Education Opinion

An Educator’s Despair: Why Aren’t we Talking about This?

By Anthony Cody — April 23, 2010 9 min read
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One of the goals of the Teachers’ Letters to Obama Facebook group I started six months ago is to give space for teachers to share with one another and the world at large our true feelings about what we see occurring in our schools. Some teachers are in functional, even wonderful schools. Others are not. We need to hear from them all, even when it is not easy. They are our witnesses to what is happening every day. Today I am sharing a post from one such teacher, Robin Barre. She teaches troubled students in the RISK Learning Center, an educational program that is part of the nonprofit organization “Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets.” The program is contracted with Seattle Public Schools through the Interagency Academy.


Every day I diligently read postings on my Facebook Home News Feed page from education and educators’ groups, follow leads from various ed bloggers such as Teacher Education, Edutopia, and the like. All are inspiring, make excellent points, advocate for teachers and students, eloquently speak against the rising tide of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. I respond, argue, defend, and encourage others to do so as well. But over and over again, I despair because I see a wide, gaping hole. An abyss that our children have the potential to fall into. The abyss of the current trends, philosophies, beliefs, and unspoken missions of public education in America in the 21st century. I despair. I truly do.

I use the word “abyss” seriously and without much hyperbole. Our children can and do fall; I work with the children that have fallen into the abyss. The students I work with have so many diagnoses that a person could pick up the DSM-IV, point to any page, and I could say, “Yep, I have a student with that diagnosis.” They have come to my little schoolroom because the public education system has failed them. We have failed them - as a culture, as a society. Of course, they come to this program feeling as though they are the ones who have failed. It is my work to help them believe in themselves again, to let them know that they are not the ones who are failures but that the system is at fault.

This sense of failure that my students experience is a powerful one, and it informs every moment of their daily, ongoing lives. It colors their past, their present, and their future. In a nutshell, they come to this little alternative high school believing that because they can’t (pick one of the following to fill in the blank) - read at grade level, write at grade level, remember how to do long division, “do” fractions, sit in their seats for more than 30 minutes at a time, or feel comfortable in a room with more than 10 people - then they are failures. This is the message that’s been drilled into their heads since they first entered the public school system.

So many of our discussions are about teacher evaluations, assessments, how to best prepare our students for the “real” world, how to make sure they leave our classrooms with the skills they will need to survive in the world. These discussions are important; they are valuable. And given the recent success in Florida and the governor’s veto of the Pay-for-Performance Bill in Tallahassee, they are effective. But as I have said elsewhere these are not the conversations we need to be having.

I want to hear some discussion in which we speculate how public education may be, indeed, traumatizing our children. And how public education is moving (or being made to move) into a position of perpetuating the status quo of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s three most pressing problems facing the American people: poverty, racism, and militarism. I would add a fourth these 40 years later, the problem of capitalism. These discussions we have go round and round like a hamster on his wheel in a small, smelly cage. Assessment. Evaluations. Teachers’ performances and pay. Meanwhile, our students, our children, those lives in our care are sitting in overcrowded classrooms, irrelevant surface knowledge being stuffed into their heads, and, God forbid if they don’t obey/conform/learn/"get it”, because then they are labeled ADD, ADHD, ODD, OCD, lazy, rebellious, bi-polar, depressed, and the list goes on. So easy to point the finger at them so we, as a society, do not have to look at our own growing pile of shit that we lay at these children’s feet.

I want to tell the story of two children I know, from two very different worlds. The first is of a compelling, active, talkative young man, who was six years old when I had the opportunity to spend three days in his company along with his father, a successful, middle class, well-educated man with a loving wife, living in a beautiful suburban home. Benjamin, as I will call him, could talk with me about dinosaurs, fossils, rocks, and swimming. He was intensely interested in the natural world around him. He could find the insects the rest of us adults could not see. He was completely without fear, picking them up, holding them up to his face so he could peer into the universe of the bug. He picked leaves and flowers, even tasted them much to our fear and concern, bringing the world into his being as fully as a young child could. Benjamin asked a million questions about everything. He could climb any obstacle in front of him, in fact, even sought them out to accept the challenge they presented. He put his hands in water, dirt, stone, trees. He leaped, jumped, ran, quarreled, sought out, sat with, and explored the world as thoroughly as I’ve ever seen any child do. As a teacher, I was totally and completely in love with his ability to learn about the world. I would have been honored and privileged to have had this child sitting in my classroom.

You can imagine my horror when Benjamin’s father said that Benjamin’s first grade teacher had expressed concerns that perhaps Benjamin had Attention Deficit Disorder. I do not know the circumstances of Benjamin’s first grade classroom. And I can certainly sympathize with the teacher who most likely had been given the impossible task of keeping 22-26 six year olds in their seats for 4-5 hours a day, knowing that she was going to be evaluated in some regard as to how well these children could read, write, and ‘rithmetic before they left her classroom. But I begged Benjamin’s father to do all he could to resist this argument that because his son was a lively, questioning, eager, active, normal six year old boy then he was, in effect, ADHD and needed medication, extra seat time, or the label itself, which would haunt him for the rest of his life. This was a child, I thought, who was getting ready to be traumatized by the system that was supposed to nurture this spirit.

My second story is about a young woman who comes from a very different background than Benjamin. Amara’s mother is a single mother of three children, living on social security because of a disability. Amara’s mother immigrated from East Africa many years ago, and Amara was born in the United States. Yet Amara grew up speaking her mother’s native tongue as well as one of the other East African tribal languages. Amara has lived all of her life right smack in the middle of urban America, in neighborhoods that many of us would shudder to think of living. She has told me stories of policemen running through her house with guns drawn, hunting for neighborhood gang members who were seen running through her yard. Amara has many barriers to her education - a physical disability, several learning disabilities, and a developmental disability. She is barely literate in reading and writing, and can perform math at about a 3rd grade level. Amara has had to listen to well-meaning teachers and ill-meaning classmates call her “retarded.” She has had social service agencies drop her case file because they could not place her in an appropriate job setting given the multiplicity of her disabilities.

Amara can speak three languages proficiently, and yet, she sat in a high school classroom for an entire semester being made to learn her ABC’s. Teachers and classmates continuously mispronounced her East African name (which I have changed for confidentiality reasons). She is exquisitely attuned to the emotional undercurrents going on around her. She said to me once that she thought parents’ attitudes really gave their children attitudes. She could see this in the interactions between her friends’ parents and children. Amara did not need a master’s in psychology or early childhood education to understand how parents model for their children. Amara knows how to forgive; she can point to her heart and say, “It hurts here.” Or “I know here that it is the right or the wrong thing to do.” She is one of the bravest people I know, putting herself in vulnerable position after vulnerable position, all in the attempt to move her life forward, risking ridicule, misunderstanding, impatience, anger and frustration on the part of those who do not know her barriers. And yet, she’ll get up the next morning and say, “I’m ready to try again.” But our education system and our culture says, You are not worthy because you cannot read, write, or do math problems to our satisfaction.

I want to begin having conversations about why the schools failed this child. We were so determined to make sure that she could read, write, and do math, when it was so obviously outside the realm of possiblity that all of her other gifts have been ignored, denied, or denigrated. I spent three years trying to make Amara what the school system wanted her to be so I failed to affirm those inherent strengths with which she was born. She has been traumatized by the system that should have nurtured those gifts.

Our public education system is supposed to be a constitutional right for our children. Education is one of the social apparatus of a culture. I want us to begin discussing what this means. What is our education system being used for? And, by extension, what are our children being used for? I walked away from mainstream, comprehensive school as a teacher because I was literally being made ill by what was being asked of me and what I was being asked to expect from my students. My soul was dying, and I could see that the high stakes testing environment of the system was killing the souls of my students. I could not do it any longer. I had not even finished paying off my school loans.

We are right to continue fighting our policy makers around these issues of teacher evaluation and assessment. We must not stop. But I want to see discussions taking place - strong, vehement, impassioned, emotional discussions - about what the education system is doing to our children. These are all of our children - our students, our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, neighbors, grandchildren, and the children we all once were. I think that perhaps if we began really seeing what is happening to them as they sit in the classrooms that all of us have created, we would be horrified. Our classrooms are becoming an abyss in which imagination, creativity, critical thinking, the natural impetus to learn the world, and the inherent value of each child’s humanity is swirling down, down, down, leaving them and the teachers exhausted, sick, and empty. It is a travesty and a tragedy. It is a human rights abuse. Why aren’t we talking about this?

What do YOU think about Robin’s perspective? Does what she says about how our schools sometimes traumatize children ring true for you? Should this be discussed more?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.