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Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Chairman Mao, the Lunchroom, and Teacher Talk?

Originally published at

A fellow teacher called me Mao Zedong at lunch the other day, and rather harshly too. This comment, though harsh was, from her point of view, warranted.

We were in the lunchroom at the “teacher table” having our general
lunchroom conversation. Teachers were discussing how the day was
going, blowing off a bit of necessary steam, and eating delicious and nutritious institutional food. A few of us get up periodically to monitor the cafeteria. I returned from my quick stroll around the room to a conversation that seemed to be taking a turn for the political. My ears piqued as I heard: “Police should just crackdown harder on these criminals. Then, maybe these kids wouldn’t be so bad. They see their parents get away with it, and they think they can too.”

“Maybe, we should crackdown on the people who make things the way they are, and make some of ‘these crimes’ necessary,” I said.

“What do you mean?” She glared at me. Our custodian looked at me and nodded his head at me.

“The ‘crimes’ you are talking about are petty in comparison to some of the more greedy offenses of…”

She cut me off, “What? Who are you saying we should blame? These people are committing crimes. Their kids are hoodlums. We have to deal with them.”

“We should blame the people who set up the system that leaves poor and middle class people to struggle while a small percent gets rich at their expense,” I said.

“You mean we should just take money and just give it to them? They don’t work. They send their kids to school and they act the way they do. They do drugs and commit crimes. They got themselves into this situation. They could get out of it if they really wanted to.”

Our custodian interrupted, “I don’t know. It’s not that easy.”

She bit back, “This is the land of opportunity. Anybody can make it
to the top if they really try. Just look at Bill Gates.”

“People don’t just choose where they end up,” I said. “It’s not
always as easy as just trying. It takes a lot of support, education, patience, the right circumstances, to escape poverty, and even more to make it to the ‘top’. And some luck too.”

“Education. If they really try to get an education, they can get out. But, they have to try, and they don’t.”

“Even then,” I said. “People don’t have equal access to education. Some people have access to different opportunities.”

“Well they should just move then, to a better district. If they wanted to they could. They could get vouchers,” she said.

“But, it’s not equal. Everyone should have a right to an equal education, healthcare, jobs, opportunity.”

“You just want to take down the corporations and the republicans. The rich are in the business of make jobs for people. You’re Mao Zedong. A socialist. You people are always trying to tear down what’s good.”

“Good?” I paused. The conversation had shifted a bit from where we started, but we were still on a similar track. It was getting heated, other teachers were focusing our way, and our custodian was ever there in support. I continued, “Good for whom? The jobs they create either don’t pay enough, or are outsourced. The corporations function to make profit. That’s it.”

The conversation went on for awhile longer to no avail. I left. She called me a “Maoist Socialist who should probably not be teaching because [I] believe that wealth is unevenly distributed”. I equally have some concerns.

First, I think we should recognize that there are class divisions in the United States that are very difficult to overcome. There are obvious inequalities that come with these class divisions. Rights and consistent access to those rights are divided, in many cases, along racial lines.

This happens in many institutional settings, including schools and prisons. Prisons are filled with non-white individuals who often commit crimes that would not be necessary if poverty was not such an issue. Many prisoners are in prisons for crimes that do not even compare to the crimes of those with great power and money (i.e., a bag of weed vs. making healthcare inaccessible to many people, and then those people die or live with terrible ailments). So much for the land of opportunity.

By recognizing inequality we have an obligation to do something about it. As teachers our power is in our ability to allow, encourage, and facilitate learning that contribute to a toolbox that will make possible any social action deemed necessary by our learners. This toolbox might include any number of critical skills such as, dialogue, social media, discussions that lead to a deeper understanding of their own situations, multi-literacy skills, anything that contributes to them being able to manipulate their environments (e.g.,videoing police brutality). This toolbox can be built from the moment students enter kindergarten simply by allowing learners to know that their world knowledge is just as important as academic knowledge and finding time for rich conversations, good books, safety, and quality play— even if
the test is on your back.

Finally, I am concerned with racism and classism among my colleagues (I’m sure they have concerns about me, expressed through the Maoist comment). I’m not sure how one could genuinely and authentically teach a student whom they believe to be a criminal who needs to be punished.
Would that belief not be carried out through teaching methods, discipline, and so forth? It certainly plays out in the number of Office Discipline Referrals.

Does the belief that everyone really gets an equal shot affect teaching? Does the refusal to see one’s students as human-beings before seeing them as criminals affect the way teacher and student interact? How do conversations such as this affect teacher relationships? Can they affect teaching practices for the better? Is it worth the risk to participate in these conversations?


20 thoughts on “Chairman Mao, the Lunchroom, and Teacher Talk?

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if we believers in equal opportunity could have some hope of eventual return on our beliefs and efforts …

    Posted by John Bennett | April 30, 2012, 8:21 pm
  2. This post put me in mind of this review that came out today – – of a book that debunks the idea of the self-made man. It’s a myth that your lunchroom interlocutor seems to have bought into. If it weren’t crumbling, she probably wouldn’t have been so bitter in her criticism.

    Posted by Edit Barry | April 30, 2012, 8:56 pm
    • The strange thing is that she (and we) isn’t much better off financially than our students. She’s defending those who in fact work against her better interest. It’s strange how well some institutions function to help people act against their own best interest, not to mention the best interest of others.

      Posted by educatedtodeath | May 2, 2012, 11:18 am
  3. It’s easy to oversimplify issues of poverty and injustice. Stories like _Les Miserables_ highlight real injustices that have been played upon the poor throughout history.

    I also understand the American ideal of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” – the idea that, when citizens work hard, become educated or educate themselves, and make sacrifices, they can work their way out of poverty or lives of crime.

    I’d encourage you to look at the issue from a non-American perspective. An online game is great start. The problems of the 3rd world are not directly relevant to the poor in American, but it would be interesting to discuss the unexpected challenges that strip the hope from many who work for The American Dream.

    Janet |

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | April 30, 2012, 9:10 pm
    • Thank you for the link. I hope to find some time to participate in that over the weekend. And, I agree, issues of poverty and injustice, especially in the US, are often oversimplified. Solutions offered are often just as simple. “Try harder” is one I hear quite a bit. This is often paired with a story about how they knew someone who worked hard and made it to the “top” (these stories and ideals aren’t limited to race or class, by the way). The thing about poverty is that it isn’t predictable, as mentioned by the game makers of the link provided. There aren’t enough jobs. Social welfare programs have varying levels of efficiency. Healthcare plays a role. Luck does too. Progress isn’t impossible, but it’s quite difficult when just maintaining a glimmer of hope becomes a great challenge. Poverty has a way of eliminating the future. It forces one to think only about today. The future, nay, the concept of a future is a luxury for those who have enough to not worry about the present.

      Posted by educatedtodeath | May 2, 2012, 11:31 am
      • One of my most disturbing memories came just as my husband and I were ready to leave India. We had a house man who was highly educated and fixed our generator on more than one occasion. We tried to get him a good-paying job with my hubby’s company – as a handyman.

        We couldn’t get him an interview. When asked for a reason, all we were told was, “He’s not the right kind of people.” While the caste system is outlawed, class systems still exist – and they exist in countries other than India.

        When living in China, some great English-speaking teachers in a village bemoaned the idea that they were not allowed (by the government) to move to cities such as Shanghai where they might earn more than just a village salary. They could expect to wait at least 20 years for a member of their family to be allowed to move from the village to a Special Economic Zone such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. Upon arrival, they would have to wait another five (minimum) years to get visas for Macau or Hong Kong.

        I’ve also met people whose parents escaped China in the cultural revolution, moved to Hong Kong, started with nothing, and the second generation is full of successful CFOs – which is a credit to hard work + opportunity.

        There is always someone or some system to blame – some more rightfully than others. I think the bigger question is, “How can I make life a little more beautiful for the people in my life?”

        Posted by Janet Abercrombie | May 3, 2012, 5:18 am
      • You inspired a blog post of my own:

        Cheers! Janet

        Posted by Janet Abercrombie | May 3, 2012, 7:46 am
  4. The argument, such as it was, was over when someone equated you, Mao, and socialists. At that point, you know you’re talking to an ignorant fool, and any further conversation is going to be utterly fruitless.

    Posted by akismet-457375c2686d2ce6aa9740f00ee2f8f4 | April 30, 2012, 9:46 pm
  5. Never been called Mao. Been more or less called a Nazi a few times, though, because my standardized test prep was me “just following orders.”

    Great post.

    Posted by Tom Panarese | April 30, 2012, 10:56 pm
  6. I can’t believe there are teachers who think like that. Boy am I naive! I thought people like us got into this profession to protect everyone’s chance at a great education. I am so glad that I don’t work with people like that!

    Posted by educatoral93 | April 30, 2012, 11:38 pm
    • I wish such naïveté could be a reality for everyone. I’m
      sad to say I would not recognize the teaching profession without such struggles. It can be quite disheartening, but the mere genius of learners I get to work with is quite enough. But, the frustrations are a constant battle with great and constant danger of descending into cynicism. Thanks for your good work as an educator.

      Posted by educatedtodeath | May 2, 2012, 11:35 am
  7. Your colleague may do well to read the work of Ruby Payne. There is a persistent myth that America is a classless society–Payne explodes the myth. Malcolm Gladwell, in _Outliers_ shows that Bill Gates had a great deal of luck and a wealthy, privileged background that enabled him to rise to where he is today. As for America’s social mobility, here is an article that shows the US ranks near the bottom in that area: Unfortunately, as I have found this evening (and as Rachel Maddow found on _Meet the Press_) it is difficult to have a rational argument when the basic facts cannot be agreed upon. Of course, your colleague’s retreat into an ad hominen attack is nothing more than typical of what passes for political dialogue today. Sad. As a bleeding heart liberal in the Deep South, I feel your pain here.

    Posted by artbresearch | May 1, 2012, 1:54 am
    • Thank you. I’m from Mississippi originally, still in the South, and quite to the Left. Southern-ness definitely adds a level of complexity to this sort of issue doesn’t it. Perhaps we could collaborate on a piece about teaching/working/existing in the South. It’s an interesting dynamic that doesn’t see much light. Shoot me an email at

      Posted by educatedtodeath | May 2, 2012, 11:41 am
  8. Good show! Have been that stand-in for Mao myself, in many a lunchroom discussion. And left (after my 28-minute lunch, eaten over a brown paper towel, while monitoring several hundred kids) wondering why teachers assume they are part of the elite (or even, these days, the middle class). Great piece, thanks. Will share widely.

    Posted by nflanagan | May 1, 2012, 8:48 am
  9. You just have to try is one of the most ambiguous and disingenuous memes of the American Dream. Does it ever occur to adults who blame kids that they are indeed trying to get what’s theirs, albeit differently than some privileged people might try? And are we just supposed to give them the money? is horrifying. Do we not just give privileged kids the money, albeit in perks and material belongings (like new “normative” clothes, unlimited communications technologies, books and their video game heirs, and the priceless commodity of blind trust)?

    We endemically sort kids at school and outside it; it’s terrible. We pretend that kids have different needs because of their test scores and radically infantilize their educations rather than looking for ways to help all kids with different abilities access the same kind of curiosity-inspiring learning that fulfills our needs for safety from want, fun in community, freedom from ignorance, power over our own lives, and belonging to a diverse humanity of incessant learners (I’m cribbing these needs from Glasser).

    We should do all we can to help people understand that we all have and seek to fulfill basic human needs. Behavior that falls outside of some privileged comfort zone doesn’t represent any kind of alien set of irrational, unknowable “hoodlum” needs; rather, all behavior seeks to fulfill the same needs we share. Arguably “better,” less “criminal” options cost money that private citizens and corporations aren’t providing; in fact, we privileged Americans seem most interested in making sure our government doesn’t provide money for needs-fulfilling resources.

    I wonder how many of us “screw-the-hoodlum” types would turn down front row tickets to Les Mis if a rich buddy offered them to us for free. Why the soft-spot in our hearts for white, European ex-con frauds who sing? #rhetorical


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 1, 2012, 8:49 am
    • Well said. And thank you.

      Isn’t it interesting how ‘we’, public education and other institutions leave certain families intact and divide others based on wealth, class, and race. The division is not the overt intention, of course; it’s just what happens. I’ll attempt an observation.

      The most privileged are able to stay together if they wish. They have full control over their interactions with institutions— schools, jobs, government, prison, cultural entities, etc. As we slide down the pole of affluence we find our levels of control lessening.

      The middle class worker is married to his job. The family succeeds or fails, thrives or struggles based on that job. The family may Move to keep their kids in the best school district they can. It’s a tough choice financially, but one that seems worthwhile. The unit goes into debt, was born in debt, and stays in debt, but steadily tries to pay it off. Always a paycheck away from relative poverty. The family is divided.

      Even further down the proverbial pole of affluence families have the least control over their location, opportunities, etc. Not to say that there aren’t elements of control, but often through non-normative means. Choices are limited. With regard to jobs, they often don’t provide a living wage. In order to sort of make ends meet there may be multiple jobs. The option of moving to a “better” area is not realistic. The focus is making it today. Maybe to the end of the month. Schools take the children. Sometimes the day is extended. Schools in these settings, often don’t provide the nurturing environment that is ideal because the schools are on their heels dealing with test scores. Some members of the family might be incarcerated. Quality healthcare is less available. And the list continues. But, choices on this rung are limited.

      It’s difficult and frightening when we encounter people with such misunderstandings about their neighbors. It’s worse when they refuse to recognize, or even allow for, their own errors in thinking. Many are caged inside their own ideals and prejudices. They do their best to cage those around them and in their care.

      The above may be quite convoluted. Forgive me. I’m struggling to jot something on a smartphone on my lunch break.


      Posted by educatedtodeath | May 2, 2012, 1:04 pm
  10. I’d echo the thoughts of most all the posts here in condemning your interlocutor and recognizing the insidious cognitive effects of poverty, and I’d add something else. Last night I heard a lecture by neuroscientist David Eagleman. Among the other amazing things he’s doing, he’s found time to open an entirely new field of study: Neuro-law. His premise is that the American legal system (and we know that this country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other) is based upon two poor assumptions. The first is that we are always practical reasoners…that we are always free to choose how to act and do so in rational ways. Any glance at the nightly news seems to bear out the truth of this observation at the prima facie level, but Eagleman’s studies in his book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, make it plainly obvious that, in his words, far more is going on in our brain far below the level of consciousness. Be it flaws in brain chemistry, to biological differences, to undiagnosed maladies (the case of Charles Whitman is seminal in the field of neuro-law), our unconscious minds are responsible for our choices in ways we, by definition, simply do not know. The second poor assumption is that “all brains have equal capacity.” Again, this is clearly not the case. Are we all capable of learning things and bettering ourselves? Sure, given no brain injuries or biological deficits. What Eagleman means is that our capacities–to learn the same things at the same rate, to cope, to resist temptation, etc–are not equal.

    And, too, the families into which these “criminals” are born can hinder their cognitive development in ways we simply cannot wish or will away with the “myth of the self-made man.”

    The upshots of the argument are changes in sentencing and customized rehabilitation, a word lost over the years as we’ve become far more retributive in our means of justice while becoming equally ignorant, as your colleague exemplifies, of the shortcomings of distributive justice in this country.

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | May 3, 2012, 7:43 pm


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