I’ve been failed by my education system. It took an episode of HBO’s “The Watchmen” to show me the Tulsa Oklahoma massacre and later had to Google Juneteenth. I see it as a failure in education because by profession I’m a teacher certified in the area of social studies. These events among others have been ignored and not written about in our history books. Maybe a smattering of information throughout the month of February came my way as a kid learning who MLK was or that the inventor of Peanut Butter was black but that was but that’s about it.
That is an embarrassment but it is fixable. More schools are opening up their social studies curriculum to be less Eurocentric. Schools are realizing that romanticizing imperialists and colonialists has its drawbacks. That got me thinking about the education system itself and as an educator, what I’ve noticed about the classroom, schools and policy that needs to be reexamined. Teachers are tasked with teaching a roomful of diverse students from different backgrounds to help them become the great adults they will one day be. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Do well in class to get good grades so that you can go to a good college and have a good career right? It’s not as simple as that but lawmakers and politicians water it down to that simple formula.
Education is nuanced, political and can ignore the unique needs of the individual in favor of group cohesion as well as the tradition of education as an institution. When policy in education happens, the pendulum swings from one system to another. If you are old enough to remember, vocation at the high school level was part of the curriculum. Auto shop, Home Economics, Wood shop and Drafting classes to name a few. In the 1980’s they started disappearing drastically from schools to only be replaced by computer labs and fine art classes. Nothing against those courses but one of the motivating factors behind the decision was race. There was a division in schools between white students and students of color taking either the college track or vocation track. The idea was to eliminate the vocation track and just say college is supposed to be for everyone. Fast forward to today and your plumber fixing your sink can make six figures while you are in your thirties and still paying off your student loans.
I’ve noticed a stark contrast in how students see themselves in the classroom. The future “Karen’s” of the world treat grown adults as their personal customer service rep if their grade falls below the 95% they told themselves they’ve deserved since Kindergarten. On the other end I see students too timid to ask for help on a concept for fear of being seen as less than. I’ve seen students show up to class at 7:30 in the morning tired because they work an after school job, take care of siblings or some other home life situation. The biggest difference is I see students who are empowered and know how to advocate for themselves and I see students just trying to survive. I’ve had students who speak another language at home and are the first in their family to graduate from high school. These student’s might not know how to make an appointment with their counselors or how to even ask the right questions about post grad coursework, SAT and ACT prep or even how to fill out a Student Loan FAFSA application.
Schools reward the students’ who are vocal, speak up, look you in the eye and teachers say “that’s a go getter”. The quiet student who sits in the back can go unnoticed but that doesn’t mean their needs are less than their classmates. This in turn leaves, students feeling helpless and not knowing where to to turn. If you have a parent that just went to college, the pathway to navigate the process for college for their children are much more doable compared to a child that didn’t have a parent that went to college. Everything that students does will be a “first” which can also be a little scary.
I’ve seen too many students of color fit this narrative. Nice, well meaning and polite students who simply don’t know how to navigate the business of school. Student’s get discouraged or don’t see other people like them in positions of leadership or education actually model how it can be done. The trope of the “White” savior from some badly scripted movie about an inner city school sends the message that student’s of color need saving and only Michelle Pfiefer or Hillary Duff can come into those schools and do it. Representation matters because students need to see potential realized in every adult they learn from.
All schools are not created equal. School’s are funded by mainly property taxes along with Prop money during election years, a bit from the state and a smaller bit from the federal government. Why do you think home prices are tied to school success? Why do you think in every MLS listing it talks about the schools with links to their API information? When you have a home that is averaging $860K (average home price in Carlsbad) compared to a home worth $250K (national average) a percentage of those property taxes goes to schools. Those schools will look and feel vastly different. Most homeowners are ok with that tax because they have children who may attend those schools or to be less self serving don’t want to live in a society full of uneducated people.
Schools and educators have become experts at working with little resources and are also realizing education can and should do more. Unfortunately students of color have become suspended, disciplined and have higher rates of dropout than white students especially in areas with lower socioeconomic status. Many of these issues are based on everything from home life to motivation to a system that has had to socially promote the child to the next grade level essentially becoming another teacher’s problem rather than helping them. When was the last time you heard of a student having to repeat another year?
It seems now student’s have become emboldened to share their opinions with just about anyone. The MAGA hat wearing crew of young boys at my school has no problem shouting things to other student’s like “get out” and “build that wall” when a student of color may cross their path. Student’s need to be and feel welcomed to the environments where they spend the majority of their day. The division among the student population is not dissimilar to the division we face as a society. For a student, in their teens, growing up, trying to navigate some tough years in high school not feeling welcome, included or represented is a lot to ask anyone. Hence the introduction of the “Safe Space” which has become a rallying point on the right saying that we are babying our youth. The term has been misinterpreted and manipulated by people who don’t understand it. As educators classes are all designated as safe spaces. What it actually means is that teachers and students are made aware that we consciously try to incorporate more inclusive language in what we bring to the classroom, where teacher’s do not pass judgement and students are free to share their viewpoints in a respectful way. The term has now become politicized to deviate far from the original intent.
You are likely out of high school and what you think high school is is going to be different from your experience. The fact is, public education and socioeconomic segregation is more capitalist and free market than you might think. While that may seem great for people who pride themselves with ultra competitive mindsets, the playing field is not even close to being equal. Perhaps it never can be but there are some things we can do as adults with school in the rear view mirror to be a positive voice for kids. I remember in the third grade my class went on a field trip to McDonalds. I was so excited to go because of the free food but whoever wrote that curriculum that elementary school kids need to spend the day where they already go needs to get their head examined.
We need to teach kids possibilities and show them what is out there. If you are in a profession that is cutting edge, ask if you have an internship program and if not make one. Volunteer your time to extracurricular clubs. Many of them such as Black Student Union or LBGTQ Clubs at school are student run and need adults outside of the education sphere to speak to how careers and jobs are becoming more inclusive, and taking a stand against racism or discrimination in the workplace. Offer your time to mentor a student, help them with their homework, be an adult to guide them. Not every student can afford top tier and high end tutors for college entrance prep. Some students need to just be heard and advised. Counselors these days in school actually do very little counseling. Their day is filled with schedule changes, 504 meetings, parent requests, post secondary emails and so on. At my school we have three counselors to serve a population over 1300. The best thing is to let student’s know that there are some people out there in the world ready and willing to help them navigate life. I’ve seen the beauty and ugliness of what comes with education and unfortunately some students have fallen through the cracks. We can and should do more for them.
Three Things You Can Do To Help
1. The first thing you can do is vote. Vote for either legislation that supports public education and funding. Vote for lawmakers who value and understand the importance of public education. While you’re at it vote out those people who want to continue to defund education, cut programs such as free and reduced meals for lower income students and get people who want to drive funds from public to private education.
2. Next you can see in your community if your local schools have programs or clubs that serve underrepresented youth. Volunteer your time, energy and yes even dollars to support or sponsor these organizations that provide community to students who are underrepresented. Most schools have a club link on their website and you can get in touch with the club advisor on how you can help, contribute, listen and even learn.
3. Lastly, if you are a parent with kids in school, ask the teachers, administrators about the curriculum. Ask if units that cover black and latino history, Native American Genocide and imperialism will have more than a paragraph. There are a ton of resources that teachers can use within curriculums but with the support of people in the community, personal experiences, story telling where people and students seek to understand rather than judge makes for a better learning environment for everyone.
Teacher, Carlsbad (Ca.) Unified School District