers it acceptable to be afraid of black men and that to shoot them when you are afraid? I genuinely believe that Trayvon's killer was afraid. I don't know for certain but we need to start by challenging the existing paradigm that allows people like Travyon's killer to walk free.

A childhood friend of mine is from south India and, like many south Indians, has very dark skin. As he became "follicularly challenged" at a relatively young age, he shaves his head.  With this combination, in the United States, he is often mistakenly identified as African American and so has become sadly familiar with how people react to black men. My friend kindly shared my first apartment in an upper middle class neighborhood in the university town we were living in when I needed a roommate to pay the mortgage.  He told me that many days, when he was walking up the hill on his way home, white people would cross to the other side of road to avoid the potential danger that he represented to them as a perceived black man.  He said his heart would sink every time this happened.  Imagine how it would feel to think that people were afraid of you every time you walked out the door? 

Change has to start somewhere and while I hope that the change will eventually be in people's hearts, it needs to start with no tolerance for unjust laws and and for people who hide their racist actions behind them.