The hardest thing to do whenever you enter a new environment is to leave your assumptions at the door. I have to do it at the beginning of every semester with each class I teach. I have expectations regarding certain behaviors and interactions, and yet, I have to remember that students bring their own expectations and assumptions as well. The only way I can encourage them to have an open mind is for me to have an open mind myself.
A case in point is the class in urban education I teach once a year. It is a combined undergraduate and graduate class. The undergraduates are part of the Urban Teaching Academy, a program that recruits and prepares people to become urban teachers. They are in the class because they want to (for the most part) be there. The graduate students are a bit more tricky. Many of them are there because they have to fulfill a multicultural requirement for their programs. Some of them are interested in becoming urban teachers; others are there because they have to be. I have to set aside my assumptions, particularly for those who are there to meet an external requirement. And, I have to figure out a way to make the course meaningful to them.
It becomes tricky, then to balance out the needs of those committed to urban education with those of the students who are more ambivalent. I want to empower all my students, but the reality is that I sometimes teach too much to those who are ambivalent about urban education, and it pains me to admit that.
The truth is, learning how teach is hard. Learning how to be an effective teacher is harder, and learning how to be an effective urban teacher is really, really hard. That's partially because it's hard to come face-to-face with what we have been told about urban education. It's also because many of us have been raised to deeply believe in the American dream that if people simply work hard enough, they can be successful. Combine that with the myth of equality, and we run the risk of falling into a vortex that quickly leads to burnout.
When you start out with more, it's easier to accumulate more. It was easier for me to be academically successful because my parents were college-educated professionals who understood the system. When they were unhappy, they knew how to work the channels to effect the changes they wanted to. My parents also have graduate degrees. My mom was a social worker. My dad is an attorney. They know the law, and they know how to make it work for them. Combine that with the fact that they were economically solvent, were able to own their own house, pay for extra curriculars, and I had a sweet setup as a kid. My father could help me with math and science (until I got to geometry and then it was a different story), and my mom was great at writing. I had the help at home, and my parents pushed me (sometimes too much, but that's a story for a different day).
When I started teaching in Rochester, everyone who knew me was concerned because it was the "inner city." And that meant drugs, gangs, absentee parents, and bad schools. The reality is that we find those same things in the suburbs. So what made it different? The fact that it was all there: drugs, poverty, gangs, absentee parents (for many reasons beyond their control) and more... immigration, homelessness, single parents, parents working three or four jobs, no health care, underqualified and undercertified teachers, the bureaucracy of large urban districts, not enough funds. One, two or three of these challenges in a community can be offset by other positives. Pile it all on the schools and there's a lot that schools become responsible for that make the work of teaching really hard. Pedro Noguera talks about this in his book City Schools and the American Dream (2003: Teachers College Press). He also points out another stark reality: if the American public really cared about the fate of urban kids, who tend to be poor, minority, and immigrant, then urban education would not be an issue. I agree with him on this point. The US has a history of showing how it can rise up to meet an urgent need. If the nation had a will, great changes could occur.
But therein lies another assumption: that with collective will, the nation could magically make hundreds of years of legalized exclusion, from the happenings that make the American Dream possible. The truth is, when banks don't service economically depressed areas, it's that much harder to get a loan. Without being able to build credit, families can't buy their own houses. Schools that have been expected to equalize society cannot do so on their own. Lawrence Cremin drove this home in Popular Education and its Discontents (1990: Harper & Row). Schools not only help to create society, they also reflect society in all its strengths and weaknesses. To assume they can change the world independent of the world is too high an expectation to place on teachers and their students.
It took me a long time to give up the assumption that schools can do it alone. After all, I firmly believe in the potential of public education. I have built my career on realizing the possibilities of urban public education. If I give that up, I might as well stop being me.
So what do I do? How do I temper my assumptions and expectations with the harsh realities that face us as urban educators? Well, that's the subject of a different post.
Into the Future
9 years ago