STEP

A few weeks ago my wife and I were able to attend an early showing of the movie Step. What made it extra exciting is our friend was one of the executive producers in the making of the film. Step highlights the senior year of a high school step team at an all-girls charter school in inner-city Baltimore. It was an extremely well done and thought-provoking film and as it had to do with a group of young women’s experiences in school and life I had a few thoughts come to the surface that I thought I would process here.

My first thought (which I’ve written about before here) was to reinforce how absolutely crucial public schools are to the development of the average American young person. The charter school in the film facilitates countless activities to get all their students graduated and into an institution of higher education by the end of their senior year. They start the year with a convocation ceremony that reminds the student body of the importance of senior year (which will be this school’s first graduating class after starting 7 years ago). They have informational meetings for parents to keep them up to date on college application details. The school has an entire day dedicated to filling out all those college applications and financial aid forms. The school guidance counselor is striking in her relentless drive to push these young women to do what they need to do to get into college.

What I saw in Step was a public school serving its community in critical ways. It goes without saying that without their school community, a large percentage of these young women would have not made it to college, at least not immediately. A school like this is why whenever I hear the phrase “government schools” I cringe. This school was not out to indoctrinate children. It was there to serve them and to assist where their families were unable or unwilling. This is to not to fault their families, many who are portrayed in the film as hardworking and supportive people but to note that where society can often ignore the needs of communities, schools often fill those gaps. I believe parents have a right to choose the type of school that’s best for their child but denigrating public schools never helps.

The second thing this film made me process was my feelings toward charter schools in general. We had a heated, publicized, and grossly over-funded ballot question debate in Massachusetts this past fall about whether to expand charter schools. As a public school teacher and union member, I voted (without much enthusiasm) against the expansion, which ended up failing. I did not think the charter school proponents were clear enough about their ultimate aims and who was actually funding them and my bias for traditional public schools ultimately won the day. But this is hardly an issue I would write a polemic about and after watching Step, I have a newfound appreciation for the good many charter schools do. In many inner cities, charter schools are the best option for students. Where that is the case they should be supported and expanded all the while continuing to find ways to make the public districts improve as well.

My final thought is that in a time of utter polarization anything that can be seen as “bipartisan” is probably worth reaching for. Incredible, supportive, and innovative public schools of any type are surely one of those things. Go see Step. I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And afterwards maybe check out what the schools in your town and city are up to.

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Where then shall they go?

This week transgender people were in the news again as the Trump Administration recscinded an Obama administration order that mandated schools allow such students to access the facilities they identify with. The complexity and controversy of this issue has me mildly terrified to write about it. However my experience as a Christian and a public school teacher makes me feel I can offer a perspective that hits at the heart of this issue.

Students enter my classroom from a myriad number of backgrounds. Some are rich, some poor. Some from the US, some are immigrants. Some love school, some hate it. Some have strong and loving families, others do not. Some are popular and athletic, others are less popular and studious. My job when they enter my classroom is to educate them and convince them it is worth it to do so. To do that I need to create a space where my students feel safe enough to trust me. If I lose that trust, I’ve lost them.

Transgender students force educators like me to look them in the eyes and answer the question “Is it safe for me to be around you?” How we answer that question can make my classroom a refuge from whatever else is going on in their lives or tragically, a place where they literally dread to return to, day after day.

I personally cannot in good conscience call a transgender student by their non preferred pronoun or first name. I cannot in good conscience force them to use a bathroom they feel unsafe or misidentified in. To do so would go against everything I am seeking to create in my classroom and build in my career. I refuse to stand aside while explicit discrimination and the accompanying trauma takes place.

I understand how complex this issue is when you consider locker rooms, field trips, and general public accommodations. But what has truly grieved me over the past few days is seeing various conservative Christian leaders completely ignore the reality I need to walk everyday as a teacher.

Many are quick to lead with all the right one-liners. All students deserve respect, support, and dignity. No one should suffer under bullies or bigots. We can find win-win accommodations for all students. All this is wonderful but try as I might I cannot find one who actually gives a tangible example of what these accommodations might look like in a real school.

I hesitate to assume what they are after but I’m left to ponder if the only accommodation they are looking for is “separate but equal” bathroom facilities that force transgender students to use restrooms apart from the rest of the student body. The outcomes of this “accomodation” are not in question. Students forced into this setup will feel disrespected, unsupported, and undignified. They will feel bullied. They will feel less than and unsafe at school. Some will attempt suicide.

I understand why conservative Christians are upset. They have a very clear theology that says transgendered people cannot possibly be ok. A healthy, happy, well adjusted transgender person confronts their religious beliefs and worldview explicitly. As schools become more accepting of transgender students their beliefs become less and less mainstream. This process is challenging. But a public school is not a church or religious establishment. It has to accept every student eligible to enroll AND provide a safe learning environment.

This very issue will be heard by the Supreme Court this spring. Regardless of how the court decides this I can only see this issue going one way long term. Transgender students will be allowed to access the bathrooms and facilities they identify with in every public school nationwide at some point in the future. This is what is best for them, the schools and society as a whole. This should ultimately be more about doing what’s right than being right.

I recognize that some (perhaps many) will not agree with me here but I remained locked in to doing what is best for all my students. To those who disagree with me on religious grounds I’ll simply asked they following question: What use is perfect theology and Biblical proof texts if the outcomes for so many students are still so tragic?

 

 

 

When Schools Do More Than Educate.

One habit I have forced myself to get into since I became a teacher is to read news articles about education. I used to glance over these headlines without much thought because education is one of those issues where everyone has an opinion and until the past few years I could not begin to offer up a coherent view of where I lay on the spectrum. However, as I completed graduate school opinions finally started to coalesce in my brain and if you ever want me to wax poetic on the state of education in America please just ask. With this entry however I want to expand my focus a bit.

Education policy, especially with public schools, invariably comes back to money. Taxes, dollars and cents, overrides, teacher salaries etc. Educating every child equitably is a profoundly expensive task. What gets lost I think in this endless conflict of how much is needed to educate our children is what schools do beyond simply reading, writing, and arithmetic (and social studies! *cough*). Schools do much more than educate.

This past holiday season my school had a food drive for about six weeks. In that time teachers and students collected over a hundred boxes of food for our town’s food bank. We had a “pajama day” where students could pay $5 and wear pajamas to school. That raised over $1700 that went to a fund to help families struggling in the community over the holidays. Our guidance counselors, who work year round serving particularly tricky student situations, sent an email to teachers asking about students we suspect might need some extra support materially over the holidays. Our school nurse provides free healthcare  daily to students. Our cafeteria staff provides meals to students everyday. Our school psychologist and other therapists provide invaluable services to students so they can succeed in the classroom. My middle school is but one school in a small town. But this support happens across the country.

In recent years I have seen the term “government schools” used to deride public schools for their failings and missteps. No public school, including my own, is perfect and I strongly support parents right to choose which school is right for their child. But opposing public schools on the basis that they are simply lackeys of government severely misses the vital work so many schools do. Public schools are not merely “government schools” but community schools. They reflect the community they are in and often the communities and state that surrounds them. The best way for a public school to get better is to have their community get involved and support it.

There are many ways to improve education in this country. Schools and teachers should never stop innovating. But to deride their existence as so inept that they are not be worthy of support risks doing a great disservice to millions of children across the country. This past holiday season I was reminded of all the ways schools do so much more than educate. I hope that as a society we can be mindful of this as we seek to iron out policy and improve our schools and communities.

My First First Day

A little over 6 years ago I returned home after spending 2 of my first 3 years after college abroad. I had a bed in my parents house, a part-time job coaching cross country and a goal to start graduate school to become a teacher.

This past Wednesday, after three years in six school districts, I started my first day of school in my own classroom.

I had not expected it to take this long but it made it no less exciting. I still remember my first semester of education classes, reading theory for the first time and realizing I had no idea (yet) of my own opinion on how best to educate young people. I remember my first attempts at interviewing for student teaching positions, failing miserably, and ultimately succeeding in a different placement. I remember not getting a job in my first summer after graduation until a week before school started… as a paraprofessianal. I remember 4 months later getting a position teaching over an hour away. I remember getting a teacher assistant job the following fall after my first school had to cut positions. I remember getting another mid-year position in one of the most prestigious schools districts in Massachusetts. And I certainly remember the day that spring when my principal said that enrollment was down, another teacher wanted my position and I would not be asked back for the following school year.

I remember improving my interview skills with practice and 10+ interviews in August 2015 alone. I remember throwing up a hail mary email with only my resume to a  school district and forgetting about it. I remember being called into an interview the day before school started and when I had left the building an hour or so later I had a long term substitute position offer. I remember doing my paper work on the first day of school. And I remember teaching my first day of classes on the second day of school a year ago.

Given my experience it might seem that this week was less then monumental. After all this is the start of my fourth year in a classroom. But it’s hard to express how my previous experiences, while full classroom roles, have really been teaching with a hand behind my back. I have been creating lessons a few days ahead of time with students who, while amazing, never really forgot I was a “substitute.”

Wednesday was different. I had my own room that I had time to set up the way I wanted. I was able to put up posters, set up stations, and envision my class structure in a way that was previously not possible. In a few short days I have created a classroom environment that (I hope) addresses almost all the classroom management issues I have had in my career.

Most importantly I am in a place where, from the start, I feel like I belong. That feeling where I have an office mailbox, my name is on the teacher voicemail list, and students do not know me as anyone other than their teacher. After six years of working toward what I experienced this week, that feeling is priceless.

My first first day was exhilarating. Here’s to many more.

 

A Disconnect

Anyone on Facebook last week surely noticed as profile pictures changed at a rapid rate to the red-tinged logo of the Human Rights Campaign. I was actually confused at first thinking that perhaps this was an anti-gay marriage move simply by virtue of the color motif. In fact it was in support of gay marriage, provoked by the Supreme Court hearing arguments on two cases related to the issue. This phenomenon got me thinking (and reading) about many of the issues surrounding this subject. I find one argument put forth by anti-gay marriage folks to be particularly striking as a teacher and a Christian and this is what I address here.

The argument relates to how the legalization of gay marriage will effect education. Conservative people (mostly Christians with a background similar to my own) are recognizing how the existence of gay people is changing and will continue to change how homosexuality is addressed and considered in the classroom. The clearest word I can use to describe their worries is “indoctrination.” That is, children will suffer indoctrination at ever younger ages about sexuality and its proper role in society. Homosexuality will be (and now is in many places) normalized and along with it, gay marriage.

This concern highlights a massive disconnect that many conservative people and Christians are facing with the rest of society. What they see as indoctrination is seen as fairness and justice to an ever growing majority of society. If Conservatives and Christians do not figure out how to properly process this disconnect quickly I see very little good coming from it.

Homosexuality needs to be taught and accepted in schools not to indoctrinate children but because it exists at the very core of many of the children that in only a few short months I will be professionally responsible to teach. Some students are gay. Some students have same-sex parents. Am I supposed to ignore, separate or disparage their existence in the classroom because other students (or their parents) find them to be morally offensive? It would be unethical, unjust and (for me personally) unconscionable to do so. For good measure it would be unconstitutional and illegal as well.

This ultimately is not a question about the Bible, or sex, or even morality. It is about what is right and just. It pains me to say it but the conservative Christian who cries “indoctrination!” is on the wrong side of this argument. Christian leaders and pastors need to take a step back and seriously consider these issues again before spouting off ever more violently incorrect and hurtful rhetoric.

Some might read this and ask loudly, “But what about OUR children?” All I can say to that is, “Indeed, what about them?”