Where are the White Men?

How often do you see the question posed in the title? Ever? It seems that most everywhere I go, there’s no shortage of white men; it’s true in nearly every sphere of American life. White men are never invisible–it is the most privileged identity on the planet. Not coincidentally, I find that causes and perspectives represented publicly by women and people of color tend to be marginalized. I have no right or need to speak on issues of race and gender, though I feel compelled to do so on a near daily basis.

I’m often reminded by wise friends who are women and/or people of color that the role of an ally is to listen. I wholeheartedly accept this advice. I’m proudly striving to become a better ally to all who seek relief from oppression–whether on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, political or religious identity, poverty or disability. I’m reminded of a post from someone who shares much of my identity privilege; he recounts being asked by young people with privilege how they can become better allies, and his response is simple: listen.

Normally, I find this suggestion compelling. I used to find it excruciating to listen to stories from friends and acquaintances about oppression, because more often than not, the oppressor looked like me. One of my students recently apologized to me for telling a story like this, where the villain was a “crazy white dude.” I told her to take it back, because I’ve arrived at the point where I no longer feel guilty for the sins of other Caucasians. Yet, I’m the only white man in the lives of many of my students. For this reason, while I still remind myself to listen better daily, I’ve decided that passive listening is insufficient.

The more precise question that could form the title of this piece is, “where are the white men speaking out on educational justice and equity?” In my head, this sounded like a reasonable question, but looking at it on paper, I have to wonder whether it is somehow insensitive. I often follow the #edujustice chat on Twitter, and the movement is driven by passionate, energetic people from all walks of life.  It isn’t that the cause needs more whiteness or maleness…quite the opposite, in fact.

Yet, unlike other issues where I worry about being a good ally to the extent that I remain silent, I am a participant in a system/society that oppresses and marginalizes poor and minority youth. So while I might follow the lead of Black friends and colleagues when it comes to the use of the n-word, educational justice is deeply personal. As a public school teacher and a citizen–not to mention a student at a public university–educational justice matters to me. But my identity can serve as a hindrance, because I want to hear others’ voices, I want teachers of color and women to have the stage more than they currently do, but I also want progress on the issues that I care about–desegregation, equal opportunity, the list goes on and on.

Jose Vilson has been an inspiration on these questions. He has written at some length about how teacher’s rights and are inextricably linked with women’s rights. To wit:

Most teachers are women, and most higher-level administrators are men. Thus, we can attribute the disconnect, at least partially, to the fact that, when men make laws, they do so often to exclude. Anytime we don’t make language easy to access for everyone, we can very deliberately find ways to exclude people who don’t have access to said language.

As such, even male teachers who want to speak up are often disregarded because teaching is seen as women’s work, a multilayered, intersectional understanding of the way power works in education.

P.L. Thomas also provides insight into the question, where are teachers in our debate on education reform? He draws a compelling parallel to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, with a narrator who is “invisible…simple because people refuse to see me…they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me.” It is a harsh but accurate description of the treatment of all teachers in the public debates around education policy. Thomas offers a lengthy diatribe against the status quo, but his central point is that teachers have to be part of the conversation.

The current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles. As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

The factors contributing to the invisibility of teachers in the public debates about education are manifold, but race and gender absolutely play major roles. Teaching as a profession is viewed by many as less-than; women’s work. Vilson makes the argument that male teachers have a responsibility to talk about gender, and he does so effectively; I would argue that in a similar way, white teachers have a duty to talk about race. I’m proud to work at a school with a diverse teaching force, and frankly, I wish my colleagues would speak out more often and with more urgency about the problems in our profession. But it cant be the sole responsibility of women or POC to rectify injustice. The opposite is true, in fact. White men like me have an even greater duty to call out oppression and speak truth to power, because inevitably, that oppression comes from a power structure that is mostly white and male.

So here’s my New Year’s Resolution, even though I long ago resolved not to make commitments I’m bound to break…

In 2014, I will strive to follow Edwidge Danticat’s advice for aspiring writers: “Seek your truth, and tell it…It is a harder thing to sit in silence.” Here’s to more frequent writing and truth-telling from this teacher in the new year.


Obama Leaning to the Left?

After avoiding blame for the government shutdown and focusing the country on bumbling Republicans and their failure to offer any substantive policy proposals that would address the lagging economy, President Obama has begun to outline his domestic policy agenda in recent days.

In a speech at Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) on Friday, the President highlighted the need to invest in domestic priorities like public education and workforce development, two cornerstones of the school. This was Obama’s first official visit to Brooklyn, and he struck a surprisingly partisan tone in speaking to an audience fairly split between public school students and teachers on one side, and bigwig politicians, bureaucrats and aides, crowding the tiny gym at Paul Robeson High School, where P-TECH is co-located.

The emphasis was on laying out a budget, getting back to work and doing right by the people, points made in the roughly 30-minute speech. The audience of high school students gave the President a chance to simplify complex topics, like budgeting, for example. He introduced students to the idea of budgeting and made a strong case for investing greater resources in public education and other domestic policies that have been threatened with or suffered from budget cuts in recent years. These cuts, he said “have not helped our economy grow. They have held us back.”

Could this rhetoric and the visit itself suggest a shift towards a more progressive domestic agenda? I was in the audience for the speech, and it felt more like a campaign than a presidential address…here’s hoping that the Democrats push aggressively for promoting education, poverty reduction and greater investment in the American people in general.

The speech will be remembered for a one-liner that could be the slogan for a major campaign to increase education spending:

“If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs.”


Quick Notes on Inspiration

Wrestling over what to do with my future, I thought back on some inspiring quotations. I found myself looking back at a quote I first saw many years ago. At first, I dismissed it as both unimportant and erroneous, but I’ve come to see deeper value as I’ve grown older.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

From The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupéry, one of the best-selling books ever. This is one canonical work I’ve never picked up, and I’m not sure why. For years, all I knew about the book was this quote, and like I said, I dismissed it on first read. But this past week, it’s been playing through my mind in a loop.

My disposition is to over-analyze and think my way through every problem. The result is that I know a lot of stuff and can make reasonably well-informed decisions about lots of things–what to buy, where to eat, how to get places. On the other side, my inability to think in any other way hampers my ability to reflect and make important personal decisions. It’s a flaw.

There’s simply no way to rationally analyze what’s most important to you, what your values demand and how to chart a path forward. This part of life–the central part–is as Saint-Exupery says, both essential and invisible to the eye. It took a bit of tumult and a few headaches for me to figure this out, but I got here. Some things cant be thought out. Sometimes, you just have to follow your heart.

Teaching is an effort that requires whole-soul investment and commitment, and like any single guy, I’m terrified of commitment. But it’s worth it. Teaching is also the most rewarding project I’ve ever engaged in, enriching and challenging and amazing. Some days, it’s also deadening, heartbreaking and impossible, but even on the worst days, it’s worth it.

Education is learning to value what is valuable.

Towards a Broader Conception of Violence

As a history teacher, I spend a lot of time discussing and thinking about violence—wars, conflict, and the like. Students, especially my sophomore boys, are enthralled by talk of war, artillery, bombs and destruction. Even the most disruptive kids tuned in when we covered the World Wars. Some would argue that this is a reflection of our culture’s embrace of violence, especially as its connected to masculinity, but I’m aligned with Thomas Hobbes: humans are prone to violence, and some level of bloodthirstiness is a natural, if undesirable tendency.

In my day job at an urban high school, I’m often forced out of my theoretical bubble by actual violence. Students fighting in the halls or cafeteria is relatively rare at my school (knocking on wood), because we have teachers and staff who care enough to step in if they/we see conflicts escalating. Of course, there are some conflicts we cant resolve and others we don’t recognize in time, so fights do happen. Regardless, conflicts occur frequently

My school lies in a violent neighborhood, and at times, that violence interferes with our students’ education. For some students, neighborhood violence has already scarred them, leaving many teens in the inner city traumatized. What happens to these young people, many of whom are also the victims of structural violence at the hands of a state and society that sees them as less than in so many ways? Just last week, a black fourteen year-old boy was choked, tackled and pinned to the ground for staring threateningly at Miami-Dade police, all while holding a puppy. It would be funny if it weren’t the latest example of absurd abuse of young black men at the hands of our police state. Most of my students are young men of color, and more than ever, I appreciate the violence carried out on them as a result of their identity.

Violence works in cycles, and this helps to explain why young black men tend to be . A local nonprofit that I’ve been very impressed by describes gun violence as “a disease which has infected our society and is continuing to spread.” The Centers for Disease Control has also written about the public health approach to violence. In a community ravaged by violence–Crown Heights, Brooklyn–the entire community has to wake up and pay attention. Not only that, we need to be actively searching for any action that might reduce the scourge of violence that seems to have infected this neighborhood.

Just this weekend, another young black man was shot and killed, this time on the block between my school and my team’s practice field. My honest belief is that the violence we see is almost always traceable to an earlier violent incident. Sometimes the cause is immediate–retaliation, revenge, etc–but other times, we have to search for a cause. Violence can seem inexplicable, but not with the broader understanding advocated by the World Health Organization, among others. The scars of violence are long-lasting, and they persist. As Dr. King told us, violence begets violence and hate begets hate.

The original violence, at least for many of my students, was abandonment or abuse by one or both parents. A lot has been written about the “breakdown of the American family,” some more histrionic than is warranted, but there is truth to the idea that growing up without a father is traumatic. It’s an absence that cant really be solved for, and it absolutely has a ripple effect. Young people who grow up with a single mother are more likely to commit crimes, drop out of school, and suffer from poverty (The Consequences of Fatherlessness)

I feel called to work with my students because I know what this feels like–fatherlessness, if not criminality and dropping out. I remember how important it was (and still is) for me to have responsible, caring male figures in my life, especially teachers and coaches. Violence comes from the absence of compassionate role models and mentors. Education is…finding and filling these gaps.

Understanding where violence comes from and addressing it there

Teaching and Parenting

This has been a long week at school, our first full week back after the false start February break (NYC schools were open Wed-Fri, to make up for time lost due to Sandy). Even though it’s only Thursday, the past few days really dragged, so by the time we dismissed today, everybody was ready for some rest.

But, since February will have ended by the time most people read this, we had to fit in our monthly PTA meeting. I was dreading it, but I made the decision that it was too important to miss. This was our first meeting since President Obama mentioned us by name, saying “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” While we had a slightly higher turnout, by the time I walked out of school, I wasn’t thinking about anything but the relationships inside the school.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the mother of one of my students–alternately my favorite and most frustrating. He’s a sophomore, on the slow and steady improvement track after an absolutely disastrous 9th grade year–discipline problems, poor work habits, generally very immature. As a result, I’ve spoken to both of his parents on multiple occasions.

At the end of the meeting, she comes over to check in with me, and we chat about her son. He’s been doing fine in my class, and I mentioned some work he was missing. Then we moved to behavior, and we went back and forth on a few topics. I explained one incident, pulling out the common theme of a few times recently when he had lost his temper a bit. 

Here’s what she said, and it made my whole week: 

“Well Mr. E, you certainly know my son! I hope you have a blessed evening.”

If I’m ever asked for a secret to good teaching, good schools, anything to do with youth development, here it comes. The first several times this kid spoke to me, he had been kicked out of class for some kind of misbehavior. I’ll be honest, I had no idea how to deal with any of these situations, having received almost no training. So while I’d like to take credit for being persuaded of this approach’s power before trying it, half of any success I take credit for is luck. In any case, here’s what I did…here’s the secret:

I listened. I asked him to talk, and I listened carefully to each word he said. Now, this young man hangs on my every word, and he’s getting better, slowly but surely. He’s connected to school in a way that makes me confident that he’ll continue to mature and eventually graduate. Ultimately, education is about relationships. Students learn when they know their teacher cares about them, and as a teacher, my job is easiest with students I know on a personal level. 

The best way to wrap up a grueling day is to be reminded that your efforts are worthwhile. Hearing a mother’s joy that, yes, her son is known at school…that’s why I go in early, stay late, put in extra time. Because it matters. This kid, from a tough neighborhood, deserves a chance as much as or more than most anybody I know. He deserves to be known at school, and we’re successful to the extent that students like him put their trust into an institution that has screwed them over time and again. One by one, this is what teaching is about…slowly but surely.