Know Your Place

As a first-year teacher, I’d say one of the worst role models you could have is Miss Caroline from To Kill a Mockingbird. You don’t want to be Miss Caroline.

(But chances are, during your first year, at least for a while, you probably will.)

Remember her?  Miss Caroline is Scout’s teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Harper Lee’s characterization of this type is timeless:  fresh out of college, brand-new to teaching and to the town she’s teaching in, hailing, of course, from a more sophisticated part of the state, she is both incredibly confident in her fancy new ed techniques . . . and woefully unprepared for the reality of the job. She cries on the first day — in front of her students. Doesn’t get much worse than that.

But what’s most memorable is how ignorant she is of the community where she has been assigned to teach. Her cultural missteps come one after another. First she insists Walter Cunningham, a boy from a poor but proud family, to accept a loan for lunch money. Then she tries to force Burris Ewell, from a family that does not or cannot bathe, to go home and clean himself. Both times, it is Scout, on her first day of school, who has to gently correct her. It’s a nice little exposition device to introduce the town’s families, but more than that, it hits on a truth.

More often than not, new teachers are just this ignorant.  Placed in districts far from home, often in very different types of communities than they grew up in, thrown into classrooms on the first day with hardly a drive through the local neighborhoods, they’re liable to begin their jobs without knowledge of the local town, its people, or its customs.  You don’t want to be Miss Caroline when you start out, but chances are you probably will be.

And yet even as we become more experienced teachers — and the Burris Ewells of the world no longer unnerve us with their lice and with their profanity — still the culture and the customs of the communities we teach in sometimes continue to elude us.  This is a problem because a thorough understanding of your students’ cultural and social context is, in its own way, every bit as helpful to a teacher as knowledge of their reading and writing abilities.

I have been thinking a lot about this because I have been reading Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (and the Rest of Y’all Too): Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.  Emdin’s thesis — quite a provocative one — is that modern urban students are akin to “neoindigenous” peoples — “colonized” by (primarily white) educators who see the culture and values of inner city children as inferior and in need of shedding at the schoolhouse gate.  It sounds extreme, but the way Emdin explains it makes a lot of sense. It instantly had me thinking about:

1) “No excuses” militaristic urban charter schools such as KIPP.  These schools are basically the army. Kids learn to do everything as their told — even to track teachers with their eyes.  It always struck me that no white, middle class parent where I live would EVER allow their children to be educated this way — to be forced to drop their cultural values at the door, to adopt an entirely different mode and manner of speaking, forced to spend huge amounts of time at school and on homework, all with the overt goal of removing them from their neighborhoods and families.  (Now that I think about it, “colonization” might be too light a term.)

2)  Test prep-heavy urban public schools that pump kids full of rote memorization in order to inch past the cut-off scores on the all-important standardized tests.  These approaches proliferated under NCLB, throwing music, arts, and everything else not nailed straight out the window in favor of endless hours of prep in math and reading.  Once again, it always struck me that no middle class white parents would ever allow this to happen.

Both of these kinds of places are classic examples of schools believing that it is their mission to teach students whose cultural values are so different, or whose skills are so deficient, that a plowing-over of who they are and where they come from is essential to educating them.  It’s educational boot-camp, educational occupation. It’s amazingly common.

But Emdin’s problem isn’t just with the brute heart of the system itself.  It’s with the system’s emissaries — the teachers — who don’t bother to become interested in the communities they work in.

Most of us are like this at the beginning.  I remember the first public school I taught in.  It was a small, rural public school in Vermont — and I completely misunderstood the culture.  It was the sort of school that devotes a day during spirit week to a “camo day” — and everyone in the school wears camouflage everything (boots, hats — even, later in the year, a camo prom dress).  The students love country music and working on engines. In the fall the student parking lot was filled with rows of souped-up pick-up trucks. In the winter these same spaces were taken up with snowmobiles which the junior and senior boys rode to school.  In the mornings, boys tracked mud into school from their barn chores.

It was also a community rife with the sort of poverty I’d never studied in grad school — rural poverty.  In the wake of the Great Recession, jobs were scarce. Already the first signs of opioid addiction were appearing, though we didn’t realize it at the time.  Alcoholism and unemployment were easier to identify. So were neglect and abuse of all types. Just a year before, a girl had been kidnapped and murdered in the next town.  It was, again, the sort of town I’d not read about or studied, and it caught me off guard. It was as though this kind of rural poverty was almost unnoticed beside the much greater problems of urban schools and communities.  Years later, I thought about towns like this, so overlooked, when voters in these kinds of towns sent Donald Trump to the White House because he seemed to remember them.

It was hard sometimes not to read this community, with so many poor, needy students and with such obvious blue-collar rural values, as places that did not value academic learning.  It became easy as a teacher to believe that our job was to inure them against their own impulses, to inculcate in them the same values and ideals with which we ourselves had been raised.  It was a game of “us versus them.”

But education at its best should never be that way.  How ineffective this is for a teacher! I remember the amount of time I spent fighting with my students over trivial matters.  That year, I disallowed them to say the word “crap” in my classroom. I considered it vulgar. Now I realize that enforcing such a petty rule asked my students, in some small but important way, to reject who they were.  You can’t very well tell a young man that his father is course and mean and expect him to wish to learn from you.

This is not the way to educate kids.  Instead, teachers must tap into precisely who students are at their deepest levels.  They must feel as though they matter to their teachers if there is to be any hope of learning from their teachers.  Good teachers have a way of being able to take a student from where he is to where he is capable of going with some help.  But we can only do this if we understand students — both the origins of their misconceptions, but also their preoccupations and cultural values.  In this sense, education is always “local”; you simply cannot teach two groups of students from vastly different communities the same way. You will not reach them.

But it is not easy to understand fully the context of the community you teach in.  That school in rural Vermont is a case in point. Outwardly, it should have been an easy context for me to understand.  My students and I were of the same race, and grew up in similar rural communities. Not only that, I was born in Vermont and lived there for years.  And yet even I missed badly just what these students loved and valued. The United States is, it seems to me, a much harder place to be a teacher than other countries precisely because of its vastness and diversity. If I had this much trouble misreading my students in a place so close to home, how would I have done in another region entirely?

Now I am not saying that all students arrive at school with attitudes and values that we teachers are obligated to respect.  In every community in the United States are students who arrive at the school door having learned how to bully, how to hate, how to curse and scream until they worm their way out of work.  

What I am saying is that you get nowhere as a teacher dismissing your students because of their perceived backgrounds or cultural values.  What I am saying is that if we wish to bring students from where they now to where they can be at their best, we must understand where they’re truly starting from.

It’s hard, it takes time, and it takes a kind of humility.  We must listen, and we must open our eyes, and we must not be too quick to judge.  We must have careful conversations with our communities about values, about what an ideal education looks like for graduates — and real conversations about what we need to attain that vision.  But we must start by understanding the place we’re teaching in.

Because you don’t want to be Miss Caroline — not for too long, anyway.