Shooting the Messenger

Posted: April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Recently a letter I wrote to my hometown paper was published as an editorial.  I have also posted it here and you are welcome to check it out on this site.

Overwhelmingly the response from my coworkers and the few students who read it was positive.  People high-fived me.  The Teacher of the Year bowed down to me repeatedly and told me how proud he was of me.  Two teachers facetiously (but very kindly) asked for my autograph.

But then I had my post observation evaluation meeting with my principal.  She recorded the conversation, which I wasn’t really comfortable with, but I allowed it because I’m willing to put anything truly inflammatory that I might have to say in writing anyway, so I decided it didn’t matter, and I’m not into making a scene just to make a scene.  The discussion went well, I guess, but then right before I left, she told me that one of the school board members had called her about the ‘article’ and she asked if he’d contacted me.  I said no, and she said that I should expect to hear from him.  I noticed that the paper was on her desk and one sentence was highlighted, but I couldn’t tell for sure which sentence it was.

When I got back up to my office, I walked into an ambush.  One of my coworkers was there waiting for me.  She started off by telling me that she read it, of course, and then said that I had no right to speak for her and then she called me a racist.  She told me that it sounds like I don’t believe in the kids.  First of all, the tag line in the paper says where I work, not that I was speaking on behalf of anyone but myself.  The accusation of racism stung a great deal.  Then her friend came in to play ‘amen corner’ and she too clicked her tongue and shook her head in disappointment.  The first one asked me what expertise I had that allowed me to say such things, and I said, “I’ve been teaching struggling readers in Title I schools for ten years.”

Her reply was that to say “You’re not an expert on the culture.”  I asked if that was because I’m not a member of it, and she said no, it’s that I haven’t been there long enough, which brought us back to the ten years thing.  Her answer for that this time around was to gesture to her amen corner and say “She’s been in it 20 years.”  Is half of 20 zero?

Throughout this extremely uncomfortable confrontation, this woman continuously stated that it didn’t matter what I actually said, but that she was going to interpret it however she wanted to.  I asked her if that is what I should coach the kids to do on the all important reading test–think what they want, or read what’s on the page.

Then she wanted to debate the merits of our methods with me.  She said I neglected to mention the how awesome our intensive reading classes with their magic program are, and when I tried to refocus her on the state and the system as a whole, she wanted none of it.  She was hellbent on taking it personally.  Frankly, I’m not that impressed that we keep buying new reading programs, because in the ten years I’ve been there, the percentage of kids reading on grade level for both 9th and 10th grades has been relatively static, regardless of the program we’re using.  That should tell you that the approach doesn’t work.

Additionally, one thing that I brought up and for which she had no answer was that we have roughly 350 9th graders each year and maybe 140 seniors.  What the hell happens to those 200 kids?  I’ll tell you:  when they’re too far behind to ever catch up, we kick them out and send them to these alternative schools, where they sit in front of a computer all day (I think), until they either finish or quit.  The vast majority of them never come back to our regular public school after that.  I don’t know what the graduation rate is for those places, but I intend to find out.

It would be one thing if this small minded person and her side kick were the only ones who seemed to think that my own ethnicity has some relevance in terms of what I said, but they aren’t.  At least three other well meaning people who agreed with what I said told me that ‘maybe I shouldn’t have published my picture with it.’  The implication being that if readers could assume I look different than I do, they might be more inclined to agree with me.

I know there’s a word for that, when you judge someone by the color of their skin rather than their words and actions.  What do we call it when we decide something is only wrong if a person of one race does it, and accept that the same action is okay if it comes from someone of another?

I’m so deeply disturbed to know that the fact that I look different from my students is more important to some people than the mission I am on to get them an education that they can access and put to use.  I realize that in part it’s that no one wants their dirty laundry aired in public, but things inside the machine are not changing fast enough.  The public system has been failing poor children of all colors for longer than I have been alive.  We have given the system a chance to fix it, and they haven’t done so.  I’m not willing to be quiet anymore, and I did try to raise these concerns within my organization before I aired them in public.  No one wanted to do anything about it.

My principal herself said it doesn’t matter if we agree with the validity of the test, we have to do it anyway.  The amen corner woman has heard me say everything I wrote in that editorial aloud, and she didn’t disagree then, though she did tell me not to push back so hard.

A proper education is literally life or death for my students.  I’d venture to say there are too many people not pushing back at all.

  1. Matt Wilson says:

    Great post. This type of story is so common these days and it drives me crazy. I have a very thick skin but I can’t think of anything that stings more than when I am accused of being racist. Thankfully, I had an African American principal (allong with many other staff and administrators) who recognized how much I cared about all of my students, regardless of race. To be in your position – I’m not sure what I would have done.

    • Miss Desiree says:

      You would perhaps be surprised at where some of the support and where some of the criticism is coming from. The Teacher of the Year is black (not African-American) and he supports me 100%. I have other African-American co-workers that are supportive of everything I said and have no issue with the fact that I said it, and others who are fine with what I said and agree that it needed to be said, but think that I should not have said it because I’m not black.

      The whole thing has been very demoralizing because the importance of what I said is being obscured by the fact that people don’t like that I am the one who said it.

      I have an old collection of children’s writing from the inner city that was published in 1969. Even the children could see then that their schools were poorly prepared to help them, and not much has changed in the interim. It’s maddening.

  2. momshieb says:

    Good for you for speaking up and speaking out!
    It is obvious that if we don’t change the educational system from the inside, there is a huge group of bureaucrats more than willing to change it from the outside. Keep up the good fight; you are not alone!

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