The New White Man’s Burden

This cartoon can easily be from 2012.

The New York Times ran a story about the impacts of segregation in NYC schools. It features Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The school is even more segregated than the community, with black students comprising nearly 93% of its student body.

While the article makes some valid points, the things that it danced around struck me the most. The article points out that, while the students are overwhelmingly black, the staff itself is 61% white. This is par for the course in NYC schools. Indeed, many schools’ staffs are even more disproportionately white than Explore’s.

As the article introduces some of the teachers at the school, one gets a glimpse into the problems with Bloomberg’s system and the education reform movement in general.

“EXPLORE’S founder, Morty Ballen, 42, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where his father ran several delis. A product of Teach for America, he taught English in a high school in Baton Rouge, La., that went from being all white to half-black.”

East Flastbush is one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Yet, the school’s founder is a TFA guy from the suburbs. Should we really believe that this is all that can be found to run a network that serves some of the most disadvantaged kids in the city? Of all the veteran teachers who have been railroaded out of the system, educators who even lived in the communities they served, is a TFA alum from the suburbs really the best person to guide an educational program for Flatbush children?

Education is not a Peace Corps job. I doubt that Morty Ballen gets paid a Peace Corps salary. At the same time, his entire teaching career speaks to the type of White Man’s Burden thinking that defines most TFA people:

“He taught at an all-black school in South Africa started by a white woman, then at a largely black-and-Hispanic middle school on the Lower East Side. The experiences soaked in.

“I’m very cognizant of my whiteness, and that I have power,” he said. “I need to incorporate this reality in my leadership.”

You would be cognizant of your race too if you constantly put yourself in a position where you are the outsider.

Mr. Ballen is merely the head of the fish. His staff at Explore reflects values that are, well, like his own.

“Marc Engel, a former investment banker turned librarian and media coordinator at Explore, is 53 and white. He frets about power differentials and how to transcend race, how to steer the students’ inner compass.”

This is understandable if you jump from high finance into East Flatbush. Maybe race would not be such an issue if you were able to relate to your kids on a human level: know their speech, know where they come from, the conditions in which they are growing up and the cultural assumptions they share.

Mr. Engel feels a cultural gap because there really is one. It is not due strictly to the color of his skin, but from the place where he is coming and the children he tries to reach.

“Darren Nielsen, 25, white, from Salt Lake City, is in his second year teaching, assigned to third grade. Last year, when he taught fourth grade, a student got miffed at him and said, “Oh, this white guy.” He later spoke to the student about singling out someone in a negative way because of his or her race. He overheard students call one another “light-skinned crackers” and “dark-skinned crackers.”

I laughed at this one because it is so typically NYC. I can totally imagine a nine-year-old black girl saying “oh, this white guy” in reference to her Salt Lake City teacher. As a dean, I saw this type of stuff play out in classrooms all of the time. Students usually make reference to the race of their teacher not because of the color of their teacher’s skin, but because the teacher’s way of communicating is alien to the student. I would venture to guess that Mr. Nielsen was, quite simply, acting like a white guy from Utah.

Well, that world is light years away from Flatbush, Brooklyn. I would turn this into a teachable moment for myself rather than the student. It is an opportunity to change the way you communicate with your students as a teacher. I doubt I would have made as big a deal out of the girl’s comment as he did. The way he handled it seemed to only heighten the child’s consciousness of her race and how different Mr. Nielsen is from her.

But my favorite part of the article, the part that made me dry heave into my hand, was this:

THE sixth-grade social studies students swept into Alexis Rubin’s classroom. She slapped them five, bid them good afternoon. To settle them down, Ms. Rubin said, “Students are earning demerits in one … two …”

She handed out a test on Colonial Williamsburg. She said, “Every scholar in this room will get a sheet of loose-leaf paper for your short response.”

Of Explore’s teachers, Ms. Rubin, 31, is perhaps the keenest about openly addressing race. She is in her third year at the school, is white and grew up on the Upper West Side.

Outside school, she is the co-chairperson of Border Crossers, an 11-year-old organization troubled by New York’s segregated system that instructs elementary-school teachers how to talk about race in the classrooms……

Ms. Rubin does Border Crossers exercises with her students like MeMaps, in which both students and teachers list characteristics about themselves, then create a “diversity flower,” with petals listing each participant’s unique traits.

What a way to motivate your class: threaten them with demerits. If you do that when a guy from the Times is there, what do you do when he is not there?

Ms. Rubin is from one of the wealthiest Congressional districts in the nation. While she is from NYC and has a leg-up on the school’s founder in that regard, the Upper West Side and Flatbush are different worlds all the same. Seeing as how she instructs other teachers on how to talk about race, she must have a leg up on all the new TFA people coming into the NYC system as well.

And what is Border Crossers’ way of solving the race chasm in NYC classrooms? That’s right, a “diversity flower”. I smelled the liberal guilt through my computer screen when I read that one.

The race issue will not be solved with “diversity flowers”, nor will it be solved by all the richies from the Upper West Side and the suburbs having pow-wows about the best way to say the word “black” in front of black kids.

Every diversity flower and every discussion about how to broach the topic of race is a step further away from building those bridges you seek with your students, Ms. Rubin. They dehumanize children by treating them like problems to be solved or riddles to be figured out.

This is the problem with the driving philosophy behind charter schools and Teach for America. It is the idea that outsiders know best how to teach poor students. People from the community have nothing to offer. After all, they might treat and talk to their students like actual human beings and we cannot have that now, can we?

The major impact of all of these factors can be found towards the beginning of the article:

Explore students wear uniforms and have a longer school day and year than the students in the other schools in the building, schools with which they have a difficult relationship. A great deal of teaching is done to the state tests, the all-important metric by which schools are largely judged. In the hallway this spring, before the tests, a calendar counted down the days remaining until the next round.

Explore’s academic performance has been inconsistent. Last year, the school got its charter renewed for another five years, and this year, for the first time, three students, including Jahmir, got into specialized high schools. Yet, on Explore’s progress report for the 2010-11 school year, the Education Department gave it a C (after a B the previous year). In student progress, it rated a D.

“We weren’t doing right by our students,” Mr. Ballen said.

In response, a new literacy curriculum was introduced and greater emphasis was put on applauding academic achievement. School walls are emblazoned with motivational signs: “Getting the knowledge to go to college”; “When we graduate … we are going to be doctors.” Teachers are encouraged to refer to students as “scholars.”

And when did any of the people at Explore, from the founder to the teachers, ever stand up and say that these exams are wrong for their students? When did they ever say that, given the poverty and hopelessness they see on a daily basis, testing is the last thing their kids need? When did they ever call for better jobs, housing, investment or more humane treatment for the people of Flatbush?

Certainly not in this article.

No, it is all about getting along in the system. It is all about making those bucks by opening up more privatized charters. It is all about padding your resume and salving you guilty liberal conscious by teaching in Flatbush.

Merely calling students “scholars” and posting a bunch of saccharine clichés all around the school will do the trick. That will certainly overcome decades and centuries of oppression. Why did I not think of that? I have been living in the city all of my life, hanging out in ghettos and projects and teaching poor children and not once did I ever think that all they needed was some nice-sounding words to make things all better.

What we need, actually, are home-grown teachers from the communities who have shared in the struggles of their students. What we need are teachers who do not need diversity flowers. What we need are teachers who understand that their students are human beings first, not “minorities”. What we need are teachers who make social activism and political consciousness part of their job description.

And this is exactly the type of teacher the education reformers do not want. Instead, they want friendly faces who have zero attachment or dedication to the communities they serve. They want a generation of schools that will force kids to wear uniforms, march in order and fill in bubbles. We want teachers who will give “demerits” if students do not toe the line exactly as they are told.

After all, there are “no excuses”. Poverty, race, crime, none of these are “excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles on exams. All the kids of Flatbush need is some discipline. They need role models from Utah, Wall Street and the suburbs to instill that discipline. This is the new magic bullet in education: educational imperialism.

This is the new White Man’s Burden.

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12 responses to “The New White Man’s Burden

  1. This sounds a lot like Fascism, but who am I to say that? The uniforms, the slogans, the not questioning the leader’s orders, etc is what some fascists did in their day. Its interesting in seeing the direction that the education system is going. Don’t be surprised if we see large posters everywhere hailing our mayor or the chancellor for being the brilliant mind behind the “Education Reforms” and seeing students on parades every once in a while “rejoicing” about the greatness of this system.

  2. Bronx teacher

    If you think that the only teachers who can teach children of color are teachers of color, the you are doing them a disservice. Similarly if in the suburbs, you would not find an inner cityb teacfher to be appropriate to teach a class of white suburbanites. Or am I misreading your post. Be a real person as a teacher and expect your class to be able to relate to a variety of persons, because that is how they can be successful. Being rude to ones classmates and teachers is for sure not a path to Wall Street or to any street that is likely to be paved with gold. Ghetto behavior unfortunately will keep one in the ghetto. Any legitimate teacher should be prepared to instill these lessons.

    Certainly cultural norms are important and if you have similar norms as your students you may have an advantage in reaching and relating. Why not have those norms discussed. Poverty, opportunity, and parent involvement and encouragement are all essential factors to be reckoned with; much more than the ethnicity of the staff.

    • I am certainly not saying that only black teachers can teach black students. What I am saying is that all of these cultural barriers that suburbanites find themselves trying to overcome are not barriers for people who actually have spent time in the inner city and know what life is like there.

      I am white. I grew up in a single family home, my mother was on and off welfare and all my friends lived in projects in places like Harlem, South Bronx, Brooklyn, etc. I grew up living poverty, playing basketball on concrete courts with empty heroin needles and hanging out in project hallways. My best friend was shot and stabbed in front of my eyes right outside of school.

      My students tell me that I talk to them like “people”. That is because I can communicate with them and speak to them in a way that is not condescending or patronizing.

      My upbringing has helped me communicate with people from all walks of life. However, I am sure I would have a little adjusting to do if I taught in Great Neck.

      And all the time I deride students wearing jeans on their butts and doing stupid things like that. I don’t do it because it will hamper them from working on Wall Street because I don’t see myself as preparing the next generation of hedge fund managers. I try to activate my students’ critical minds, the one that examines the world around them. They should not wear jeans on their butts because it is stupid and they are doing to be a follower. They have no other reason to do but to be a follower. I want them to have self-respect as individuals, that is why I tell them to pick their pants up. Have respect for yourself and stop doing things everyone else is doing.

      This is not about race and ethnicity, not to me. On the other hand, it IS about race to many young, suburban teachers. They are so racially conscious that it is sickening. That is what I am getting at. They see their children as a race, not a humans.

      • Bronx teacher

        Since i teach in the Bronx and am not “young”, I guess my perspective is different. i don’t see this problem with most urban teachers, whatever their ethnicity might be. The only race of consequence is the human race, so if you don’t act like a human being don’t expect to be treated as one. Everyone has biases to some degree, that’s part of being a thinking human. But if you learn from your experiences and don’t take yourself too seriously you’ll grow. Maybe they need to fail a few times and get out more.

  3. Pingback: The New White Man’s Burden, Revisited | assailedteacher

  4. Pingback: Racism and Reform: A Professional View | assailedteacher

  5. A Teacher Who Deeply Cares

    I grew up in a town that was 65% Black, and yes I’m white… I am highly educated, have seen prejudice in all its forms, black versus white, white versus black, white versus jews, white versus muslim, and the list goes on.

    Tolerance, education, kindness, and the drive to make effort and succeed should be at the core of education. To cherish our differences and find our common interests is a priori, that leads to communication, understanding and positive change. We need to instill in our students a love of learning, to be self learners, to be proud of their respective heritages and families, and to learn that effort is so important to succeed in life, there are no hand outs.

    It is prejudice to think that if one’s skin is white he can not understand, that if is one is white they are somehow automatically privileged..if someone is white they can’t relate to those of color or another religion, can’t flourish as a mentor and teacher to the children, can’t have incredibly close relationships to student’s parents/guardians and families. Would you rather have no one of talent teaching our children, our future leaders? How can you know the hearts and souls of these caring teachers by the color of their skin or the school that they went to.

    What are we to do when only 35% of black men graduate high school, even less then move on to college, and those who go to college are not attracted to the high stress, long hours, and poor pay of being a teacher. This immediately limits the role models and the teachers many inner city students should have – are we just to ignore it and have a void with no teachers? none who have the drive, desire, education, and creativity to teach our kids…

    Our children of every color, every economic category and ever religion need talented teachers – passionate, creative, caring. It is too simplistic to judge and paint with broad brushstrokes, that teachers from non inner city who come for lower or upper middle class somehow can’t relate and can’t teach or in some form or fashion are misguided do gooders….They are doing what is right…teaching..step by step opening up a child’s imagination…step by step showing opportunity, step by step developing life skills, to let a child follow his or her dreams…what..you want a society of children who feel there is no future?

    What in fact are you doing to help our inner city youth. Other than to criticize and complain? Are you stepping up to help?

    • Hmm, where to begin?

      Well, to answer your last question of if I am “stepping up to help” other than just “criticizing and complaining”, I have taught inner city teenagers for 13 years. In this time, I have also run after school, mentoring and other programs absolutely free of charge. Now, I am stepping into the world of education activism with people who know that poverty is not an “excuse” but rather a state of affairs that needs to be resolved for people of all colors. Does this answer your question?

      Most of the rest of what you say is pretty innocuous. I mean, who could argue with the idea that students, no matter their race or class, deserve great teachers? That is the trope of the education reform movement. The implication is that some students, mostly the poor ones, do not have great teachers. It has been an excuse to ruin the careers of veteran educators , railroad them out of the system and replace them with people with no experience and no desire to stay in the profession for more than a few years.

      The article that informs this blog post represents this trend. In NYC, 60% (it could be more now, since that 60% number is around a year old) of teachers came into the system under the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That means that, for a variety of reasons, veterans have left the system and have been replaced by a new crop of teachers. Again in NYC, these teachers have more than 50% likelihood of leaving the profession before their 5th year. While some of those 50% are surely ones who got into teaching because they really wanted to dedicate themselves to it and just did not get the support they needed, the reality is that this is by design. The invasion of Teach for America and charter schools has created a system that attracts the fly-by-night teacher.

      This is what this article represents. It showcases a crop of outsiders, people from well outside the communities in which they teach, who struggle to communicate with the people they are educating. They struggle because they both lack the background and the experience to communicate with their children. Sure, someone from the outside can learn to teach inner city students quite effectively, given the fact they have the time and support to do so. In 7, 10, 12 years they can become great at what they do. But the teachers in this article mostly do not have the life nor the career experience to effectively reach these children. They are unlikely to stick around long enough to gain that experience either.

      And that is because they teach in a charter school, where teachers are routinely rotated out of the profession to make way for younger and cheaper teachers. Is this a system designed to bring in the creative and dedicated teachers these students deserve? What are you doing to speak against this system that is designed to deliver to direct opposite of what you advocate for here? What solution do you offer besides cliches that could have been cut and paste from Teach for America and Students First websites?

  6. another Bronx teacher

    Teaching ( sometimes by modeling ) inner city students how to communicate in a clear and respectful manner to people diffrent from themselves is the key to their success in life. So the ” white ” teacher must do the same to his constituents. Most of the subject matter ( high school ) presented to them will not be addressed by the majority after they leave school but the ability to learn ant the ability to survive in social contexts will be critical. The system stinks until they focus on teaching the real skills for success; a desire to continually improve oneself; self reliance, and hanging with those of like beliefs. A sense of humor and not taking oneself too seriously might also be useful. Some decent food at school would be a positive as well.

  7. People don’t seem to get that this article is about the inadequacy and insufficiency of TFA teachers. Huh?

    TFA and its charter schools with all the TFA “I taught for a year or two” running the whole shebang so the statistics from TFA can read that they “stay in education” (but not in the classroom) needs to be STOPPED. It is the raping of education. If all these folks are teaching poor kids is to be polite and pass standardized testing, the have left them as empty shells, quite unprepared for their futures.

    The jury is in. Charter schools and TFA by and large are here to privatize education and funnel the public taxpayers’ funds into their own greedy pockets and the pockets of their elite WHITE cronies.

    The discipline policy in Newark’s K-3 charter schools is meant to treat children abysmally. A silent school. Little robots who are managed and trained to behave. Make sure the students “respect whitey.”

    If the parents really knew what was going on, they would be outraged.

    They caught on in Washington, DC, didn’t they? VOTERS, hit these scum where it hurts. Vote them out. Put an end to the madness.

    Stop allowing public funds to be utilized to privatize education, and revert that money back into the public schools where teachers, who actually went to college and earned degrees in EDUCATION and spent a year doing clinical internships teaching (while still attending school) and have certifications in their fields — TEACH. To continue to displace these qualified TEACHERS who actually wanted to go into this profession, and replace them with 5 weeks of summer school training TFA greenies, by and large who leave the profession, many of whom can’t even complete their assignments for which they are ill prepared, is an outrage.

    It has to stop. Follow the money people.

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