Teachers’ Lounge: Take It or Leave It?

I hesitate to reveal this secret. I feel like I am breaking some teacher code, but I am compelled to tell you. Teachers everywhere, at all kinds of schools, talk negatively about their students. It is not the way things should be. It is the way things are. To be sure, not all teachers talk negatively about students, but it is difficult to find a school; urban, suburban, or rural, where there is not at least a handful of teachers who do. As difficult as it may be to imagine, even in the exclusive world of private and charter schools where challenging students are quickly expelled or refused readmission, many teachers still find ways to engage in this destructive behavior.

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The vocal few are sometimes referred to as “toxic teachers.” Just like any other toxin, these teachers have a way of spreading their disease of negativity. In their opinion, rarely does anything go right in the school. There is always something to complain about, and there is always someone who will listen. Because every day there is a small window known as lunch, and the teachers’ lounge is holding “open mic.” Toxic teachers speak up. They are always willing to share their pessimism with others. For this reason, teachers’ lounges are sometimes avoided by teachers interested in what social justice looks like at school.

But too often well-meaning teachers (not the toxic few) get sucked into speaking negatively about students because of subtle peer pressure within the teachers’ lounge environment. It is a coping mechanism in the midst of a difficult day, a way to “blow off steam.” I was guilty of this unhealthy habit my first few years of teaching. My classroom “management” skills were not what they should have been, and “ragging” on particular students to other teachers became a strange way to manufacture the courage necessary to finish the day without quitting.

One of the many problems with speaking negatively about students is that it is a reflection of the way teachers think about students. And the combination of thoughts and words has a way of manifesting in a teacher’s behavior toward students. The best way to change the way teachers think and behave toward students is to change the way teachers speak about students. So in my third year of teaching I decided I wasn’t going to talk negatively about students to other teachers. The immediate result, however, was that I simply replaced all the negative student talk with negative teacher and administrator talk. My speech became less likely to be racist (I am a white teacher teaching mostly students of color), but it certainly was not anything resembling professional. I was not contributing to the health of my school culture.

A teachers’ lounge where the tone is set by “toxic” teachers is at best a place where positive school culture is destroyed by misguided complaints about administration and at worst a place where implicit bias matures into full-blown unchecked racism. When off-handed remarks about particular students are expanded and a discussion about “this neighborhood,” “these parents,” or “kids these days,” ensues, participating teachers should beware. White teachers at majority non-white schools should pay special close attention to teachers’ lounge language. The teachers’ lounge should be a safe space; not a safe space for teachers to say whatever the hell they want, but a space safe from disparagement of any kind.

But what if the tone in the teachers’ lounge is set by positivity instead of negativity? Teachers’ lounges can be a vital part of what it means to be a teacher, especially at the elementary and middle school level. High schools are often too big for teachers’ lounges to play the uniting role that, for instance, the teachers’ lounge at my middle school does. Teaching is a profession where colleague interaction is a precious commodity. Lunch in the teachers’ lounge creates at least the possibility for daily peer-to-peer professional learning, development, and encouragement. For me, that is something worth speaking up for, something worth fighting for.

So I am not leaving the teachers’ lounge. And you shouldn’t either.

Classroom Management or Something Better

In my last post, “Social Justice Teaching in the Content Area,” I hinted that although adapting principles of social justice to fit inside a given curriculum is very important, social justice teaching ultimately has a much bigger scope. Teachers interested in social justice issues will inevitably move beyond critique of standardized text books and creative use of supplemental material. Social justice teaching has a way of fundamentally changing the nature of the relationship between student and teacher.

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The biggest learned lesson of every first year teacher is that classroom management is a skill that is rarely overvalued. Continuously better classroom management is the longing of every teacher. Classroom management is immeasurably more important to learning compared to other elements of teaching like lesson planning or even content knowledge. Every teacher knows this.

Effective classroom management always includes, but is not limited to: rules, procedures, schedules, routines, norms, transitions, and habits. But what does it look like to apply the principles of social justice teaching to classroom management? Is there something better than classroom management?

I am four weeks away from beginning my 6th year as a public school teacher. My first two years teaching can be characterized by the repetitive feeling of falling flat on my face. Years 3-5 were all about honing my classroom management skills through smaller incremental failures. But now I am wondering if “management” is really what I want my role to be in the classroom. The word “management” does not seem to me to be ultimately conducive to authentic learning.

Those who work toward social justice often find themselves doing what is called “community organizing.” There are no “managers” in grass roots movements. So the question I am currently asking myself is, “What does it look like to be a classroom organizer as opposed to a classroom manager?” I don’t have all the answers yet, I think I have just found a good question.

I realize that in its current state this is largely an issue of semantics, but for me, language is important. So if I embark on a new journey that includes the phrase “classroom organizing,” and I begin to compile the language to describe what that means, then somewhere along the way I may find something that is better than classroom management.

Social Justice Teaching in the Content Area

Even in the reddest of states like Oklahoma, public education still bends toward progress. It has been this way from the beginning. Educators know it. The people at Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) and Choice Remarks certainly know it. The so called “liberal agenda” of public schools is one of the favorite talking points of school choice proponents. By social justice teaching, I mean a safe learning environment full of adults who care about economic and social equity for all students and families. If this is what is meant by a “liberal agenda,” then I gladly accept the label.

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I often have colleagues ask me what social justice teaching looks like in math, science, or language arts. In thinking about how to answer that question, I am beginning to let go of the idea that social justice teaching belongs primarily in social studies classrooms. Social studies teachers should be careful not to be the gatekeepers of social justice teaching. Anywhere and everywhere that educators can get students thinking about fairness and justice is a good thing.

Social justice teaching is not supplemental curriculum to be randomly inserted into unrelated content. Much of social justice teaching relates outside of the curriculum and can have a profound effect on elements of teaching like classroom management (or something better), grading policy, teaching style, and of course, discipline. There is so much to be said about the comprehensiveness of this concept, but for now, allow me to submit some thoughts for incorporating social justice teaching into the content area.

Math

It is the struggle of every math teacher to constantly address the question, “What does this have to do with real life?” When relating math to real life, the social justice teacher must also ask, “To whose life am I relating this math?” Word problems in math have a long history of being exclusively relatable to middle class white students in a traditional family structure. White math teachers with diverse classrooms must be careful to move project based learning beyond what sounds interesting to them. PBLs must be grounded in student experience.

Bringing social justice teaching into the math classroom is in part finding the moral component of math. The other part is not being afraid to get political and controversial. Politics creates injustice, and therefore, social justice will always be political. There is a lot of data related to social justice movements and analyzing that data could apply to various levels of math comprehension. Math classes could compare data (from reputable sources) relative to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) and draw conclusions about equitable access to affordable health care in the United States. Students could analyze data on gun violence in the U.S., especially as it relates to racial disparities, and conduct a formal debate on possible solutions.

Science

Despite the ardent efforts of law makers and the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, science curriculum and textbooks are generally strong on the science of climate change. The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB), the propaganda machine of the industry, spends millions every year to get the message of fossil fuel dependency into Oklahoma classrooms. Read the State Impact piece here. The first part of teaching social justice in Oklahoma science classrooms is fending off the bribery of stipends and classroom materials offered by OERB.

The social justice issue of our time related to science education is environmental racism. Click here for a video primer. In short, climate change is a social justice issue. It’s about people. The situation in Flint, Michigan is ongoing, and science classrooms everywhere should be following closely. Currently, science curricula all across the country are at odds with the policies of the President of the United States. This is controversy that science teachers everywhere should not be afraid to jump into head first.

Language Arts

Particularly in language arts, though it is also true of science and math, representation matters. In literature, students need to see themselves represented in the authors and the stories they tell. Language arts teachers must strive to find works of literature by women, authors of color, immigrants, queer authors, and others. Literature texts are still dominated by “classics” written by straight white men.

If social studies is where social justice teaching originates, then language arts is where it culminates. As I often tell my students, “The people who are changing the world are doing two things: 1.) They are reading a lot and 2.) They are writing about it.” Social justice teaching in language arts could follow a three step process: 1.) Constantly ask students, “What do you want to fix in the world?” 2.) Help them gain full access to reading material pertinent to that problem plus time to read it and 3.) Provide them with the skills and tools to write their ideas and share them publicly and widely.

Best Practices for Inclusive Classroom Language

Teachers communicate in numerous nonverbal ways including facial expressions, body language, posture, proxemics, etc., but verbal language will always be an essential part of the teacher-student relationship. The exchange of words is and must remain central to the learning process. To be sure, even when it is clear that a class is not paying close attention to a particular lesson or lecture, students are intrinsically taking mental note of both the words that a teacher chooses to use and the words that a teacher chooses not to use. No matter how welcoming a teacher behaves (nonverbal communication), if a teacher’s words are not inclusive, students will not feel safe. For this reason, I would like to submit six best practices for inclusive classroom language.

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  1. Avoid saying “guys.”

Unfortunately, “guys” is one of the most common words that teachers use to reference an entire group of students. And maybe it is in the process of being reclaimed as a gender neutral word, but it certainly is not the best way to reference non-male students and allow them to feel included (Teaching Tolerance).

Instead, say something like “people.”

“People” is a word that includes everyone and has the slight bonus of being subtly humanizing.

  1. Avoid saying “he” or “she.”

Language Arts departments everywhere are arguing over proper pronoun usage, but the fact remains, the safest way for educators to be inclusive of all gender identities is to all together drop the male and female pronouns for students. If a student specifies their preferred pronouns, then by all means use those pronouns, otherwise…

Instead, say something like “they.”

“They” as a singular pronoun can take some getting used to, but it can be done, and we actually do it already (NPR). If “they” is used consistently, cisgender male and cisgender female students are not likely to take offense to its use.

  1. Avoid saying “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen.”

These phrases are also very common and steeped in tradition. The problem is that these phrases are binary and automatically exclude any students who don’t fit into these two defined categories.

Instead, say something like “students of all genders” or “students and scholars.”

The phrase “students of all genders” is certain to get noticed and includes a nod to the ever expanding language concerning gender identity and gender expression. “Students and scholars” has been suggested by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (North Carolina) in a document called “Supporting Transgender Students.”

  1. Avoid saying “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

These words are often used to bolster heteronormative culture beginning as early as elementary age with phrases like, “Is that your girlfriend?” or “Susie has a boyfriend!” They are not inherently oppressive, but definitely not inclusive.

Instead, say something like “partner,” “friend,” or “going out.”

Again, words that do not reference a gender binary are generally more inclusive.

  1. Avoid saying “mom and dad.”

This one almost goes without saying, but the phrase “mom and dad” presumes a traditional family structure, a model that not only is just one of many family options, but also that is becoming less and less the standard for American families.

Instead, say something like “adult at home” or “guardian.”

When referencing student life outside of school, use words that are inclusive of same sex households, single parent households, blended family models, grandparents raising grandchildren, students living with extended families or friends, students in transitional housing, students in state custody, etc.

  1. Avoid saying “Caucasian.”

“Caucasian” is a word most often used by white people when they are uncomfortable in a conversation about race. The word has little to no connection to what it means to be “white,” and the use of the word “Caucasian” has a rather racist history (MTV Decoded).

Instead, say “white.”

There is no other word that captures the connotation and rings true to the history of white people, especially in the United States. “White” is a word that is situated in the 400 year oppressive relationship in North America between people of European ancestry and people of African ancestry. Although the word has little to no actual meaning, “white” is the most preferred word of people of color in discussions on race.

LGBTQ Students Need Support Long Before They Reach High School

It is rather common for high schools in any region of the U.S. to be inclusive of clubs such as GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) and/or welcoming to LGBTQ advocacy groups such as PFLAG. High school classrooms can often be found prominently displaying stickers or posters declaring the room a “safe space” for LGBTQ students. Traditionally, because of these markers of a welcoming environment, many LGBTQ youth have waited until high school to come out.

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But today’s students are increasingly coming out in earlier years, before entering high school. “Coming Out in Middle School” was published in 2009 by The New York Times Magazine, and the trend has only increased in the eight years since. But middle schools have been reluctant to embrace the kind of organized LGBTQ advocacy found in so many high schools. Some middle school parents and educators express concern that middle school LGBTQ advocacy is equivalent to encouraging 6th, 7th, and 8th grade sexual activity. This misconception is part of heteronormative culture that assumes sexual activity of any young person who expresses any interest outside of the “boys like girls” and “girls like boys” narrative. Students must be allowed to explore the various ways to identify in reference to sexual orientation long before they express interest in any particular sexual activity.

At whatever age it is deemed appropriate for young people to express nonsexual interest in another gender, it must also be appropriate for young people to express nonsexual interest in the same gender, multiple genders, or no gender. This is a critical part of dismantling heteronormativity, of normalizing young LGBTQ experiences. Culturally, this is beginning to take place, but in our school buildings and classrooms there is much work to be done. Middle schools must partner with high schools to provide a sense of continuity for the safety and comfort of LGBTQ students. Middle school must be a safe place for students to come out!

Likewise, at whatever age it is deemed appropriate for cisgender young people to begin to identify with gender and express their gender, it must also be appropriate for transgender and gender nonconforming young people to begin to identify with and express their gender. Gender identity and gender expression are not connected to sexual orientation, and young people should be allowed to identify with and express gender at ages earlier than those typically associated with sexual development. This means that elementary schools in particular must be places where transgender students and gender nonconforming students are allowed to come out in a supportive and nurturing environment, not a place where teachers say, “You are too young to know that!”

LGBTQ Advocacy in Oklahoma Classrooms Part II

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A companion to the “Dear Colleague Letter” released by the Obama administration last spring, which directed public schools to make necessary changes to protect the civil rights of transgender students, was a document called “Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students.” This extensive document is organized in a question and answer format and includes best practices from school districts across the country. It is an invaluable resource for educators wishing to advocate for LGBTQ students on the policy level.

But, as I wrote in Part I, practice does not necessarily follow policy. Many times policy changes are prompted by specific circumstances with specific students. Sometimes, when educators are tolerant of the ever-changing needs of students, practice can precede policy. More often than not, however, practice needs the encouragement of policy, along with a healthy dose of education relating to emerging practices.

Such is the case in Oklahoma, where fifteen (or more) school districts now include nondiscrimination protection for both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity/expression.” Furthermore, as far back as 2011, Oklahoma transgender students Katie Rain Hill and Arin Andrews were receiving national attention and have both released memoirs, “Rethinking Normal” (Hill) and “Some Assembly Required” (Andrews). Much work has already been done to advocate for LGBTQ students in Oklahoma, and much work still remains.

Educators in districts such as Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Union, Mid-Del, Owasso, Stillwater, Ponca City, Shawnee, Durant, Collinsville, Grove, Glenpool, Bristow, Cleveland, and Okemah now have the backing of a nondiscrimination policy to openly advocate for LGBTQ students. In other words, in these districts, it is policy that it is acceptable for students to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, or otherwise. A policy of nondiscrimination is a policy of acceptance.

Policy in the above mentioned districts implies, for instance, that anti-gay hate speech is no less inflammatory than racially motivated hate speech. There is a sense of equivalency applied to all that is included in “nondiscrimination.” Teachers and administrators in these districts need to know that if they hold a religious and/or political belief that views variations in sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression as anything other than completely acceptable, such beliefs are in conflict with district policy and therefore must not inform instruction, relationships with students, or any other school practice.

LGBTQ issues are non-debatable in classrooms of districts with inclusive nondiscrimination policies. Space should be made in all classrooms (especially Social Studies classrooms) for student expression of a variety of opinions on numerous civic and political issues. There are certain opinions, however, that should not be allowed to be heard, opinions that disparage people for their “race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, gender, gender expression or identity, religion, veteran status, sexual orientation, disability, age, or genetic information.” (from the Mid-Del nondiscrimination policy)

“Masters of Law”

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(The following is a parody of the Bob Dylan song
“Masters of War” written especially for Oklahoma
Republican Legislators. You can find the original
lyrics here. Enjoy!)

Come you masters of law,
You that cut the big deals.
Are you really that evil?
Or just asleep at the wheel?
How was your evening
When you dined with big oil?
We’re on to your schemes.
Soon your plans will be foiled.

You that never done nothin’
But talk a big talk.
You promise us funding,
Then you take the day off.
You cut all departments,
Pat yourself on the back
We just want you to know,
“Stay alert, don’t relax.”

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive.
You care about my students.
You want me to believe.
But I see through your budget,
And I see through your plan.
You don’t care about the people
Unless their name’s Hamm.

You collect your per diem
While our teachers get fired.
Then you set back and watch
While surrounding states hire.
You hide in your office.
We are crowded in schools.
But we won’t go away.
Don’t mistake us for fools.

You talk about markets.
You talk about choice.
What about the children
Who don’t have a voice?
Send your children to prep school
20,000 a year!
You can keep all your vouchers
We won’t let it happen here!

You get so upset
When we talk out of turn.
But you must remember
What we cannot unlearn.
You only care about voters
That look just like you.
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question.
How long can this last?
When they find out your phony
Your career will end fast.
I think you will find
When the cuts take their toll.
And the children are starving,
Who will pray for your soul?

And I hope your bills die
And their death’ll come soon.
They’ll all die in committee
On a fall afternoon.
We’ll elect a new governor.
Give the rich a malaise.
And we’ll fund all our schools,
Give our teachers a raise.