I believe children are wired to love.
Today I sat in a training that focused primarily on developing relationships and establishing classroom environments that foster and cultivate growth mindsets. The way it came about was interesting. The training is centered around Chris Emden’s book whom most educators of color, at this point, have heard about and read. I’ve read parts of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…And the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality, Pedagogy, and Urban Education but for some reason, I’ve never had the chance to do an in-depth study of its message. It is like many books on pedagogy that I’ve been exposed to, read parts of, but not really fully committed to. It’s not for lack of wanting. It is like so many other things, I make time for escapist reading, and escapist TV, but when it comes to reading books that have the possibility of improving my practice, I convince myself that dipping my toe in, and getting the “good parts” will be enough.
A few weeks ago, at a meeting, my principal told all grade-level leaders (I am one) that she wanted us to be part of a cohort that was going to study the book, among other readings. At first, I was resistant, because few things, in my mind are worth missing a day in the classroom with my students. I was also resistant because, in my experience, the majority of the professional development from my district is geared toward people with virtually no teaching experience, and taught by people who have left the classroom “to have greater reach, or impact”. Most of the time, and this is a judgement, I see this as abandoning ship. The trainings are not engaging, not generally very helpful, and lazily delivered. Due to the fact that there are hundreds of middle-level management positions in my district, I am extremely cynical of most trainings developed to justify these positions. It is hard for me not to wear the #ReclaimingMyTime t-shirt to every instance of forced professional development. You can imagine the way I immediately went in to excuses mode about how I didn’t have time, couldn’t afford to miss class etc. My principal said to go to the first one, and see how it goes. She knows me.
This morning, I dropped my kids off at school and began the trek to downtown Denver to get to the training. Google did something very strange, it quit on me, mid journey and kept trying to re-route me to Boulder, CO where I was last time I used it. This was inconvenient. I had to rely on my old-fashioned map skills and read things like signs, work with numbers posted on buildings. I wondered, what would my students, so reliant on technology for everything, do in this situation? I worked my way in to a very, very small parking space, which stressed me out (what did we do before backup cams?) and as I paid my $11 daily rate (un-reimbursed) I realized, SHIT, I was going to be late. Welp. Nothing new there. My mother always said punctuality was a Western concept. I wandered in about 15 minutes late, sat down, and introduced myself. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am, 98% of the time, the only educator of color in trainings. I have to decide whether to use my voice, or let it be silenced. Right as I walked in to the room, I saw that there were three other women of color, two men from my school, and a copy of Chris Emden’s book at my seat. This made me feel a bit more at ease.
We began with this TED talk about school push out by Victor Rios
It was an engaging way to start the day, but raised several questions for me, the preeminent one being, how old is this TED talk, and has anything changed since it happened? The answer, is 2 years, and not a lot. Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, or TED talks are more for making people think, than producing actual change, but I digress…
Through the course of the day, we talked about ways to make our classrooms and instruction more “learning centered”. I thought a lot about how many things we do in education out of habit and tradition, like prizing work completion over ongoing thinking and wrestling with tough questions. We read articles on cultivating a culture of “learning” vs. a culture of “working” in our classrooms, but I couldn’t help but think about how many students I know see school as a factory style exchange where they produce a product for me, the corporate manager. We talked about moving away from a system of rewards and punishments for completion or the lack thereof, and more toward supporting real creative and critical deep thinking. We discussed ways to make our classrooms and lessons better through 8 Cultural Forces that shape learning environments: creating opportunities, co-creating inviting physical environments, managing time, modeling work and behaviors, setting and holding high expectations, developing effective routines and structures, cultivating relationships, and leveraging the power of positive, supportive language. These were all really good things that I felt good about passing on to the team members I support. However, I still feel that all we discussed will only take us so far if the people in charge still need their numbers and basically think that compliance and conformity means learning is happening in a classroom.
I agreed to the norm that, “What happens in here [the room] stays in here,” though I disagree with that, because I think in most cases, you should really take care to say what you don’t mind being repeated. Because I agreed to the group set norm, I won’t divulge too much of what went down in that room, though most of it was really positive, but I will say that I was the only one who mentioned that there are systems all around us that are reinforcing exactly the opposite of what the PD was preaching. One article stated findings from a study saying that, “Under pressure conditions, teachers [are] more likely to use more controlling teaching practices, and this coupling of pressure on teachers with controlling practices led to impaired student performance,” (Creating Cultures of Thinking, 46) Even knowing this, we STILL create environments of extreme social, psychological, and emotional pressure, unreasonable expectations [given known limitations], and overall organizational dysfunction. School and classroom segregation, the school choice movement, privatization, over-testing, lack of engagement, antiquated practices, the school to prison pipeline, school closures, lack of culturally responsive practices and curriculum, teacher shortages, deficit language, institutional and personal biases…the list of problems goes on and on. However, I do believe that there can be no true change until we change ourselves, and that internal change drives deeper systemic transformation toward education for liberation.
When we free ourselves, we free our children for a better future than the one we foresaw when we were young, which is now. It’s not yet great, but it could be. Children are wired to love each other, learning, the world. We must do everything we can to protect that. Our current system, though extremely dysfunctional at best, is the one we’ve got. Though we know we must change, children are still regularly pushed out, disenfranchised, alienated. There are still videos of teachers telling children to “speak American” surfacing on the internet. There are still places where pre-schoolers are regularly suspended and/or expelled with no regard for the familial consequences of such decisions. We have to do better. In every PD, the question should be, “How is this work helping us systemically to disrupt what is wrong with education, and make it right?”
As the adage goes, “I am not free until everybody is free.”
I can’t rest, or be quiet, and my work will go on, until things improve for everyone.
Children are wired to love, to love education, to love each other, to love themselves, to love their fellow human beings, and to be curious about the world. We must protect and defend this with everything we’ve got. Doing so starts with pushing back against a system that would push millions out. The kids deserve it. We must, and we can do better.