Tuesday, December 17, 2013

We're Not Afraid of You

At the end of the semester I like to give students a survey. It's a feedback form with a variety of questions about class. Some of them are about their own experience with the material and what they believe to have learned. I also ask questions about my role as an educator and what I could do to improve my class. One particular question I always ask, "What do you believe Ms. Perez could have done better?"

Now, this can be a hit or miss question. When I allow students to be anonymous, they are brutally honest. Sometimes, it's awesome. I get to read about things I did well, and more often than not, students are very constructive with their criticism. However, there is one kind of feedback that I do get once in a while that always upsets me to the core. One student in particular was very bold in his words.

He stated, "You could control us better if you were more mean. We not afraid of you."

So much of this sticks out to me as disheartening. First, I should say that I am unafraid of airing the fact that I am an imperfect teacher. This survey took place after my 1st year of teaching at my current school (3rd year as an educator). Classroom management, which is the underlying subtext of this comment, is a topic that comes up in every classroom around the world. Was classroom management an issue on some days? Definitely! Still, I feel like I worked through it, learned a lot, and have become a better educator because of it.

Aside from the reminder that this class was not always ideal, I am really hit by the word choice of this student. Words like, "control" and "mean" stand out. And then of course there is the last part, "We are not afraid of you." So many questions enter my mind. Why should students have to be afraid of their teacher? Is fear the best management method? Of course not! Then why do students respond to it more often than some of the other strategies I have used in the classroom?

I sought out colleagues to help me with this question. I asked them if I should change my approach in the classroom? At the time, I had a clear set of rules and expectations with the appropriate consequences when students did not meet those expectations. I made calls home, kept students after school, and, on occasion, would refer them to the Dean's department. I didn't like to be; however, when I needed to be, I was assertive and loud, and as always I had a strong presence in the classroom. So, what was I doing wrong?

I had a mixed reaction from other teachers. Some teachers told me that I should speak  to the students like their mothers and grandmothers did, which they further translated to: I needed to be loud and assertive and, at times, aggressive with my words and tone. Others told me to keep doing what I was doing and to not perpetuate bad habits because eventually they would tune out my yelling. Either way, I was still left confused and in need of answers. Why did students believe that in order to listen to me I had to first instill fear?

As I was pondering this I came across an article in The Huffington Post, "Kicking Black Boys Out of Class, Teaching Black Girls a Lesson."  The writer, Ise Lyfe asserts that by pushing black boys out of the classroom via the suspension and/or referral system, we are painting a very negative view of the Black male which will then in turn affect how Black women view, treat, and interact with future Black men- thus affecting the Black family in America. He sums up the connection to the classroom succinctly in the following excerpt:

 "It is important that teachers realize that we are not only preparing our students for their futures in education and careers, but also in their development into fatherhood and motherhood. Every time (yes, every time) we are kicking a Black boy out of class or writing him a referral we are adding to the demise of the Black family. In the inversion of the situation, every time (yes, every time) we struggle with these little brothers, every time we elevate what a great job they are doing, every time we reward them, we are contributing to the revitalization of the Black family."

All of this leads me to wonder ( I promise this is all leading me to somewhere!), are the challenges I am facing in the classroom a product of emotional baggage from generations past? An even worse thought pops into my head: how much of this is due to things happening inside the classroom?  How have educators and school administrators of the past negatively influenced the psyches of not only the current generation, but their parents, and grandparents? If I have a student in my class who only responds to an aggressively raised voice and tone, is it because that is the way his mother speaks to him? If so, does she do this because she would talk to his father like that....because that is how all other females in her life spoke to and treated the Black males in their lives?

 More importantly, is this negative treatment due to the framing of Black boys within the school system? How many vicious cycles are we participating in when we kick Black boys out of the classroom, raise our voice, and talk negatively to them; and, how far does the damage go? It burns me to the core to believe that the beautiful, courageous, boisterous, adventurous, and silly boys sitting in my classroom believe that they need to be controlled, and talked down to. That they may actually feel unworthy of positive verbal interactions.

Now, through all of this, I am not trying to advocate for having an enabling approach with our students. Instead, I believe in a strict, structured, and stern classroom and school environment. All students benefit from having a teacher who has high expectations for them; not only academically, but behaviorally as well. I think the change comes in how, when we do have to give a consequence, we handle the situation. Will we raise our voice and eventually kick them out of the classroom? Or, will we maintain composure and do whatever we can to keep students with us in the room, and continue to work on and improve their behavior and character ourselves?

 How can we know the difference if we aren't willing to change our actions first? I do not believe that only one or two teachers in a Black boy's school career can make a difference. It will take an educational paradigm shift of how we as a nation manage and deal with boys of color within our school walls. A school-wide, even district-wide, commitment to supporting teachers in the classroom, and even providing extra training on positive behavioral management and restorative justice. Let's face it, our Black boys will not be facing justice on the streets of Chicago when they leave our school. So, instead of creating a place where they feel oppressed and disrespected, we can show them the best sides of humanity, so when they face a problem in the real world they will deal with it maturely because it's all they know. Pipe-dream? Maybe...but it's one dream worth fighting for.

In reflection, I can say that I am not always the teacher I want to be. I do yell,get angry, and even remove students from my classroom. Still, I am committed to adjusting my practice to better the lives of my students, and in the long run, the lives of their future families. So, looking back at the student's feedback, I guess I am okay with the comment, "We are not afraid of you." I have come full circle to that idea. Now it's time to create a school climate where every student can say that to every teacher. I refuse to use fear to manage my classroom, the cycle will stop with me.