‘Take Your Hood Off’ and Other Teacher Microaggressions

In 2008, David Whitman, future speech writer for early Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, coined the term “paternalistic school” to describe what we now know as “no nonsense” charter schools. Whitman, a proponent of education reform, chose the word “paternalistic” as a flattering moniker for the movement. In an essay entitled “An Appeal to Authority” Whitman says that one of the aims of these schools is to teach students “how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values.” The overtly racist policies of these “paternalistic” charter schools are now well documented. More recently, many charter schools have dialed back on official attempts to use school rules to refine urban students of color into middle class white students. These attempts can be appropriately described as “macroaggressions,” large-scale overt acts of aggression toward marginalized people groups.

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The more pressing issue today, in both traditional public schools and on an even larger scale in charter and voucher schools, is what is known as “microaggressions.” To be specific, teacher microaggressions are the indirect, subtle, or even unintentional ways that teachers discriminate against students of color and other marginalized student groups. They include body language, choice of words, and other small seemingly innocuous daily decisions. Often teacher microaggressions are couched in an authentic attempt by the teacher to connect with students. Many times, however, these microaggressions are distinctly connected with the manner in which teachers choose to enforce school rules.

Teachers giving undue attention to student behavior that is technically against school rules but not directly tied to a specific consequence is sometimes referred to as “sweating the small stuff.” Teachers must examine their motivations when enforcing rules in order to recognize their own microaggressions. All teachers have “pet peeves.” Questions for every teacher to ask themselves include, “Why does this behavior bother me so much?” “Will enforcing this rule help keep students safe?” “Do I disapprove of this behavior because of the way I was raised?” “Is enforcing a rule at a particular time worth the potential loss of relationship capital with the student?”

Teachers must examine their motivations when enforcing rules in order to recognize their own microaggressions.

One student behavior that is clearly more about etiquette and an outdated understanding of what respect means, is the wearing of hats and hoods in the school building. It is true that students frequently use hoods to cloak the use of ear buds, which obviously can impede direct instruction. But just as often students wear hats or hoods to provide a sense of security in attempt to overcome something like social anxiety or an insecurity related to appearance (like a bad haircut). The idea that hats worn inside a building is disrespectful has fallen out of favor in almost every venue with the exception of the schoolhouse. Today, hats are frequently worn inside movie theatres, formal concerts, churches, and virtually any other public place. Constantly insisting that students remove hats and hoods at school is a microaggression because it is premised on an antiquated view of respect and does not account for present day cultural practices among communities of color.

The constant policing of language is another example of teacher microaggression. White middle class teachers often have a concept of what constitutes polite and acceptable classroom language, a concept that has likely not been made accessible to their students. The teacher may be the only adult in a student’s life who wishes to produce a “G” rated environment of language. In order to not impose their own language values, teachers must consider the intent behind each student phrase. An unengaged student may express frustration with instructional content by saying, “I don’t give a shit about this class!” The last thing this student needs is school discipline that would remove them from the classroom and further alienate them from their own learning.

In order to not impose their own language values, teachers must consider the intent behind each student phrase.

Punishing students for sleeping in class is also a microaggression. White teachers may have a concept of what it means to get a good night’s rest that simply may not be available to their students. Sleeping students cannot learn, but they might be able to learn better after a brief nap. A sleeping student indicates a need for rest, not a need for consequences. Teachers should not be personally offended when students fall asleep in class because chances are it has little to do with instructional methods and much to do with factors outside of the classroom. Although, teachers must be self-reflective in these moments to see if lesson plans could be more engaging for students. The goal should be for students to be engaged at a level where they want to stay awake whether they can or not.

To avoid microaggressions, white teachers should utilize what is called “culturally responsive teaching.” Teachers who are educated in how their students’ lives diverge from their own are better equipped at recognizing their own implicit bias, the mindset on which the microaggressions feed. Teachers must understand that deciding whether or not to “sweat the small stuff” is not just a matter of classroom management, it is a matter of social justice.

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When Suspensions Are Down, But Restorative Discipline Is Not Up

The racism, once long latent in “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, is now manifest to many education stake holders, especially in urban school districts with majority non-white students. White educators everywhere are waking up to the reality that America’s addiction to incarceration is directly tied to school discipline policies that disproportionately push students of color out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. In effort to reverse what is called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” many race conscious administrators have called for dramatic reductions in the number of out-of-school suspensions across all student racial demographics.

The idea is simple; keeping students in school will lead to keeping adults out of prison. And to be sure, lowering suspension rates is a moral good. When a student remains in the classroom instead of in the hall, the principal’s office, or the police cruiser, it is a small win for everyone. But the question becomes, “What is the opposite of zero tolerance?” When punitive discipline policies are abandoned, are they replaced with alternative forms of discipline, or is the school simply left with less discipline?

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Experience is now proving that lowering suspension rates without implementing restorative discipline policies that help students understand and take control of their own behavior, only creates a toxic learning environment where neither students nor teachers feel safe. Teachers in these situations are reporting a sharp increase of student-on-teacher violence at virtually every grade level. Zero tolerance policies are not pro teacher, but teachers who express concern for their own safety at school must be heard. The Oklahoma Education Association is an organization, comprised mostly of teacher members, that is “committed to the success of every student” in Oklahoma. The National Education Association, of which the OEA is a state affiliate, categorically rejects “zero tolerance” discipline policies. However, promoting a safe working environment for teachers is paramount for America’s premier teachers’ union. When suspensions are lowered without implementing a model of restorative discipline, the school becomes a more volatile environment, and the teachers’ union is put in the unfortunate place of appearing to choose the teacher over the student.

Lowering suspension rates first and only is putting the cart before the horse. The opposite of zero tolerance is overwhelming tolerance, and tolerance is the active pursuit of understanding and appreciating difficult barriers between people. The key is for social justice minded teachers and administrators to truly understand that tolerance is not the same as leniency. In order to reduce suspension rates and guarantee the continuing safety of everyone in the building, there must a cultural shift in discipline philosophy. And it is not just the responsibility of administrators. All stakeholders; teachers, paraprofessionals, and even families, must rethink the entire school community’s approach to discipline.

Experience is now proving that lowering suspension rates without implementing restorative discipline policies that help students understand and take control of their own behavior, only creates a toxic learning environment where neither students nor teachers feel safe.

Introducing restorative discipline practices into a philosophy that continues to view discipline through a punitive lens will not produce the desired results. That’s why many schools are now returning to zero tolerance, claiming that they tried restorative discipline and it did not work. This is very similar to the frequent failure of one-to-one technology programs (a device for every student) that are rolled out prematurely, without proper teacher training. “Peace circles” are not a magic pill that alone can eradicate the institutional racism plaguing our schools. The shifting of minds (and hearts) away from punitive discipline must precede the changing of any policies or implementing of any new practices.

Perhaps most importantly, restorative discipline cannot be decreed from the top down. Superintendents cannot demand their way to more equitable systems of school discipline. New approaches to discipline are most successful when they begin in the classroom, grow to the counseling and principals’ offices, and then are modeled at the school level. Before making any district wide policy changes, superintendents should personally invest themselves in a comprehensive program of professional development that begins with a fundamental understanding of the historical factors that created the school-to-prison pipeline.

There Is Nothing ‘Mom and Pop’ About Charter Schools

In a forgotten time in this country, the “mom and pop” moniker stood for everything that was right about the family owned small business. Urban grocery stores, owned and operated by small families who often lived in the same building, provided an indispensable service to neighborhood residents within walking distance. Qualifying for the nickname had everything to do with the daily responsibilities of running the business falling only to family members; mom, dad, and often the young children. With the rise of Walmart in the mid-twentieth century, true “mom and pop” shops began to vanish and the connotation of the name quickly expanded and consequently lost its original meaning. “Mom and pop” shops represent a time in this country when capitalism had a soul and upward mobility was more than a distant memory.

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Ben Felder of The Oklahoman recently reported that a $16 million federal grant is expected to significantly expand the number of “mom and pop” charter schools in Oklahoma. “Mom and pop” is used in this case to refer to those charter schools not operated by corporate Charter Management Organizations or CMOs. There are very few positive things to say about the current Oklahoma education funding crisis, but according to Felder, the relatively low number of charter schools run by CMOs in Oklahoma is directly tied to the low per pupil spending in the funding formula. We spend so little on education that the corporate education machine’s tried and true formula for a quick profit does not make business sense in Oklahoma!

The National Education Association reports that about 4 in 10 charter schools are run by for profit corporations, while 6 in 10 are not for profit and not directly tied to a CMO. The latter group wishes to emphasize their distinctive by taking on the name “mom and pop” as if to say, “we are not corporate.” Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, Stanley Hupfeld Academy in Oklahoma City would more appropriately be called “Integris Health Elementary.” Urban “mom and pop” charter school, John Rex Charter Elementary School should be called “Devon Energy Elementary.” Naming a charter school after an individual sends a very personal and local message while simultaneously masking massive corporate contribution and influence.

Selective enrollment is a cornerstone of the charter school model. There is nothing “mom and pop” about being essentially a “members only” organization. Even charter schools that claim to be neighborhood schools (serving students in the immediate vicinity of the school) have enrollment caps that consistently turn students away. In keeping with the analogy, it is worth noting that small businesses that refuse to serve particular clientele usually don’t win in court. The charter school way is more like “Sam’s Club” than anything else.

We spend so little on education that the corporate education machine’s tried and true formula for a quick profit does not make business sense in Oklahoma!

I have previously written about how the School Choice Movement, of which charter schools are an essential part, likes to be known as the “little guy” going up against the giant, monolithic, public school system. The “mom and pop” charter schools want to be pitied above all others because they view themselves as the “little guys” of the “little guys.” The truth is that neighborhood public schools pose no threat to charter school upstarts. Great public schools have been the center of activity in communities across this country for generations; without a charter, without a corporate benefactor, and without the “ability” to deny services to students whose education comes with certain challenges. If any school deserves the title “mom and pop,” it is the traditional neighborhood public school that is truly owned and operated by the community and for the community.

Political Teaching – Part I

Teaching is an inherently political vocation. Every teacher, without exception, is a conduit for multiple political agendas. The Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS) are the political agenda of the Oklahoma State Department of Education, with direct oversight from the Oklahoma Legislature. To be fair, for the most part, the OAS were created with input from actual Oklahoma teachers, but this does not negate the fact that the simple act of creating standards is fundamentally political. Standards are the way the state tells teachers, “We have made the political decisions for you.”

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The state Legislature has consistently shown to not be satisfied with the political agenda provided in the OAS. State mandated testing is nothing more than a show of force, a bully pulpit. Legislators, far removed from the actual teaching and learning process, awkwardly hide their own political agenda for education in a package called “accountability.” It is interesting that those whose actual job involves the word “politic” are often the worst at the nuanced subtleties of the political game. And, yes, while remnants of altruism can always be found in politics, it is, after all, a game.

If virtually every other stakeholder in the educational process gets to be political, should not the teacher be afforded the same privilege?

Textbooks are undeniably political. As social studies teachers know quite well, when publishers claim that their political agenda is the same as the state departments, they call it “alignment.” Truth be told, standards alignment is a pathetic attempt to make two often very different political agendas appear to be the same. If virtually every other stakeholder in the educational process gets to be political, should not the teacher be afforded the same privilege?

Teachers who claim to not have a political agenda are simply peddling someone else’s. But all teachers, even those who claim to be apolitical, bring their own style, personality, gifts, and life experiences into the classroom, all of which are part and parcel to the political process. Teachers are charged with teaching the state created standards using district chosen textbooks as tools. To be perfectly clear, I adhere to and faithfully teach the Oklahoma Academic Standards for 8th Grade U.S. History to the very best of my ability. But every day I make decisions as a teacher that necessarily move beyond the scope of both standards and curriculum and are fundamentally political in nature.

There are those on both the left and the right (though mostly the right) that envision a classroom void of politics where learning occurs strictly through the accumulation of amoral facts. This kind of classroom is neither possible nor desirable. I want my students to feel something just as much as I want them to learn something.

Where Should White Teachers Teach?

The latest data shows that slightly less than 50% of America’s students are white, while the percentage of white teachers, though slowly trending downward, remains near 80% (USDOE). Combine these numbers with the reality that our schools are more segregated now than they have been in decades, and that means that my situation is far more common than we may be willing to admit; a white teacher teaching at a majority non-white school.

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It is worth noting that a majority non-white school does not necessarily indicate a segregation problem. My school is roughly 35% white, 35% black, and 15% Hispanic. We have about as diverse a student body as anyone could hope for. But our diversity is a distinctive of our lower middle class community (What It Means That My School Embraces Cultural Diversity). If you go east away from the city, property values rise, and the schools have higher concentrations of white students. If you go west toward the city, property values decrease, and the schools have higher concentrations of students of color.

I am in my 6th year of teaching, and I have only taught at one school. My perspective on what it means to be a white teacher is very much shaped by (if not limited to) my experience at my school. But at this particular stage of my career, I am beginning to wonder. What kind of school allows me to have the most effective and authentic impact as a white teacher?

I am almost certain, for instance, that my effectiveness would decrease (Hechinger Report), even if slightly, if I transitioned to teaching at an urban school with a high percentage of black or brown students. Don’t get me wrong. I place high value on cultural competency and culturally responsive teaching, and believe that equipping white teachers with these skills is the number one thing we can do to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline. But even a culturally competent white teacher can easily fall into the trap of believing themselves to be the “white savior” who offers students of color “a way out.”

What kind of school allows me to have the most effective and authentic impact as a white teacher?

I do not believe that white teachers should flee large city school districts en masse. White teachers in urban centers should hold their ground, prioritize their self-care, get involved in their local union/association, and read Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and Chris Emdin’s “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too.” Perhaps most importantly, white teachers in majority non-white schools should defer to but not lean on their colleagues of color when relating individually to non-white students (Rethinking Schools).

My real quandary is this, what would happen to my effectiveness if I were to teach at an almost all white suburban or rural school? I have long had disdain for this idea, but mostly for selfish reasons. I do not have any particular interest or perceived personal benefit in teaching at a mostly white affluent school. Higher pay perhaps? More rigor? Ease of classroom management? Ultimately, these are not my career priorities.

But would teaching at a mostly white suburban school afford me more opportunity to do what white teachers do best; challenge other white teachers, and white students alike, to think critically about race, class, and the injustices/privileges that stem from the intersection of these socially constructed categories? Or perhaps would this so called “opportunity” instead result in conflict, controversy, and my potential removal?

I currently don’t have the answers. I am just trying to come up with better and better questions.

Public Schools Are the Shit!

Public schools are the shit!
Ask any fourth grader.
“What do you think of your school, Timmy?”
“My school’s the shit!”
“Does your teacher let you talk that way, Timmy?”
“Of course not! I just really want you to know how
important my school is to me.”
And there are over three million fourth graders
in this country just like Timmy who are pumped about
the Bernoulli’s principle demonstration
in Science class tomorrow.

For over 50 million American students,
the public school is their place of learning
and so much more.
It’s their breakfast and lunch.
It’s their friends and their frenemies,
their likes and their dislikes,
their comforts and their challenges.
It’s their fashion, their sexuality,
their prejudice, and their secrets.
It’s their music and Snapchat story.
It’s their passion and power.
Their hobbies and habits.

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The majority of people
in the United States have attended a public
school at some point in their lives.
More people in the U.S. go through public schools
than have cable television,
go to church every Sunday,
or take regular baths.
The kinds of things Americans do at similar
rates to attending public schools are things
like owning pets.
The kinds of things Americans do at higher
rates than attending public schools are things
like riding in cars and walking on sidewalks.

Public schools perform astounding feats
every single day.
Four teenagers walk into a Target, and
Loss Prevention loses their collective mind.
Meanwhile, public schools organize students
into classes of 15, 30, and sometimes more
for 7.5 hours a day.
Neighborhood public schools take the
students from the community,
put them all together in one building
(and a few portables),
and then teach them.
Almost every single day,
hundreds of young people
go into a public school
and safely come out at the end of the day.
This is nothing short of miraculous!

So when the sensationalist “School Choice” blog,
Choice Remarks, highlights outlying tragic stories
in a culpable attempt to say “all public schools”
and don’t even take the time
to actually write about it
(instead, posts links to the writing of real journalists),

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And when the white bourgeoisie readership of said blog
make malicious comments on social media
attacking the personal character of the teacher
responsible for Spoon Vision
without ever reading the actual post
in question on this site,

the message is clear.

Public schools are vital, supported, and strong.
The critics are few, loud, and bigoted.
And public schools are here to stay!

Donald Trump is President, and I am a Public School Teacher

(In my classroom, I rarely speak his name, so forgive me for repeating it here.)

Donald Trump is president, and I am a public school teacher.

Let that sink in for a moment…

Now, allow me to explain.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that ridiculing people with disabilities is a sign of poor character.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that you can’t be a “good person” and a white supremacist.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my male students that they should never touch a woman anywhere without permission.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that the phrase “law and order” is steeped in systemic racism.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that the U.S. government should not be run like a business.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that refugees should be welcomed in this country.

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Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that black lives matter.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that babies carried across borders are not criminals.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that transgender people should be able to choose their bathroom and their branch of military service.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that it is their constitutional right to protest the nation’s anthem, pledge, flag, and political leaders.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that Andrew Jackson was a murderous racist.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that concentrated wealth multiplies poverty.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that most of the time, when people kill people, they use guns.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that the greatest nuclear threat the world has ever seen is the United States of America.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that education is about building bridges, not walls.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students the benefits and drawbacks of a capitalist economy.

Donald Trump is president, and I am a proud liberal progressive public school teacher.

“If this be treason, make the most of it!”

Aaron Baker