On Teaching “Other People’s Children”


A post from Jose Luis Vilson recently popped up on my Facebook feed, featuring this quote from  First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, in a commencement address at Dillard University:

So my mother volunteered at my school — helping out every day in the front office, making sure our teachers were doing their jobs, holding their feet to the fire if she thought they were falling short. I’d walk by the office and there she’d be. (Laughter.) I’d leave class to go to the bathroom, there she’d be again, roaming the halls, looking in the classrooms. And of course, as a kid, I have to say, that was a bit mortifying, having your mother at school all the time.

But looking back, I have no doubt that my classmates and I got a better education because she was looking over those teachers’ shoulders. (Applause.) You see, my mom was not a teacher or a principal or a school board member. But when it came to education, she had that hunger. So she believed that our education was very much her business.

…which Jose prefaces with the following, “Every time someone says something, anything, about teachers, without fail, a naysayer always nags how it’s a conspiracy against teachers as a whole.”

Context is everything, and I must say I do take issue with both the messenger, and the message being made. Let’s look at the context. We have the first lady of an administration that has been hostile to teachers and teacher professionalism both in macro-policy and in statements about individual schools, and made some pretty racists and ridiculous statements about public education. She is the wrong messenger, and the context of someone from the Obama administration (and in this case I would say she is representing them, officially or not) making this paticular statement is, disturbing.  The part where she describes how her mother’s efforts helped not only her, but her classmates is what stood out to me, because it seems to suggest that individual action is what will help fix the problem of unequal education. Just put one mom in the office, and she’ll make sure that  her child gets a “better education” which will natuarlly improve the education of all students. It fits in the the philosophy of individual “choice” and market-based reforms supported by the administration (either explicitly or tacitly). It doesn’t fit in with organizing communities, schools, and educators to improve the conditions for our students. It’s  a lousy solution, and I know this because I’ve seen it in practice

Can a mom helping her child get the best education  help others? The result often is that their child gets treated differently, sometimes at the expense of other students. Let’s look at a theoretical situation. A school is experiencing uneven sizes between grade-levels, which has led to a number of “split” grade classrooms. Many parents will advocate for their child to not be in the split class. Very few will insist that the school or district pony up the cash and eliminate the split-grade classes. This benefits their child, but not the class, or the school as a whole.

On issues of racial disparity I see a lot more effective policy coming when parents and communities get together to address those issues, than having “one mom” sitting in a school office (although those groups are usually made up of a bunch of those moms). The lack of collective action is not surprising given the context of Chicago, it’s school district, and the crappy relationship they now have with their community. That crappy relationship is not with the teachers or individual schools, but with the larger instiutions.

The next piece he had, written by Mia MacKenzie was better in that the critic was credible, but the solution, not so great. It reminded me of something from David Simon’s piece about how Marxist’s analysis of capitalism is useful, even if its solutions aren’t. I think the author’s story highlighted some real problems that the education system still deals with, and are likely to get worse with the policies from the Obama administration. Suggesting collective home-schooling is a solution that goes back to the Black Panthers. I’m going to suggest something else. First, teachers and teacher unions, need to reach out to communities where they work since they work better together than seperately.

Let’s look at a quote from Ms. MacKenzie’s piece next:

The thing is, Ms. McMahon should have known better. She didn’t because white teachers then, and most now, aren’t required to have any analysis of systems of white supremacy or anti-Blackness, and their own complicity in both, before they enter classrooms to teach Black children, some of whom will be introduced to those realities by the behavior of these white teachers.

This seems a much better avenue for change, and it’s not uncommon for white teachers in black communities (like myself) to be exposed to this either because of their program (San Francisco State University), or due to their own personal inclination (there are a large number among more recent crops of new teachers). This is necessary because there aren’t enough black teachers, so we need to make the white teachers in these communities so you have to make the white teachers in those communities more congruant with the culture there.

Last, the low number of black educators needs to be addressed. Let’s start with making it a good paying profession (a reason many don’t take it seriously as a career choice), and respected (something that has been seriously undermined over the last decade or so). Let’s get programs to encourage folks to enter the profession. Finally, when folks like Ms. MacKenzie and Jose bring up criticism, we need to take it seriously, and even though I’ve criticized these posts, I do.

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