What My Black Student Taught Me, His White Teacher, About Black Lives

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I can’t tell you how many times Darnell was in detention.

After a while, it didn’t feel right if he wasn’t staying at least an hour after school.

Darnell was late to class.

Darnell swore at another student.

Darnell copied someone’s paper.

Darnell did just about everything and anything that came to his mind. And it earned him time after school with me, his newly-minted 8th grade language arts teacher.

In a class full of mostly brown and black students, many living in an impoverished high crime Pittsburgh suburb, Darnell was the standout. Or at least his misbehavior was.

At first, he complained, but I had his mom on speed dial, and she fully supported my holding him accountable.

He wanted to do his homework during this time, but I made him do busy work instead. The way I looked at it as a young teacher just starting out, if I gave him time to do his school work, it would be a reward, not a punishment.

So I made him copy down dictionary definitions, clean the tables or put up the chairs.

And once he realized there was no way out, he did it all uncomplainingly.

But an hour is a long time, so after a while I let him work on his homework, too.

I had an awful lot of work to do, myself, during these times – piles of papers to grade and lessons to plan – so whatever would keep him quiet would be okay with me.

Unfortunately, Darnell didn’t work that way. He had questions. So many questions.

I had no time, but what else was I gonna’ do?

I answered him. With frustration at first while sitting at my desk.

Then I found myself walking over to him and standing at his table. Then I sat down next to him. And pretty soon we were doing the homework together.

But an hour is a long time, so sometimes he’d finish early. I offered to let him go.

He didn’t want to.

He’d stay and talk: “Did you see the football game, Mr. Singer?”

Or “Did you hear the new Beyoncé album, Mr. Singer?”

Or “How many kids do you have at home, Mr. Singer?”

One day I remember the last bell ringing and looking up to see Darnell at his desk doing homework. I looked back at my stack of papers before I realized – Darnell didn’t have detention today.

I laughed. “You can go home, Buddy,” I said.

“I know,” he replied. “Is it okay if I stay and get this done?”

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But I was.

I nodded, and he stayed.

I won’t say Darnell ever became a perfect student. He just didn’t have the patience for detailed work. He was more of a big picture guy.

But after months of never turning in homework – years, really – he began to turn all of it in. And I mean all of it!

He wasn’t a great speller, but he started ending all of his sentences with punctuation. And he started all of his sentences with a capitalized word.

He wasn’t a great reader, but he did crack open a few books. Nothing too difficult or complex, but it was more than any teacher I talked to had ever seen him read previously.

At the end of the year, I remember pausing by his desk and praising him.

“Darnell, that’s some mighty fine work you did in here this year,” I said.

And he got this big ol’ grin on his face like he used to get before he was about to engage in some random act of mischief.

“Thanks, Mr. Singer. You’re a really good teacher.”

I smiled and said, “No, Darnell. You’re a good student.”

I remember looking him in the eye to emphasize it. This was a kid with a reputation. I’ll bet few teachers had ever commended him on his school work before.

Then the year ended, and he was gone.

He went on to 9th grade and did even better than in my class. The same in 10th, 11th and 12th.

Oh, sure. He was still a handful and got himself in trouble lots of times. But he did his work and didn’t fail his classes.

I kept an eye on him like I do all my students when they leave me. I try to keep tabs, but there’s always a new bunch just waiting for you at the beginning of the year.

You remember anytime you think about it, which isn’t much.

So it was years later when I heard the news.

Teachers were shaking their heads in the faculty room. The principal held a meeting to tell us about it in case any of our current students were upset, in case any of us had Darnell’s cousins, brothers, sisters, or friends.

He was only 18 when he was murdered.

Shot down in the streets from a passing car.

Police still don’t know whether he was the shooter’s target or if he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The high school teachers, who knew Darnell best, said he had really straightened up his act. He had gotten into community college, wanted to be an engineer.

And they shook their heads. What else was there to say?

I walked back to my classroom and opened a file cabinet.

Inside was a bunch of dusty manila folders – one for each child I had ever made serve a detention.

It didn’t take long to spot Darnell’s. It was one of the thickest.

I opened it up and took out the stack of papers inside.

There were doodles of monsters and basketball players. There were lists of badly spelled vocabulary words in his adolescent handwriting. And there were these halting paragraphs about what he’d done to get detention and how he’d never do it again.

“I’m sorry I wuz late 2 class. I will ask to use bathrom before going.”

“i will not copy LaRonns paper. i will do it myself.”

I read through them all. Every one. I read them again and again until long after everyone else but the janitors had left the building.

I had spent so much time with Darnell.

I had poured my soul into that kid.

But what had it truly accomplished?

He is dead. A victim of his environment. Nothing but a number, a statistic, a footnote.

Just not to me.

By all accounts he had been trying to do good, trying to make something of himself. But it wasn’t enough. Bullets don’t discriminate between the hardworking and the lazy. They just do what they do.

In my mind I tried to see him walking home, a stack of books weighing him down, making him slow. I saw him walking past those ramshackle apartments and slums, that shady park with the broken benches, the street corners where you could buy heroin or pills or weed.

If he was white, would it have been different? If he was white and didn’t live in the “bad neighborhood,” would it have mattered?

If his mom didn’t have to work two or three jobs, would it have helped? If he had someone at home to watch him instead of a bunch of younger siblings and cousins to watch, would things be different?

I don’t know.

But I DO know that there is a list of dead children in my community – some of them my former students – and almost all of them are black.

Darnell wasn’t killed by a policeman, but I’m sure they knew his name. He used to tell me how the cops would often follow him and his friends into the grocery store. “Why they always be doin’ that?” he’d ask me. And I’d just shrug thinking about all the times he’d wait until I wasn’t looking before slapping another child on the neck.

But if Darnell had been white, would we have had different expectations of him? Would we have given him the benefit of the doubt to begin with – like we do white kids?

I wasn’t a very good teacher to Darnell. Every scrap of respect I gave him he had to earn. Why didn’t I give him that respect at the start? Why didn’t I expect the best and then change my expectations as the situation dictated? Why did I instead expect the worst and alter my expectations from there?

I never questioned if or why Darnell was seeking my attention. I just thought of his bad behavior. It was something I wanted to change, so here’s a punishment.

I never offered Darnell my help. I offered help to the class as a whole but not to Darnell individually. Not until he wore me down. Not until helping him was easier than arguing with him.

I never thought about Darnell’s needs. I thought about MY needs of Darnell. I need him to behave so I can teach. Never Darnell’s needs to behave so he can learn.

And there are so many other kids out there like him. I’ve taught so many other little Darnells.

I approach them differently now. It’s a lesson he taught me.

I may have bestowed upon him some spelling and grammar. He taught me humanity. Who is the better teacher?

He taught me to look at black children in a different way.

He taught me to come to them on their terms. To begin anew with an expectation that they will do well no matter what they’ve done in the past. He taught me to look beyond their behaviors and see them as little people. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and it informs my teaching to this day.

As I sat there with that stack of dusty folders, I realized it doesn’t end at the classroom door.

I used to think being a parent, myself, I had an interest in the future. But that’s not entirely true. Being a parent is one of the most rewarding things you can do, but it isn’t selfless. It only means you care about your child. Not all children.

And that’s where being a teacher is different. After a while, you can’t be selfish anymore. You can’t care for only some people’s futures. You are essentially invested in a future for all, for everyone.

You can try to draw a line in the sand and say “I only care about THESE kids,” but it doesn’t work. You find yourself caring about all of them, all of the children who will become our world when we crumble to dust.

That’s how it should be for everyone.

As a human being, it is my responsibility to fight to make this world a better place for people like Darnell. It’s my responsibility to make sure they all have a future.

But it goes beyond even that. I’m not just any person. I’m a white person.

All the things stacked against a kid like Darnell were stacked in my favor. I lived in a good neighborhood. Police never followed me anywhere. No matter how much I misbehaved, it was always expected I wouldn’t cause any trouble – unless I did.

So it’s my responsibility as a white person to fight my privileged place in society. It’s my responsibility to ensure that black people aren’t held back by entitlements I have not earned and handicaps they do not deserve.

As a white teacher, it is my responsibility to see the best in my children – in ALL of my children. It is my responsibility to meet them where they are and give them support and nurturing and love.

To do so I must see beyond the walls of invisible prejudice. I must see the hurdles, the traps, the maze so I can help them overcome it.

Because Darnell never got to go to college. He never got to become an engineer.

But his life mattered.

Killed for Being a Teacher – Mexico’s Corporate Education Reform

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In Mexico, you can be killed for being a teacher.

Correction: you can be killed for being a teacher who opens her mouth and speaks her mind.

You can be killed, kidnapped, imprisoned – disappeared.

That’s what happened to approximately six people a week ago at a protest conducted by a teachers union in the southern state of Oaxaca.

The six (some of whom were teachers) were gunned down by police and as many as 100 more people were injured near the town of Nochixtlan, about 50 miles northwest of Oaxaca City.

Conflict between teachers and governments has become commonplace across the globe as austerity and neoliberalism have become the policies du jour. Tax cuts for the rich lead to shrinking public services. And investment in the next generation through public education becomes a thing of the past.

Even here in the United States, educators are taking to the streets to protest a system that refuses to help students – especially poor and minority students – while blaming all deficiencies on one of the only groups that actually show up to help: teachers.

Though in America educators have been ignored, unjustly fired and even arrested for such protests, the Mexican government has resorted to all out murder.

How did it come to this? Follow the trail backwards to its source.

The activists in Oaxaca were protesting because several union officials had been kidnapped by the government and unjustly imprisoned the previous weekend.

Those union officials were asking questions about the 2014 disappearance and alleged murder of 43 protesting student teachers by agents of the government.

These student teachers, in turn, were fighting incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto’s education reforms.

Specifically, Nieto threatened to fire tens of thousands of teachers by using their impoverished, neglected and under-resourced students’ test scores against them.

The government provides next to nothing to educate these kids. And just like officials in the U.S., Nieto wants to blame a situation he created on the people who volunteered to help fix it. It’s like an arsonist blaming a blaze on the fire department.

Why’s he doing it? Power. Pure power.

Poverty in Mexico is more widespread than it is even in its northern neighbor. This is because the most populace Spanish-speaking country in the world also has one of the most corrupt governments on the face of the Earth: A government in bed with the drug cartels. A government that has no interest in serving the people whom it pretends are its constituents.

Since before the Mexican Revolution in 1810, teachers have been the center of communities in impoverished neighborhoods empowering citizens to fight for their rights. These teachers learned how to fight for social justice at national teacher training schools, which Nieto proposes to shut down and allow anyone with a college degree in any subject to be a teacher.

Not only would this drastically reduce the quality of the nation’s educators, it would effectively silence the single largest political force against the President.

In short, this has nothing to do with fixing Mexico’s defunct public education system. It’s all about destroying a political foe.

The government does not have the best interests of the citizens at heart – especially the poor. The teachers do.

Though more violent than the conflict in the United States, the battle in Mexico is emblematic of the same fight teachers face here.

It remains to be seen how this southern conflict will affect us up north.

People have died – literally died – fighting against standardized testing, value added measures, school privatization and the deprofessionalization of teaching. Will this make Bill Gates, John King, Campbell Brown and other U.S. corporate education reformers more squeamish about pushing their own education agenda? After all, they are trying to sell stratagems that look almost exactly alike to Nieto’s. How long can they advocate for clearly fascist practices without acknowledging the blood on their own hands, too?

For our part, U.S. teachers, parents, students, and activists see the similarities. We see them here, in Puerto Rico, in Britain, in much of Europe, in Africa and throughout the world.

We see the violence in Mexico, and we stand with you. From sea to shinning sea, we’re calling for an end to the bloodshed.

The Network for Public Education has issued an urgent appeal to the Mexican government to stop the violence. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union have taken to the streets to protest in solidarity with their brothers and sisters south of the border.

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We stand with you, Mexico.

We fight with you.

We bleed with you.

We are the same.

Peace and solidarity.

Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

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“Pennsylvania educator and public school advocate Steven Singer is one of the most powerful voices in the nation when it comes to speaking out for students, parents, teachers and our public schools.”
Jonathan Pelto, founder of the Education Bloggers Network

 

 

“Steven Singer wrote these five terrific posts last year. I didn’t see them when they appeared. Probably you didn’t either. You should.”
Diane Ravitch, education historian

 

“Your name should be Sweet Steven Singer. You are a delight.”
Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union

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Hello. My name is Steven Singer, and I am a gadfly.

I make no apologies for that. It’s what I set out to do when I started this blog in July of 2014.

I told myself that people were too complacent. There was no curiosity. People were too darn sure about things – especially education policy and social issues.

They knew, for instance, that standardized testing was good for children. Why? Because Obama said so. And he’s such a nice man. It’s too bad all those mean Republicans keep making him do all this bad stuff.

They also knew racism was over. After all… Obama! Right? Black President, therefore, the hundreds of years of struggle – finished! Move along. Nothing to see here.

Yet all this “knowledge” went against everything I saw daily as a public school teacher.

Standardized tests are good for children? Tell that to more than half of public school kids now living below the poverty line who don’t have the same resources as middle class or wealthy kids yet are expected to magically ace their assessments. Tell that to the kids who get hives, get sick, or throw up on test day. Tell it to the black and brown students who for some unexplainable reason almost always score lower than their white peers.

Racism is over? Tell that to all my minority students who are afraid to walk home from school because they might get followed, jumped, beaten or killed… by the police! Tell it to their parents who can’t get a home loan and have to move from one rental property to another. Tell it to the advertising executives and marketing gurus who shower my kids with images of successful white people and only represent them as criminals, thugs, athletes or rappers.

So when I started this blog, I consciously set out to piss people off. But with a purpose. To quote the original historical gadfly, Socrates, my role is, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” It seems well suited to a school teacher. After all, Socrates was accused of “corruption of the youth.”

It’s been quite a year. When I went to the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago last April, some folks actually seemed to know who I was. “Don’t you write that Gadfly blog?” was a common question.

When I met NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and AFT President Randi Weingarten, they both said, “I read your blog.” And then they looked me up and down suspiciously as if they were thinking, “THIS is the guy who writes all that stuff!? THIS is the guy giving me such a hard time!?”

Of course, I am human, too. One can’t sting and bite every day. Sometimes the things I write are met with love and approbation. Some weeks even Lily and Randi like me. Sometimes.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has given me tremendous moral support. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have one of your heroes appreciate your work! Her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” really woke me up as a new teacher. I’m also on the steering committee of the Badass Teachers Association, an organization that has changed my life for the better. The more than 56,000 people  there are my support. I would never have had the courage to start a blog or do half of the crazy things I do without their love and encouragement.

And there are so many more people I could thank: my fellow bloggers Jonathan Pelto, Peter Greene, Russ Walsh, Nancy Flanagan, Mitchell Robinson, and Yohuru Williams. Also the good people at the LA Progressive and Commondreams.org. The incredible and tireless radio host Rick Smith.

There are just too many to name. But no list of acknowledgment would be even close to completion without mentioning my most important supporter – you, my readers. Whether you’re one of the 9,190 people who get every new post delivered by email or if you otherwise contribute to the 486,000 hits my site has received so far, THANK YOU.

So in celebration of my first full year of blogging, I present to you an end of the year tradition – a Top 10 list. Out of the 90 posts I wrote in 2015, these are the ones that got the most attention. Often they incensed people into a fury. Sometimes they melted hearts. I just hope – whether you ended up agreeing with me or not – these posts made you think.

Feel free to share with family, friends, co-workers, etc. After all, I’m an equal opportunity gadfly. I always cherish the chance to buzz around a few new heads!


 

10) The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Published: July 17, 2015
Views: 7,122

Description: It hit me like a slap in the face that almost all Senate Democrats voted to make the reauthorization of the federal law governing K-12 public schools a direct continuation of the same failing policies of the Bush and Obama years. Heroes like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seemed to be turning their back on teachers, parents and school children. And they were stopped in their efforts by… Republicans!

Fun Fact: This story had some legs. It inspired a bunch of education advocates like myself who are also Bernie Sanders supporters to write the candidate an open letter asking him to explain his vote. His campaign eventually responded that it was about accountability!?


 

9) Punching Teachers in the Face – New Low in Presidential Politics

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Published: Aug. 3
Views: 14,735

Description: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie thought he’d run for the Republican nomination for President. He thought threatening to metaphorically punch teachers unions in the face would get him votes. It didn’t.

Fun Fact: This new low in Presidential politics came just after Donald Trump had announced he was running. Christie’s new low now seems almost quaint after Trump’s calls to tag all Muslims and monitor their Mosques. How innocent we were back in… August.


 

8) This Article May Be Illegal – Lifting the Veil of Silence on Standardized Testing

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Published: April 18
Views: 15,818

Description: Teachers and students may be legally restrained from telling you what’s on federally mandated standardized tests, but we’re not restrained from telling you THAT we’re restrained. Is this just protecting intellectual property or direct legal intimidation of educators and children?

Fun Fact: I have not yet been arrested for writing this piece.


 

7) Stories about Teachers Union Endorsements of Hillary Clinton

Did the AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

(July 12 – 4,448 hits)

 

The NEA May Be About to Endorse Hillary Clinton Without Input From Majority of Members

(Sept. 21 – 3,873 hits)

A Handful of NEA Leaders Have Taken Another Step Toward Endorsing Hillary Clinton Despite Member Outcry

(Oct. 2 – 739 hits)

Teachers Told They’re Endorsing Hillary Clinton by NEA Leadership, Member Opinions Unnecessary

(Oct. 4 – 7,074 hits)

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Published: July 12 – Oct. 4
Views: 16,134 TOTAL

Description: You expect your union to have your back. Unfortunately it seems our teachers unions were more interested in telling us who we’d be endorsing than asking us who the organizations representing us should endorse.

Fun Fact: I broke this story pretty much nationwide. News organizations like Politico were calling me to find out the scoop.


6) Why We Should Have ZERO Standardized Tests in Public Schools

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Published: Jan. 30
Views: 16,443

Description: Someone had to say it. We don’t need any standardized tests. We need teacher-created tests. And that’s not nearly as crazy as some people think.

Fun Fact: This was written back when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was being rewritten and naïve fools like me thought we might actually get a reduction in high stakes testing. Spoiler alert: we didn’t.


 

5) Atlanta Teacher RICO Conviction is Blood Sacrifice to the Testocracy

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Published: April 3
Views: 18,187

Description: There is something terribly wrong when we’re using laws created to stop organized crime as a means to convict  teachers cheating on standardized tests. I’m not saying cheating is right, but the mafia kills people. These were just teachers trying to keep their jobs in a system that rewards results and refuses to balance the scales, listen to research or the opinions of anyone not in the pockets of the testing and privatization industries.

Fun Fact: Watching all those seasons of “The Wire” finally came in handy.


4) Not My Daughter – One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl From Toxic Testing

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Published: March 20
Views: 26,420

Description: How I went to my daughter’s school and demanded she not be subjected to high stakes testing in Kindergarten.

Fun Fact: They were very nice and did everything I asked. If you haven’t already, you should try it!


 

3) I Am Racist and (If You’re White) You Probably Are, Too

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Published: June 2
Views: 28,906

Description: White folks often can’t see white privilege. This is my attempt to slap some sense into all of us. If you benefit from the system, you’re responsible to change it.

Fun Fact: Oh! The hate mail! I still get it almost every day! But I regret nothing! A black friend told me I was brave to write this. I disagreed. Anytime I want I can hide behind my complexion. She can’t.


2) I Am A Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got

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Published: Nov. 19
Views: 45,196

Description: Our public schools are already places of refuge for our nation’s school children. Send me more. I’ll take them all. I’d rather they end up in my classroom than drowned by the side of a river.

Fun Fact: I got equal love and hate for this one. Some folks were afraid of terrorists. Others didn’t think we could afford it. But many told me my heart was in the right place. Lily and the folks at the NEA were especially supportive.


 

1) White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

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Published: Sept. 6
Views: 96,351

Description: Maybe we should stop laughing at black people’s names. Maybe we should try to understand why they are sometimes different.

Fun Fact: You’d have thought I threatened some people’s lives with this one! How dare I suggest people should stop mocking other people’s names! If you want to know how strong white fragility is in our country, read some of the comments! But many people thanked me for bringing up something that had bothered them for years but that they had been too polite to talk about, themselves. This is easily my most popular piece yet.

 

A Real Solution to the Infinitesimal Cases of Child Predators in Our Schools

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Pat Toomey is obsessed with child predators in our public schools.

When I came to Washington, D.C., this summer to visit 
the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, he was lobbying to get his “Passing the Trash” bill included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

His proposed legislation – now part of the Senate version of the ESEA – would ban school districts from helping known pedophiles from finding teaching jobs at different schools. Toomey is hopeful the provision will remain in the final version of the law that eventually will reach President Obama’s desk.

I met with his education aide who cheerily told me her job was to comb through the nation’s newspapers everyday and count the number of teachers accused of acting inappropriately with children. I’d mention issues like inequitable funding, standardized testing and Common Core. She’d solemnly quote back the number she’d found in her research.

There was definitely a disconnect between our priorities. After all, I’m a public school teacher. I work in our school system everyday. She and her boss only know about our schools through what they read in the newspaper. And according to the media every school in American houses child predators. They lurk behind every corner protected by administrators, superintendents and unions.

However, the facts do not back this up.

The Associated Press held a landmark investigation in 2007 to discover the extent of the problem. Reporters sought disciplinary records in all 50 states and the District of Columbia over a 5 year period. The investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned following allegations of sexual misconduct. About 70% of those cases involved children being victimized.

There is no glossing over it. The number is disgusting and startling. However, it is far from the national epidemic the media and Toomey are touting.

There are more than 3 million teachers in this country. This report found that 1 in 800,000 may be a child predator. That’s .00083%.

In other words, your child is more likely to be struck by lightning than be the victim of a child predator at school (1 in 134,906).

Other things more likely to happen include dying in an airplane crash (1 in 7,178), death on the job (1 in 48,000), and being murdered (1 in 18,000).

I don’t mean to be glib. One teacher betraying a young person’s trust in this way is one too many.

I’m glad Toomey is pursuing this legislation. I even support it.

However, I don’t like the slander and libel against the great majority of teachers. I don’t like how we’re all being painted with the same brush – even when it is done in the cause of making it more difficult for child predators.

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. In that time, I have never met a single teacher who I would be uncomfortable letting babysit my 6-year-old daughter. Even when I was a student, myself, back in the 1980s and 90s, I never had a teacher who I was afraid would molest me or my classmates.

Compare this to the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. A review by American Catholic bishops found about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002. That’s .04% or 1 in 400. Sure the timescale involved is much longer than the AP study of educators, but the pool of priests is also much smaller. It would seem children are more in danger in houses of worship than houses of learning.

However, none of this helps people like Toomey pass legislation. You can’t say this doesn’t happen much, but we need to stop it. No one would vote for it. There would be no sense of urgency.

It’s just that in dramatizing the situation the Senator and his ilk are defaming the majority of teachers who would never even consider hurting a child.

The truth is not politically expedient. Child predation in schools is not a quantitative issue. It’s a qualitative one.

You don’t need large numbers of children to be hurt in this way for us to take the problem seriously. Even a small number, even a single instance, is enough to require action. No child should ever feel unsafe in school. No child should ever be victimized in these hallowed halls – especially by the very people who have devoted their lives to help them.

So I think Toomey’s right. We should pass his legislation. We should take steps to stop this kind of thing from ever happening in our schools.

And if we’re really serious, I have a solution that no one seems to be talking about: Let’s hire more teachers.

Stay with me here. Child predators almost always act alone. This sort of crime requires the perpetrator to have time undisturbed with the victim. Yet what do we have in our public schools? We’ve slashed and burned school budgets until there are fewer teachers and more students than ever. Class sizes have ballooned. It’s not uncommon for teachers to have upwards of 20, 30 even 40 children in one classroom.

This is the perfect breeding ground for child predators. They are more unsupervised than ever. They can do as they please and no one will catch them until it’s too late. Even principals and other administrators have less time to observe what goes on in the classroom because they’re unduly burdened with ridiculous amounts of paper work required to ensure every teacher gets a junk science value-added evaluation.

But if we hired more teachers, we could reduce this problem. We could even take the majority of these new teachers and put them together in the classroom. We could initiate a nationwide co-teaching initiative.

There would be challenges. You’d have to be careful to pair educators together that are compatible and can work well together. However, it would be worth it.

Few teachers would be alone with a class of students. There would almost always be another adult in the room. If another teacher was doing something fishy, it would be observed and probably reported. Moreover, the mere presence of another educator would be a huge deterrent to even trying something funny.

And this would solve our class size conundrum. You might still have larger classes, but the ratio between teacher and student would be halved. Educational outcomes would increase. Students would get more individual attention. They’d learn more. Teachers would be less stressed having someone else to shoulder the burden. And having an influx of new middle class jobs would boost our flagging economy.

This is a win-win.

Of course, it would cost some major bucks. It would require a lot of work from our nations lawmakers and policy wonks. But how could they really say ‘no’? After all, it’s being done to protect children!

From an economic standpoint, we already spend 54% of our federal budget on wars and the military. Only 6% is spent on education. It seems astoundingly unlikely that we can’t afford adding these jobs, increasing children’s educational outcomes, boosting the economy and protecting children – all in one sweep!

So, Senator Toomey, after your measure gets adopted in the final ESEA, I suggest you spearhead this new mission. After all, your bill will help, but co-teaching will almost eliminate the problem. Even if we had all children take classes exclusively on-line, it wouldn’t stop child predators from getting to them. (Heck! Predators thrive on the Web!) But co-teaching could make a real appreciative difference.

If we really want to stop students from being victimized in school, we need more teachers.


NOTE: This article was also published in the LA Progressive.

 

Blame the Victim – America’s Favorite Pastime

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I watched a little girl at school refuse to get out of her seat and get pounded by the police.

I watched a teenager in his car try to zoom away from a cop and get shot dead through the driver’s side window.

I watched all of these things and more from the safety of my cell phone. I wasn’t there in person, but I felt like I was.

And I am not alone.

It seems these two events were on everyone’s lips yesterday.

This is one of the fruits of self surveillance – the selfie, the dashcam, the youtube video. Events that would have been shrouded in the haze of he-said-she said are now public domain. The shadowy corners and back alleys are now just as flooded with spotlights as the most crowded theater on Broadway.

In some ways, that’s a really good thing. So many events that only a decade ago would have been hidden forever are now open to public view.

You’d think that would solve a lot of our society’s problems. No more secrets. No more lies. Just objective facts. THIS is what happened. No denying it. We’ll need context, but facts are facts. Now we can come together and decide with clarity what really happened, why it happened and who’s to blame.

However, things don’t always work out as you’d expect.

We can – in fact – agree on the facts but not necessarily on their meaning.

We all see the same images but we somehow don’t see the same things. The same light enters our eyes and forms the same images, but our brains process those images very differently.

We all see a little girl forcibly removed by an officer of the law. We all see a victim and a perpetrator. But which is which?

We all see a police officer exit his car, approach another vehicle which flees from him before he draws his gun and shoots. But who is to blame – the cop or the driver?

We come to different conclusions. And I think the reasons why depend on deep human truths about each of us.

Which side you take says something about you. It shows what kind of person you are, what you value, what assumptions you make about human nature.

When I watch that South Carolina police officer violently grab the little girl and throw her from the room, I focus on the child. Here is a 16-year-old black teen. She apparently was told to leave the room and refused to do so. She was wrong. But my heart won’t let me side against her.

Maybe she hit the officer. Maybe she was verbally abusive. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think a police officer – or any adult – should manhandle a child. If she had a gun, a knife or some weapon, that would be different. But she was just sitting peacefully in her seat. She probably deserved some sort of punishment for insubordination – but not one that would cause her physical harm. I’d be furious if someone treated my daughter that way. And so I am angry at this police officer and all the bystanders who took pains to ignore what was going on.

In a similar manner, when I watch another South Carolina officer approach 19-year-old Zachary Hammond’s car, I begin on the adult’s side. When the teen starts to drive away, I’m with the police officer. The teen is breaking the law. He should listen to the cop who is reasonably asking to question him. However, when the officer draws his gun, things get muddy for me. As the car drives away and the officer shoots into the window, I demand answers. All ambiguity disappears when I discover the teen was unarmed. He wasn’t pointing a gun at the officer. As you can clearly see, the car was not pointed at the cop. The adult was obviously in no danger.

The officer overstepped his bounds. Despite his claims of self defense, despite prosecutors siding with him, I cannot. It seems to me this 19-year-old boy out on a first date was victimized. Yes, he may have had drugs in his system. Yes, he may have possessed drugs with the intention of selling them. None of that justifies murder by a public servant who is charged with protecting and serving society. It may justify arrest, but it does not give the officer the right to be judge, jury and executioner. Imagine if death was the consequence for your own 19-year-old misdeeds! Far too high a price.

However, there are many who disagree. They side in both cases with the adult, with the police. And I see their point to an extent. Police have very difficult and dangerous jobs. They put their lives on the line to uphold laws that are sometimes ambiguous and of dubious value. But there needs to be limits to their authority.

What I find even more troubling is the dynamic between adults and children. Too often grown ups act as if they can do whatever they want to young people. They can touch, hit, belittle. And all in the name of discipline and order.

But maybe this says more about me than anything else. I care deeply about children. Not only am I a parent, I’m a public school teacher. I’ve devoted my life to helping young people get a good start in life. As such, I think violence against children is the most heinous thing anyone can do. It is despicable beyond words. Harming or killing an adult is bad. But do the same thing to a child and it is much worse.

This should be a shared value. It should be a tenet upon which our society is built. But instead too many of us blame the child or the parents. We’re presented with facts but lapse into assumptions about the child’s upbringing and the parents shortcomings. If the youngsters parents had done this or that, things would have been different. And – heck! – that may even be true! However, unlike our infinite surveillance of moments, the facts are not there. We have no record of mass parental neglect. We have just the opposite. In so many cases parents work multiple jobs to feed and clothe these children. They work night shifts. They take classes to improve themselves. So they can’t be present to the degree they’d like. But here we are passing the blame with nothing to support our assumptions but a feeling in our bellies. And we’re so deadly certain about it.

It’s sad really. We all can see the same events but remain unclear about the blame. We share the same senses and most of the same values. But our life experiences and prejudices make all the difference.

When an adult looks at these situations and sides against the child, I think it shows a terrible blindness. When some people look at the student roughed up in the classroom, they automatically side against her for a variety of reasons – race, gender, age, etc. among them. They have preconceptions about how black people act. Preconceptions about little girls. Preconceptions about poor children and their parents. And frankly it shows their moral judgment to be sick, diseased and untrustworthy.

Likewise, when some people see the teen gunned down in his car, they have preconceptions about the police and young people. Anyone on the other side of a police officer’s barrel is wrong simply by virtue of the direction in which he is pointing his gun, they might say. Police are defined as right. Suspects are defined as wrong. This is deeply troubling. It’s counterfactual. It’s untrue. Police are just humans, too. They can be wrong. They have been wrong. If we always assume they are correct in every situation, we are being morally lazy and willfully blind. We’re refusing to look at the facts and then judge accordingly. We stop at who is involved and not at what they did.

It’s so easy to blame the victim. It’s reassuring and safe. It means nothing is out of sorts with the world. Everything is just as it should be. Only this one person who was beaten by the police or shot dead – only that person is to blame. The social order remains intact and proper and good and justified.

It takes a kind of intellectual and moral honesty to look the world in the face and accept that which is uncomfortable but true. Sometimes those charged with protecting us actually do harm. Sometimes adults know less than children. Sometimes actions are racially motivated.

Because when we watch the world, the world looks back. We reveal ourselves. And sometimes we show the world exactly how ugly and depraved we can be as a nation.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

Do Americans “Throw Money” At Their Schools? A Fair Funding Primer

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“Don’t throw money at schools.”

It’s a common rejoinder when lobbying for an increase in public education budgets.

You offer facts why schools need it: both the state and federal government continue to reduce K-12 funds, class sizes are increasing, the curriculum is being narrowed, buildings are crumbling – real world consequences to spending deficits.

And some guy (it’s often a dude) stands up with a cock-eyed grin and says, “You know, we really need to stop throwing money at schools.”

And he pauses as if we all need a moment to take that in.

Is there anything to this? We hear it often enough, but does he have a point?

Let’s see.

“Don’t throw money at schools.”

First, is it true? Is anyone actually throwing money at our schools?

I’ve worked as a public school teacher for over a decade. To my great disappointment never once has anyone hurled greenbacks through a window in my building. I have never had to dodge, duck or otherwise exercise gymnastics to avoid being thunked in the head by a stack of airborne bills.

Origami ninja stars made out of $100 notes do not routinely fly through the air in my classroom. No government representative has ever shown up in the auditorium during a professional development and said, “Yeah baby! Let’s make it rain!” before showering my coworkers and myself in Benjamin’s.

No. This has never happened. Not even coins. More change is thrown at the fountain in my local mall than at any public school where I’ve ever worked.

At this point, you’re probably saying, but, Steven, that’s not what this guy meant. He wasn’t implying someone literally tossed bills at foundations of learning. He was just being colorful.

To which I respond: was he? Because there are lots of ways to phrase that idea. He simply could have said, “We shouldn’t increase education funding.”

He could have said, “We need to spend school money more wisely before increasing it.”

He could have said, “Additional learning revenues are a waste because schools do such a bad job.”

He could have said, “We spend too much on education already.”

He could have said, “Kids don’t deserve more of my cash.”

But he didn’t say any of those things. Instead he conjured an image out of a Roman orgy or a rap video. He purposefully tried to frame this as a ridiculous situation. He wasn’t just trying to make an argument. He wanted to paint anyone who could possibly disagree with him as a fool.

“Can you believe these guys crying about public school funding?” he implied. “They’re having money thrown at them and they actually want more!?”

So before we even start to study the content of his phrase, we must remember it’s coated in bias and malicious intent. He is not really calling for a rational argument. He is appealing to emotions – most probably the emotions of those listening to the debate.

But we cannot sink to his level. We need reasons.

This is difficult because it’s not entirely clear what exactly he was getting at. Let’s examine what his statement might mean in plain English and try to determine if – underneath all this spin – he has a point or not.

Here are some possibilities.

1) “We need to spend education money more wisely before increasing it.”

This might be what he intended to say. And if so, he does have a bit of a point.

There is a problem with how school funding is spent. There is waste and misappropriation. At the local level, school boards and administrators do not always do things in the most efficient manner. But you could say the same thing at every level of democratic government. Fascist states have much less waste. Shall we just burn up the Constitution, then?

At the state and federal level, the problem is compounded by the ignorance of those allowed to write our laws. Education policy is rarely made by those who know what they’re talking about, thus funding often is wasted on useless initiatives. Common Core, standardized testing, punitive accountability systems – these were all created by business interests without regard to educational validity or efficacy and – as such – waste taxpayer money that could be better spent on things that would actually help children learn.

And speaking of waste, may I introduce you to charter schools? Favored by lawmakers yet rocked by fiscal scandals, charters are legal means of sucking up tax dollars for a profit. While public schools have to account for every penny spent and prove funds went to better the educations of real live students, charters are not just permitted but encouraged to withhold some tax money from going to student services and instead bolstering administrators’ bank accounts. Anyone who speaks of fiscal accountability in education yet is in favor of its further privatization is either disingenuous or in need of a basic math course!

The solution, however, is not to withhold additional funding. The solution is more oversight. And I don’t mean only government oversight and regulations. I mean oversight by the public.

Democracy only works if people participate. People need to push for transparency and less wasteful policies. They need to educate themselves about what’s going on. They need to investigate. They need to lobby, protest, and criticize. They need to vote. And they need a free and interested media to give them the facts to make smart decisions.

Clearly we’re lacking some of these things today. But that’s a national problem not limited to education funding.

In the meantime, we can’t wait for a perfect government before increasing school spending. Our children need help now!

If we do nothing, we doom another generation to getting less than they deserve, less than what we could have provided. Why? Because we were afraid some of it wouldn’t reach them!?

A deep sea diver with a kink in his air hose, doesn’t shrug and turn off his oxygen. He turns it up!

2) “Additional learning revenues are a waste because schools do such a bad job.”

This might have been his criticism. Let’s look at the facts.

International comparisons of national school systems are all the rage in political circles. And raw data suggests that children from the United States are not at the top. We are somewhere in the middle.

That’s all true. But what pundits refrain from admitting is that it’s been true for a long time – in fact, for as long as we’ve been making these types of comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

This brings up an important issue. How does one compare national school systems to each other, anyway? What do we use to make these comparisons? Income prospects? Student portfolios? Measures of critical thinking? Classroom grades?

No. We use standardized test scores – the PISA test to be exact.

However, we’ve known for decades that standardized tests are poor measures of academic success. Bubble tests can assess simple things but nothing complex. After all, they’re scored based on answers to multiple choice questions. In fact, the only thing they seem to measure with any degree of accuracy is the parental income of the test-taker. Kids from rich families score well, and poor kids score badly.

So these comparisons are suspect.

But even if we accept them, we are leaving out a very important factor: Poverty.

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking the PISA exam have much less child poverty than the U.S. As we’ve seen, this will boost their scores. If we adjust our scores for poverty, our students jump to the top of the list.

Let me repeat that: U.S. students do the best in the world on international tests – IF THEY ARE NOT POOR.

Moreover, the U.S. education system does something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

In short, U.S. public schools do an excellent job educating children. They overcome incredible obstacles to achieve near miraculous ends often with very few resources.

Imagine what they could achieve if our schools were properly funded.

3) “We spend too much on education already.”

This one is a favorite of politicians of both parties. We already spend a lot on education. Some lawmakers and media personalities go so far as to claim that we spend more than any other country in the world.

Is that true? No.

We are near the top, but according to the most recent OECD study, four countries – Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland – spend more.

Additionally, the study was released in 2014 but used data from 2011. Since that time, the U.S. has cut its school spending by leaps and bounds while most other advanced nations have been increasing it. Look for many more countries to pass us up when the next study is released.

But even using current figures, there are troubling social, economic and political differences between nations that impact how school funding needs to be spent. While most advanced countries spend their education budgets on actual instruction, the United States mandates public schools use a larger portion of their budgets on things outside the classroom.

For example, many international schools don’t have metal detectors or security staff. Given the U.S. problem with mass shootings and gun violence, our schools need to spend a significant portion of their monies in this way. I’m not suggesting we stop. Clearly we need to continue these practices, but that’s less money to help kids learn.

In addition, unfunded legislative mandates and court decisions have made U.S. public schools responsible for many things that international schools are not. About one third of all budget increases in recent years has gone to support special education students; 8 percent went to dropout prevention programs, alternative instruction, and counseling aimed at keeping students in school; another 8 percent went to expand school lunch programs; and so forth. Very few additional dollars were provided for needs associated with basic instruction.

Again, I’m not saying we should stop. Given our national epidemic of child poverty – an epidemic not shared by other advanced nations – we have to address these adjacent issues. But without additional funding, we’re letting the very heart of our schools – the classroom – go to waste while other countries are providing significantly more support.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end there. Not only does the U.S. have unique problems that other nations do not share, we also are unique in how we allocate the funding we already have. And this difference only worsens the problem and increases the need for more money.

While most advanced countries divide their education dollars evenly between students, the United States does not. Some students get more, some get less. It all depends on local wealth.

The average per pupil expenditure for U.S. secondary students is $12,731. But that figure is deceiving. It is an average. Some kids get much more. Many get much less. It all depends on where you live. If your home is in a rich neighborhood, more money is spent on your education than if you live in a poor neighborhood.

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

So even though we spend more than many countries, we spend it so unevenly that poor and minority children are being left out.

Therefore, we have a choice: either do away with funding based on local property taxes or increase funding to poor school districts – or both.

4) “Kids don’t deserve more of my cash.”

Dollars to doughnuts, this is probably what he really means.

The United States has a moral failing. And we’re proud of it. We call it libertarianism. It means – Screw you! I’ve got mine.

We don’t care about helping others, we don’t care about the common good, we only look out for ourselves and our immediate friends and families. Everyone else can eat crap and die.

It’s ethical immaturity and, frankly, there’s not much you can say to someone who feels this way except that you disagree.

At most you can try to appeal to his self interest. Do you really want to live in a society full of uneducated people? Do you really want your kids to grow up in a world like that?

But that’s as far as it goes. You can’t help emotionally and intellectually stunted people – especially adults. Most children go through this phase. Some never grow out of it.

The good news is that most of us aren’t so far gone. If you can show that our interlocutor’s statement really comes down to this, you may be able to convince some people to agree with you simply because no one wants to be such an odious troll.

You need to pull back the curtain and show the truth.

How do we best spend these education dollars? How do we raise the money? Those are valid questions, but only a truly horrible person simply refuses to help children learn.

Because we’re not “throwing money” at schools. We’re throwing certain kids away.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive, Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Killer in my Classroom

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Some nights sleep just won’t come.

I toss and turn, crumpling the blankets until I have to get up and read or pour myself a glass of water.

Sitting up in the pre-morning gloom, that’s when they come back to me.

A parade of faces. No names. Words are all lost in the haze of time.

But the faces remain.

Kids I’ve taught and wondered about.

What ever happened to Jason? Did Rayvin ever get into dance school? I wonder if the army took Tyler…

But there’s one face that always comes last.

A strong straight lip. Soft nose. Brooding eyes.

Terance… Terrell… TYRELL.

Yes. That’s his name.

One of my first students. One of my biggest failures.

And I don’t have to wonder what happened to him. I know with a dread of certainty.

He never got to play professional basketball like he wanted. He never even made it out of high school.

No, not dead – though I do have I gaggle of ghosts on my class roster.

He’s a murderer. Life in prison.

I was his 8th grade language arts teacher. It was my first year teaching in the district.

I had a reputation for being able to relate with hard to reach kids so they put me in the alternative education classroom.

I had a bunch of students from grades 6-8 who simply couldn’t make it in the regular school setting.

These were kids with undiagnosed learning disabilities, appalling home environments, and/or chips on their shoulders that could cut iron.

But I loved it.

I taught the Read 180 curriculum – a plan designed for students just like mine. We had three stations: silent reading, computer remediation and small group instruction.

The class was divided in three – students rotated through each group. Though I somehow monitored the whole thing, I spent most of my time meeting with kids in small group instruction.

I had an aide who helped the whole thing run smoothly, too. Lots of planning time, support and resources.

Everyday was exhausting. I could barely stay awake on the ride home. But it was worth it, because I felt like I was making a difference.

And there was Tyrell.

Few days went by without at least one of the children having to be disciplined. Sometimes it was just a simple redirection or even standing in close proximity to kids who seemed set to explode. Other times it was a brief one-on-one counseling session to find out why someone was misbehaving. And sometimes it was so bad kids had to be sent to the office. Once we even had a child escorted out of the building in handcuffs because he brought a weapon to class.

If you’d told me one of those children would end up killing someone, I wouldn’t have blinked. If you told me it would be Tyrell, I wouldn’t have believed you.

He was a gentle giant.

Almost always calm and in control. He was well above the others academically. When one of the others lost his cool, Tyrell would help talk him down.

I wondered why he was there. Turns out he was involved in a bloody fight on the way home from school the year before.

But that rarely made its way into the classroom. It was like he was already doing time – serving out his sentence with these misfits until he could be placed back with the rest of the student population.

I remember when Carlos got caught with the knife, Tyrell’s back had stiffened but he hadn’t moved.

The knife had fallen from Carlos’ pocket across the table and slid to the floor.

Tyrell watched it slide across his desk but said nothing.

“Is that a knife, Carlos?” I asked.

“No!” he said picking it up and putting it back in his pocket.

“Why do you have a knife, Carlos?” I asked.

He shrugged and refused to say anything.

Then Tyrell spoke up.

“It’s for the walk home, Mr. Singer.”

“What?” I asked.

“He needs it,” Tyrell said.

And the look in both of their eyes said it was true.

But what could I do? If he used that knife, I’d be liable.

I had to report it, and I did.

Would I still do that? Was it a mistake?

I don’t know.

But I went to the administration and told them the truth – that I BELIEVED the knife was for self-defense. That something had to be done to protect these kids on the walk home.

Nothing changed. Our district saves a ton of money by forgoing buses. Richer kids get a ride to school. Poorer kids walk.

And Carlos got charged.

Tyrell never said anything about it. But I wondered what we’d find if we searched HIM.

We have metal detectors, but they are far from 100% effective.

I remember one day Tyrell stayed after class to talk to me. Talk quickly turned from grades and assignments to what he wanted to do with his life.

Tyrell loved B-ball. Often wore a Kobe jersey to school. And always the cleanest, brightest Jordans on his feet.

He was going to play ball, he said. No doubt about it.

I tried to convince him to have a backup plan, but he just shook his head.

“What kind of options you think there is out there for a guy like me, Mr. Singer?”

I’ll never forget it. Me trying to convince him he could do anything he wanted, and he just smiling.

“Guy like me only do one of two things,” he said, “He plays some ball or he runs out on the streets.”

I asked him to explain, and he told me about his brothers – how they sold drugs, bought fancy cars, took care of the family.

I kept insisting there was another way – a better way. And finally he agreed but said that his way was easier, safer, more of a sure thing.

“Why should I work my ass off on all this?” he said pointing to his books, “I can make a stack on the street.”

Was there anything I could have said to change his mind?

I don’t know. But I tried.

And that was it, really. I never had another chance. They moved him back to regular ed. a few weeks later.

He finished the year with a different teacher in a different part of the building.

I saw him occasionally, and he’d dap me up, but that was about it.

The next year there was an opening for me in regular ed., too.

Eighth grade with the academic track population.

I had to really think about it. My colleagues thought I was crazy not jumping on it at the first opportunity.

But it was no easy decision.

What finally pushed me over the edge was the rumor that alternative ed. was being downsized.

They would no longer pay for the Read 180 curriculum. No more aides. No more resources and extra planning time.

So I put in for the move and have been there ever since.

Of course, with a much reduced alternative ed. most of the students I would have taught had moved up with me to the regular ed. classroom. Now they’re just bunched in with the regular population.

But I don’t regret it. I love these kids. I love being there for them.

And Tyrell? About a year later, I read about him in the newspaper.

Police think it was a drug related hit. Tyrell was in the backseat. He put his gun to the driver’s head and pulled the trigger.

Bam.

No more future for either of them.

Except on restless nights when Tyrell’s face keeps coming back to me.

Is there something I could have done? Do the words exist for me to have convinced him to change his path? Would he have listened if I hadn’t reported Carlos?

And most importantly – why am I the only one who seems to care?


NOTE: A slightly condensed version of this article was published on Nancy Flanagan’s blog “Teacher in a Strange Land” in Education Week. The expanded version seen here also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.