Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ballad of the Nice Yellow Lady

There once was a nice yellow lady
Who thought she'd be able to change things...

I've written before about the ideology of the "nice white lady." It's a long tradition, perpetuated by movies since Stand and Deliver. Good teachers can change things even when most teachers don't care, this myth says. The difference between Jaime Escalante and the first incarnation of the nice white lady, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, is that the nice white lady doesn't come from the community that she's trying to change. She just knows that, with the right amount of superiority and stick-to-itiveness, she can change everything.

I'm half Asian, so I'm not exactly white--my students tell me that I can't say I'm brown, but some of them (more than one, less than a dozen) also make racist jokes about Asians, so I feel pretty Asian at my job. There are no Asian students in the school and only four Asian teachers. There's a history of animosity on the southwest side between Mexican and Chinese immigrants. It's been really interesting, from an intellectual standpoint, being a member of a disliked minority. From a personal standpoint, not so much.

But back to the myth. The nice white lady comes into a school, rolls up her sleeves, and starts changing lives. She thinks everyone else is apathetic and she's the first person ever to care about these children, including their parents. In the awesome Mad TV sketch, she starts with a classroom where the students--black, Latino, and Asian--are sharpening their knives with the barrels of guns, kicks some ass and takes some names, and ultimately stands over one of her students, aggressively chomping down an apple, while the student writes an essay and weeps.

OK, I never bought into all of that Dangerous Minds stuff. As a kid, I watched Saved by the Bell, Head of the Class, and 21 Jump Street (when it was a TV show). I knew that TV used to be a lot smarter about what school is really like. But part of the power of that myth got my attention. My senior year in college, I applied to TFA. I wanted to work in the Delta (I was a fool who didn't know what kind of life she wanted). They rejected me, thank god. I wound up at a Quaker boarding school where I learned that I really do love kids, but that they are complicated, and their families are complicated, and it's not easy to change their lives, and it's not my job to do it alone.

And I learned that the myth of the cynical teacher is a powerful and false stereotype. Most teachers are doing everything they can. Most teachers are making a lot of sacrifices for their students--not just leisure but family, sleep, and health. No teacher should be expected to be a martyr. But that's where the "students first" ideology gets us.

And yet. When I moved to Chicago and started grad school, I missed kids. I started eavesdropping on their conversations on the bus. I started reading about ed reform. I thought No Child Left Behind was an abomination. And I decided to go back into the classroom so that I could fix everything.

My friend and mentor Lauren Berlant taught me, when we read Uncle Tom's Cabin in her seminar, about paternalism, which she also called "soft supremacy." Too bad Michael Gerson took that phrase and made a travesty of it. The real soft bigotry in education reform is bigotry about teachers. The reform movement wants us to believe that urban public school teachers are cynical and discouraged. That they've given up on kids. They think the solution to the problem of old teachers is to hire armies of young teachers and use them up until they burn out. Someone I know compared it to D-Day. One line gets mown down, just send in another. Gary Rubenstein talks all about this in his blog.

But I feel tricked. Some part of me still went into the schools thinking I could change them from within. I'm not giving up yet, but I am getting really, really discouraged. We don't teach social-emotional skills (formerly known as "character") any more because it's not on the test. We don't teach health and nutrition for the same reason. There's no room for these in the schedule because 9th graders have to take double periods of math and reading. We say that kids are more than a test score, but it doesn't show in our actions.

At the Quaker school, I learned a phrase that the Quakers use: educating the whole person or the whole child. This philosophy is very Quakerly, but John Dewey said pretty much the same thing. What have we done with curiosity? What has happened to imagination? When will we ever try to motivate with something other than grades and scores? I am beginning to lose hope that we will.

Here's what I care about:
1. The differences between poor/public and wealthy/private education...
2. ...especially when it comes to the teaching of literature, history, and writing.
3. The psychology and development of young people, and how knowing about it can be useful to teachers.
4. Fighting racial and economic inequality, and giving young people a voice in that fight.
5. Building social and cultural capital for the disadvantaged.

Can I continue to care about these things as a CPS teacher? I'm having a real crisis of faith about it. What I have learned is that I'm no nice yellow lady. I'm more of a tiger teacher (minus the obsession with academic achievement to the detriment of everything else). But I respect students and their families way too much, and I have suffered too much disappointment, to believe in that myth anymore.