Originally published at educatedtodeath.com
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?