A Call To Uplift Students, Not Tear Them Down

pexels-photo-191100Last month I discussed a few newsworthy changes in the city of Baltimore, where certain schools have started implementing meditation in lieu of detention. This approach is is inspiring and certainly something from which we (those charged with caring for and educating students) can learn. Yet apparently such inspiration has not made its way around the entire city.

This past week a video surfaced of a teacher at a Baltimore Middle School, Harlem Park, berating children, who had apparently not heeded her instruction and were unresponsive to her directives about doing work. The video begins with the woman, who has now been let go by the school, removing a disruptive student from the classroom. By the end of the short clip, the teacher is calling all of the children stupid and telling them they’re the N-words bound to get shot. The teacher was white.

But her race alone is not the most alarming part. Her tone and the way she chose to address these students is most upsetting. To be clear, having worked in education, I understand that students can get rowdy, that some days are not as great as others, and that on those days, some students just won’t listen. That is not ideal but it comes with the territory, and educators should be prepared for dealing with it, especially if their goal is teach in a school or district where the population is historically underserved and impoverished.

Those children, as disrespectful as they are and as nerve racking as they can be, are just that, children. Many are disaffected by the education system because they deal with a world of hell outside of the school’s walls, which may include gun violence, drug abuse, hunger, incarcerated parents, bullying, and yes, racism. As I’ve discussed previously, these experiences can be traumatic, making learning (as well as teaching) difficult.

In turn, these children need the opposite. They need attention and teachers who care, who are willing to give the hard love that may turn them around, and who are able discipline without using profanity and demeaning language. Perhaps meditation is not a possibility for every school or classroom, but compassionate teachers should be.

And maybe this is an example of teachers needing to meditate themselves, or find some other way to care for themselves, to destress and decompress, and this should be encouraged by the schools. The job of being an educator is not easy in anyway, and being responsible for young adult lives, even when it seems like you’re the only one, is draining. Yet many of us have entered the profession, knowing the risks and still rising to the challenge with the hope of changing at least one life. If not that, then what is the purpose?

Why Schools In Baltimore Are Meditating

Leo Pollard's picture of meditation

Young lady meditating

Located just an hour outside of the nation’s capital, Baltimore, Maryland is one of the poorest cities in the United States. However, the entire city isn’t living in squalor; there is, in fact, very noticeable wealth throughout. Yet, as one of the most segregated cities in the country as well, inequality persists in black neighborhoods located in the inner city and western suburbs.

 

Within this cycle of poverty are children for whom issues at home spill over into the school environment, resulting in heightened disciplinary actions and no-tolerance policies from educators and administrators alike. Such actions lead to more aggression from students as well as a sense of apathy regarding the purpose of school, since it so often fails at addressing the needs of those who need more than punishment. Hence, a few schools in Baltimore are trying something new.

 

One such school is the Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. A recent article from Upworthy highlighted the school’s abrogation of detention in exchange for mindful meditation. The benefits of mindfulness include focus, longer attention spans, stress reduction and, probably most helpful, the ability to truly think about one’s actions–it encourages reflection and inspires peace.

 

Mindfulness isn’t new, of course. The practice has been been around for thousands of years. However this particular application is novel in many respects. The inspiration (and partnership) to create a room dedicated to mindfulness, where misbehaving kids are sent instead of the principal’s office, came from the Holistic Life Foundation, which has been offering after school mindfulness and yoga programs for kids, from pre-k to 5th grade.

 

Robert W. Coleman Elementary School has had zero suspensions for the last two years. The school credits the program and its holistic approach with its success. While there has been no formal study on this correlation, we can look at the results from other schools in Baltimore and those developing around the country to see that such policies are impactful.

 

The nature of this work is remarkable and resourceful, especially as Baltimore continues to lose students and millions of dollars in funding, the latter of which creates even worse environments for students with behavioral issues. I’m not sure whether this can be applied elsewhere as easily, without the proper resources and training. But it is something worth researching further to find out how to really make a difference.

4 Reasons Why There is a Teacher Shortage in America

red-school-blur-factory-largeOnce a highly coveted position and lifetime career opportunity, for the current crop of new graduates and those with even a little experience, teaching is much less attractive than in years past. Around the country, states, from Indiana to Oklahoma, Hawaii and Arizona, have a high rate of teaching vacancies: more than a 1,000 for multiple states. Subsequently, some experts have deemed the shortage a crisis-level situation.

In response, many states have kicked recruiting efforts into high gear. Some are using tax breaks, loan forgiveness and sign on bonuses to draw more would-be educators into the field. Some of it has been effective but the problem remains, and to fully understand the lack of interest one must consider the reasons behind the “crisis.”

 

  1. Standardized Testing Standards
    A decline in proficiency in basic subjects like reading and math has led to major reform in various districts and states and, infamously, the federal government. The now heavily criticized No Child Left Behind act increased the role of standardized testing in schools and changed the culture of school as well. Many teachers, instead of being afforded the creative freedom to develop personal curriculums and lesson plans, were expected to adhere to lessons related only to testing. Worse, many teachers were and are graded according to the performance of students on such tests.This highly problematic comparison has undoubtedly played a role in the disinterest of existing teachers, and has likely prevented prospective teachers from pursuing the career.

  2. Reduced Union Rights
    With such changes, bargaining rights have also been jeopardized. Teachers’ unions typically negotiate on behalf of teachers for fair evaluation practices, in class responsibilities and academic freedom. Yet with such strict mandates, it has become more difficult for unions to leverage the interest of those represented. Indeed there are entire campaigns launched against teachers’ unions and more than a few instances of denunciation in the press. Weaker unions hurt teachers.

  3. Meager Salaries
    The national average for teachers’ salaries is just $36,141, which is quite low in comparison to the nature of the job, its importance to society and the often grueling hours. Yet in Arizona, where the number of teachers has consistently dwindled over the last five years, that number is even lower at just $31,874. Teachers with experience and the means to do so have left the state entirely, taking jobs in nearby places like Texas and California, where pay is better but still paltry. Still, for departments hoping to attract a new crop of educators with such salaries, doing so is understandably difficult.

  4. Inadequate Budgets
    Additionally, multiple districts lack the budgets necessary to create quality work environments for teachers, let alone great learning environments for students. One of the most damning examples of this problem played out on Twitter earlier this year, with educators from Detroit Public Schools revealing on the social media platform the appalling conditions of their classrooms and work areas. A more widespread issue is the reality of teachers who purchase their own school supplies, since those needed are not provided by the schools themselves. Such a struggle is discouraging, even for those who love what they do and are passionate about teaching.

Calling this problem a crisis is not hyperbole, rather it is real life and the foresight of administrators, parents and government leaders, who realize that without teachers, the future of our country is in danger. Poor education leads to an unprepared and unskilled population, which is not good for society nor our economy. Fixing these issues, listening to complaints and taking teachers’ feedback seriously must be the top priority for those responsible for their recruiting and retention. Otherwise nothing will change.

Why We Can’t Ignore the Fight for Affordable College

library-1400312_960_720At the end of the 19th century, America shifted its focus from preparing its citizens for skilled labor to equipping them with knowledge for continued education and a more flexible future. High School was normalized as a natural progression in the system of education, and was made publicly available to all children, required by law until a certain age in many states. As a result, America became a world leader in education and set a precedent for other countries.

 

Much has changed since then. Growth in high school enrollment has declined and America ranked as low as 36 in education among other developed countries, per a global assessment in 2014. Improving the quality of secondary education is something educators and legislators alike are constantly working toward, even before this most recent statistic. A positive result of such is that high school dropout rates have been steadily declining within the last few years. Still, another education problem is at America’s front door, and it requires immediate attention: college affordability.

 

In the last twenty years (from 1995 to 2015), the price of college has increased by over 170 percent. Subsequently, the amount of student debt from college loans has tripled in the last decade, to $1.23 billion dollars in 2016. At this point, college is becoming out of reach for many low and middle income families, pushing them further behind not only nationally, but globally in our ever-expanding international economy.

 

leo pollard's image of a college building The problem is bigger than money. Like obtaining a high school diploma in the 20th century, a 4-year degree is now required for most jobs and careers available to people in the modern era. Without it, individuals make nearly $20,000 less than those with a degree. Thus, college affordability becomes an issue of inequity: a process which stifles people unable to pay for a higher education, forcing them to remain in a cycle of poverty and a growing wealth gap, right here in the world’s richest country. It is simply unfair.

 

Famously, former Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, made this issue a staple in his progressive platform, in a race for the White House. Since losing the nomination and conceding in June, his case has been taken up by his opponent, Secretary Hillary Clinton, who has pledged to eliminate in-state college tuition at public universities, for families earning less than $125,000 a year. This plan covers about 80 percent of Americans, and provides hope for so many who fear they lack any future beyond what they see.

 

leo pollard libraryWhile it’s too soon to celebrate this becoming a reality, it is great to see that politicians on the national stage are taking up the struggle for many Americans, and making efforts to reform a system that desperately needs a change. If we are to truly encourage our kids to believe in the American dream, we must remove the things which keep them from ever realizing it; that starts with ensuring equal opportunities for education.

The Value of Black Male Teachers

african-business-668397_960_720To be clear, not every black child comes from a broken home, nor readily associate with the deadbeat dad trope that is so often laid upon African Americans. Various studies and a number of publications have dismantled that theory, showing that, in comparison, black fathers are more involved in their children’s lives than other ethnicities. Still, it’s important to acknowledge that, despite those stats, single parent homes do exist, and it is often the responsibility of the mother to raise the child. That doesn’t mean said child is any less loved or will be less successful (our current president, Barack Obama, has done pretty well for himself), but there is a level of importance in children being exposed to positive male role models in daily life.

Men Teach is a nonprofit dedicated to providing content and resources for men in the classroom. In one of its blogs, a teacher discussed the dynamics of a male educational figure with his students, under the aforementioned circumstances–dual parent and single parent households. He postulates that for both boys and girls, a male teacher can be the role model and base of support necessary to bridge the gap for broken homes, and create more comfortable learning environments by exhibiting qualities of the father that other children have at home.

As a teacher, I have a keen understanding of this concept and do my best to be there for my students to assist them with problems in school, and to encourage them to make the right decisions and succeed, upon leaving. However, I am one of few, in terms of the demographic breakdown of educators around the country. Despite initiatives to change it, the population of American teachers remains overwhelmingly female and white. In fact, less than a decade ago, just 23 percent of males with a degree in education were actively teaching. Subsequently, the number of black males in the classroom is just under 7.5 percent compared to almost 2 percent  of those in the front, teaching.

To understand the importance of this representation, a recent Harvard University study shows measurable improvement in academic achievement, not just a father figure, for students of color who learn from teachers of color. Furthermore,  Gloria Ladson-Billings, speaking in Education Week’s blog for teachers, suggested that yes, it’s important for even white students to have black teachers, because it provides a foundation for instruction to be received from black people, and dismantles a racially exclusive view of hierarchy.

The challenge for schools around the country has not so much been the recruiting, but keeping these men who will have an impact on and likely enhance students’ lives. Travis Bristol stated that, to turn the tide, “…districts must ensure that black male teachers are not concentrated in the worst-performing schools…[and] think of more expansive roles for [them] to serve besides policing the hallways and the front of the building…” I completely agree. It’s time for the country to use its understanding of representation to highlight the value of black men in the classroom, starting now.

Louisiana Senate Bill 432: Saving Face, Not Saving Schools

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The City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

August 2005 changed the city of New Orleans forever. In the wake of the infamous and deadly Hurricane Katrina, one of America’s most beloved cities was devastated by the natural disaster, and further ravaged by a lack of response from both the federal and local governments, and inadequate levee system, which critics heralded as one of the greatest engineering disasters in nearly 20 years. The result, in addition to nearly 1,500 deaths, was mass displacement and lasting devastation, which has yet to be fully rectified, more than a decade later. Yet, though officials were slow to assist those need at the time of the event, what followed was unwanted oversight and control of the city’s most vulnerable population, under the guise of education reform.

pencil-918449_960_720Following the storm, the city of New Orleans adopted a public charter school system over the traditional public school system, and the change was in no way subtle. Instead, some 77 charter schools exist in the city today, compared to just 6 public schools. Hence, more than 90 percent of the students attend the former. The problem: these schools, though open to the public, with the word contained in their title, are independently run, resulting in a dramatic and wholly undemocratic shift in the schooling process.

Speaking on the changes in a post New Orleans Katrina, National Geographic described the system as “the single-most transformed institution in the city.” Nowhere else in the country has such a transformation taken place, even in cities like the nation’s capital, which has had its own history of troubles, questionable leadership, and considered one of the worst systems in the country, based on factors as such as dropout rate and college preparedness. To be clear, since the shift, New Orleans has increased graduation and proficiency in certain subjects for many of the students. However, even after more 10 years, the system lacks perfect results, and contains a spate of issues persist over which locals and stakeholders with the most to lose, students and their parents, have no say.

senior-middle-school-993886_960_720So, earlier this month, when the Washington Post released news that the governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, might sign a bill that would return school oversight and power to the locals–a democratically elected school board–many saw the move as a victory, a sign of restitution. Yet, upon further inspection, there’s a caveat. The board would still be left out of decisions regarding hiring, curriculum and instruction, and as I previously discussed, unions. Hence, the move is really just placation, a cover to quell the voiced anger of the constituency, which, it should be noted, is majority black, impoverished and historically underserved.

The danger in such is the precedent this system sets for the rest of the country, where the voices of communities are increasingly silenced. It is a threat to our democracy, and more, it is experimenting with something of vast importance, which will have lasting consequences, that will be near impossible to undo. To me and the people who are rightfully rallying against these proposals, this is about power and control than about truly seeking to help or better the community. And that is simply unacceptable.

The Case for Unionization in Charter Schools

Teachers_meeting_2048x1536Teaching is, perhaps, the most integral role and existing profession in a functioning society. Without education and the efforts of educators who work tirelessly to lay foundations in math and science for our doctors, challenge our lawyers with critical thought, language and social studies, as well as inspire and groom our artists, there is no hope; we do not become greater, stronger, and more powerful as a whole. That is why teachers are highly regarded in local communities around the world, and why, even today, there are a number of campaigns within and programs within the United States, dedicated to attracting individuals which will lead the way for the future.

However, despite acknowledgement of their vast importance, educators around the country face challenges which threaten to further weaken the fabric of our education system. I’ve spoken previously about the effects of charter schools on students in the most vulnerable parts of our society. How, due to strict no tolerance policies and bias, children of color are treated more harshly and those with disabilities are altogether excluded from schools which promise to be the answer for an academic infrastructure in decline. However, the problems don’t begin with the treatment of students; the problem is a result of the idea that school is a business rather than an institution created to develop and educate children.

Charter schools around the country are run by for-profit management companies. Often times, their approach to public education is rooted in a office-594132_960_720desire to attract investments rather than investing in children. As a result, these organizations compete for educators and students to create storybook schools which focus on standardized testing as a measure of success. Subsequently, it is not uncommon for teachers to be expected to work demanding hours for the sake of meeting these requirements. Moreover, many do so without comparable pay, receiving considerably smaller salaries than teachers in traditional public schools. This environment has been created by the anti-collective bargaining stance perpetuated by most charters, which are also subject fewer government rules and regulations.

startup-photos-largeThis lack of and overall fight against unionization undermines the value of educators. Furthermore, it is creates a system of absolute power without adequate legal representation for teachers treated unfairly. Some have argued that unions, in fact, give teachers too much power and are a threat to carrying out education reform in failing schools. However, I would argue, that is not the fault of nor the impetus behind unions. Failing schools exist for a number of reasons, namely: lack of adequate leadership, disproportionate resources, lackluster curriculums, and failure by greater powers to address systemic problems of the communities in which the school exists. Teachers, with proper skills and passion for teaching, remain on the frontlines of those fighting to not only fix these issues, but to ensure that students receive the education they deserve. In doing so, they have the right to be heard, appreciated, and compensated for the invaluable work they carry out daily, yearly and, often, for a lifetime.

Charting The Wrong Path

orphan-1139042_960_720School should be a place of promise and hope, where children come to learn, imagine, and be endowed with skills which will enable them to not only exist but excel in their desired career paths and future livelihood. For many black students across the country, that idea of school is wholly unfamiliar and seemingly nonexistent. Black children are more likely to be expelled from schools and disciplined more harshly for behaviors exhibited by other students, even as early as preschool. Multiple studies have revealed this bias, which correlates with a lack of educators and administrators of color, and since, some efforts have been made to correct these disparities, including programs from the federal government, like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.

Likewise, charter schools are a development that has grown in popularity in recent years, and touted as a true alternative to the spate of problems faced by public schools. Charters maintain freedom from many laws governing traditional public schools and are run independently, though public charters are, by law, open to all children and don’t enforce special requirements for entrance.

black woman teaching

Photo Credit: cybrarian77 on Flickr

Within the last 20 or so years, charters have rapidly expanded throughout the United States and generated support from public and private parties alike, which espouse its high test scores and noticeably different organizational culture. In comparison to traditional public schools, charters have been deemed as more valuable and better suited to address the needs of America’s declining education system.

children's swingsThis has resulted in the shuttering of public schools across the country, most remarkably in areas that are also marred by socioeconomic inequality like, Philadelphia, Detroit, and my city, New Orleans, where nearly all schools in the city are charter schools, as a result of reform following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The problems resulting from this shift become more acute when the philosophies of charters are studied with a more critical eye. Recent research from UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies revealed that the argument of the exceptional charter school is built on harsh disciplinary practices which target black children, and discrimination against children with disabilities. A quarter of all students at more than 300 charter schools were suspended during the academic year, a large number of them black. And for students with disabilities, the rate of suspension is an incredible 10 times higher than those without.

a pile of pencilsPerhaps this issue could be overlooked if it was isolated, but with over 1,000 schools in the study carrying out these same practices, it appears to be intrinsic to the operations and philosophy of this alleged alternative. What we have is hundreds of kids being excluded from the opportunities promised to them as not just students, but the future of our country and increasingly global society. Instead of preparing children in the most vulnerable parts of our communities with tools for success, we’re removing them entirely and exacerbating the issues of our lopsided system. It is not only unfair, it is dangerous, and we all must work to find real solutions to rectify this growing epidemic of an ill-prepared and unnurtured populace.