Published Online: September 4, 2014
Published in Print: September 10, 2014, as Struggling in Ferguson's Shadow

Commentary

Teaching in the Shadow of the Ferguson Shooting

Normandy High School students make their way up the street after the dismissal of school on Aug. 22 in Wellston, Mo.
Normandy High School students make their way up the street after the dismissal of school on Aug. 22 in Wellston, Mo.
—Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

In July 2013, when Michael Brown was a rising senior at Normandy High, I was hired by the Normandy, Mo., school district as an instructional coach. We each had our goals: I wanted to work in real time with classroom teachers. Michael wanted to graduate from high school.

As nearly everyone now knows, Michael did.

On Aug. 9, 2014, just days after he officially graduated from high school, Michael was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a city just up the road from Normandy. Nine days later, nearly 4,000 students returned to Normandy for the first day of the 2014-15 school year.

Even before the shooting and the dramatic aftermath broadcast around the world, our district was accustomed to being and bearing bad news. Normandy is a poor, predominantly African-American community beset by challenges in housing, employment, and access to social, emotional, and physical health care.

“There is the unspoken but ever-present awareness, especially among the boys, that life can end in a flash, even for the kids—like Michael Brown—who manage to navigate the system and graduate.”

In January 2013, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stripped the Normandy school system of its accreditation. The district consequently lost close to 25 percent of its students (and related education funding) to a transfer program that was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court. Then, on July 1 of this year, the state board of education officially took over the Normandy district; meanwhile, the transfer program’s fate continues to play out in the state courts.

As part of the takeover, state officials decided to eliminate embedded teacher-coach positions such as mine, increase the number of professional-development days, and add hours of consultant-facilitated professional development to the end of regular school days.

Consequently, I was assigned to teach 8th grade language arts; I now work in circumstances that daily, even hourly, challenge the most seasoned of the seasoned veterans. Middle school teaching is a new experience for me, and my learning curve is beyond steep; it’s a cliff. In rock-climbing terms, I am “crack climbing”—locating available seams, trying any grip, using all of who I am to gain purchase during my ascent. I am working 18 hours a day.

Last year’s fight for district survival required teachers and other staff members to sustain morale under the glare of unceasing negative attention. A round of layoffs and the closing of an elementary school last November, followed by a second massive layoff and rehiring process in July, set us up for another year devoted to restabilizing our learning community.

This effort is complicated. Because the state has refused to pay costs that Normandy covered last year, several districts have refused to keep the Normandy students who transferred to them for the 2013-14 academic year.

What do I do about the angry student in the corner of my classroom who has been forced to return to a school she left last year? It’s my job to engage and inspire her, to make her glad she’s back. But many of our 8th graders have seen what money can buy in suburban, predominantly white schools and are once again starting their day in Normandy Middle School’s stifling, windowless gym.

Will I be able to make what happens in my classroom so compelling that these children will feel it’s worth their time to come in and take a seat alongside the 32 others in my classroom?

Now, factor in the shooting, followed by the protests, the looting, the hyper-militarized reaction to the protests and looting, and the local reaction to the reaction. Many of our students showed up at school traumatized; teachers, too. The granddaughter of one of my colleagues was related to Michael Brown. Another staff member was his great-aunt. In many ways, north St. Louis County is one community. During the first week of school, one of my students reported in his new journal that he’d been struck by a rubber bullet while attending a protest. “But I’m OK,” he wrote.

Since Aug. 9, there is the unspoken but ever-present awareness, especially among the boys, that life can end in a flash, even for the kids—like Michael Brown—who manage to navigate the system and graduate. So how do you tell a 14-year-old about the value of staying in school, given what happened here? Believe me, I’m trying.

The other day, I watched a group of my students—all boys, unprompted—wordlessly re-enact the shooting from beginning to end, using a fistful of my newly sharpened pencils as the cigarillos Michael allegedly stole before he was gunned down. My students were highly engaged in a standards-based, collaborative group activity that turned into the kind of play that processes pain.

The boy playing Michael lay on the floor for a few minutes with his eyes closed, pencils in hand. Watching him, I wondered what was going through his mind.

Nearly every student I teach has lived through encounters with the police that nobody should ever have to experience. (I know this from their journal entries written the first week of school.) And we know from research conducted by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Alfred Tatum, and many others regarding African-American students that best practices call for teachers to actively, critically, and morally engage students’ real lives and communities. When we do so, our students will achieve academically. Pedagogically speaking, designing community-responsive, standards-based activities and lessons is a moral imperative in Normandy.

So this is the work and, like everyone else around here, I’m trying to figure it out. Lucky me, I am working with teachers and administrators who are heroic.

Over and over, I assure my students that I will not leave. That I am here for them. That principals and teachers are working together to figure out how to get our school right, or at least more right. I have no idea how long it will take, and I have no idea—yet—how to connect and leverage for optimal learning all the factors that shape the lives of my students.

I’m one adult alone in a room with other people’s children in the heart of a community in pain.

I believe that, at some point, policymakers will have to acknowledge that, at scale, there can be no lasting learning for students in districts like Normandy without a more far-seeing understanding of the aims of formal education.

More Opinion

Somehow we need to integrate innovation across multiple public sectors, because meaningful, student-centered curriculum and instruction cannot unfold in a vacuum. How might the design of schooling be more responsive to matters of school funding; criminal-justice policy; social, emotional, and physical well-being; housing and food security; and even income?

Teaching in the Normandy district at a time like this, I owe it to my students to pay a special kind of attention to every single one of them. For sure, I am figuring out who knows what a predicate is, who can read, and who cannot, but I am also coming to understand who has been experiencing what during the 16.5 hours they are not at school.

I don’t do this because I can control it or change it. I don’t do it because it distracts from my teaching objectives. I do it because these experiences affect the learning that happens in my room. To meet the needs of Normandy now, a person needs to understand all of this.

Vol. 34, Issue 03, Pages 22-23

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