Teaching Profession Opinion

Questioning Assumptions About the Poor

By Deborah Meier — April 18, 2013 5 min read
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Dear Elliott,

Your explanation of SLANT seems sensible, but my problem, in a nutshell, is that it seems more like “Five rules for success” rather than a set of moral or intellectual rules. Actually, at the three colleges where I recently spoke—Bates, Wesleyan, and Brandeis—I didn’t see a lot of SLANT behaviors, but their absence didn’t make me feel unwanted, uncomfortable, or unheard. Still, I appreciate your concern that your students not waste opportunities through rudeness—there are better fights to pick. Indeed, kids of color are less likely to be “forgiven” for “rudeness” than rich or upper-middle-class white kids are. I recognized this in the largely black and Latino schools my own children attended.

Confusing “rules for success” with the very different kinds of “rules” implicit in the Golden Rule is an old-school habit. My kindergartners in 1963 told me the purpose of school was to learn to “be good” as in to raise your hand, stand in line, etc. In short, they came to school with a misunderstanding.

I think good social and moral behavior is best “taught” by being in the company of others—peers, older students, and adults—who display them. And even more important, by the kind of empathy experienced—in the Kohlberg sense—in family and school. The Golden Rule works also in reverse—as the inability to NOT step into the shoes of others, and thus recognize our common humanity. It requires, for example, deliberately uncovering the similarities between home and school values—which are rarely as far apart as too many imagine. The oft-repeated verbal attacks on poor people’s “bad habits” has led to poor pedagogy and missed opportunities, starting at age 4 and 5. It speaks to a poverty of middle-class empathy and of becoming too accustomed to the rudeness of the rich! I suspect we are on the same page here.

The all too commonly distorted views about families of color are matched by distorted views of teachers. Reader “Labor Lawyer’s” straw man teacher (in a comment), who thinks it’s unfair to expect much of low socioeconomic students, no doubt exists, but he’s not the norm. Similarly, it’s not just occasional teachers who “yell and belittle” kids, loving middle-class white parents have been known to “yell and belittle” their own children.

I suspect we both wanted to respond to reader Amy Frost’s comment. She might be surprised to discover that most of the young people I knew (including my own) went to school to socialize—and continue to after high school! It’s not a unique quality of the poor (nor their families). But, while we all would hope that the love of learning would come first and that schools exist where children wake up daily eager to study, it was never the norm. If she was expecting that, it’s time for her to find another job perhaps. I’m amazed instead at how many good and generally optimistic teachers I meet, as well as how generally polite most kids are in the schools I visit—including in so-called drop-out factories. My experience is more like that described by commenter PLThomas: Thanks PL.

At Mission Hill we generally avoided acronyms—possibly unwisely—because we wanted kids to get accustomed to recalling our beliefs in their own words. Actually Work Hard and Be Kind is a motto we share with KIPP. But our over-riding “rule” for behavior is: Don’t do things that hurt others or that make it hard for others to learn. I do appreciate acronyms for relatively trite matters, and use them when studying for exams where I know I’ll forget the day after. (I sometimes still remember the acronym, but not its content!) I’ll rethink this.

At Mission Hill we use five habits of mind that underlie the school’s intellectual stance. When confronting old or new ideas ask the following questions: (1) How do you know what you know, and how credible is it? (2) Is there another story, another viewpoint? (3) Do you see a pattern? (4) Could it have been different? What if? and (5) Who cares? Why does it matter? We even use these habits of mind in “discipline” cases!

Of course, any code of behavior can be misused. I saw misuses of our intended practices in my own favorite schools, too—sometimes even by me.

But Michael G. makes a different good point in suggesting another topic we could, perhaps, explore: the idea that there are no “excuses” for anyone--poor or rich--not meeting their potential. The buzz words used by many in today’s reform movement suggest that poor outcomes on tests demonstrate that poor kids have less grit, less drive to succeed, etc. and that this is both their own fault and that of lazy or misguided teachers. They can ALL change themselves if we insist. I guess it’s a big step forward from assuming they are genetically inferior. But I find both views dangerous and too often the former leads to the latter. I think that much of what seems like laziness is a combination of repressed anger and the “paranoia” that the expectation of prejudice produces. I’ve discovered that many of the kids who seem most resistant to school learning don’t lack love, nor the love of learning nor perseverance—in other settings! But they enter the schoolhouse with different assumptions about how they will be received there.

There’s been a long, long history of assuming poverty, like race, is genetically inherited, and that “they” are different from “us.” That history still lives, and alert and sensitive children pick it up, sometimes even when it isn’t there. It helps children if the adult community at school more closely resembles the one at home. But alas, “reform” today has systematically driven out most of the African-American teachers who managed to make it and went on to teach in highly segregated schools (mostly by choice). It’s precisely those schools that have been closed by Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg. Having once been the victim of seniority rules, they are now the victim of weak union contracts which have been unable to enforce seniority.

One of the issues raised in the comments about our conversation is whether the current reform movement’s “no excuses” line fails to acknowledge the price the poor pay for poverty or that African-Americans pay for the racism that remains? In my lifetime, I’ve seen improvement re. racism, but not in stereotypes about “the poor.” I think it’s greater than ever. My hope that integrated schools—in terms of class and race—might be a route for changing deeply embedded prejudice didn’t get far off the ground. Why do so many schools who have the freedom to do otherwise seem comfortable being wholly segregated? Any theories?

Elliott, an aside. In my youth children and families risked their lives for it? ... And yet we have less today than we had then?? It’s worth our concerning ourselves with why and how.

Intentions matter. However, what we are struggling with is why well-intentioned people think x will lead to y—assuming, as we both do, their often best intentions. The hope behind Bridging Differences is to better understand how this happens.


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