Understudied

One of the constant dilemmas I have experienced as a novice researcher is the question of whether or not something I’m interesting in writing about has been done before. “Just do it better!” you say, but that’s not my point. You can search the internet and various databases all you want, but there’s always a nagging feeling that your idea has popped into someone’s head before.

Yet as I run search after search for different variations on my central questions about using perceived altruism as a shield against perceptions of white supremacy, it really doesn’t seem it’s all been connected in this specific way before, or at least not published as such.

This could mean one of two things. It could mean no one’s tried to say it because it’s a stupid idea.

Or it could mean I’m onto something creative and interesting.

My brain wants to convince me it’s the former. And will always convince me of this as long as my anxious thoughts exist. But I’m starting to believe that I can come up with something valuable. And I expect that’s an important part of this educational experience, that sense of self found through academic work.

Helping the Wrong Way

What strikes me in my initial forays into researching the altruistic shield (using one’s ostensibly sacrificial profession as a defense against criticism for perpetuating white supremacist systems)¬† is that, despite the news stories about the openly racist people in classrooms, most of the racism is couched in other issues. What I mean is that most such teachers really DO want to help – I think I have to believe that – but they believe that “help” should be filtered through deficit-based instruction and pedagogy.

This deficit-based pedagogy intersects with the “colorblind” racism particularly prevalent in those who are openly liberal, which means that when people point out that they’re not actually helping their students as much as they could, paroxysms of rage and tears can be the result.

The truth of the matter is, racially marginalized students ARE different from their peers. To acknowledge this flies in the face of “not seeing color,” but that’s some nonsense anyway. We’re different for reasons specific to each person’s life but also for reasons that are more universal to the racially marginalized. To respond to this effectively requires meeting these students where they are and using your actual, valuable training and skills to help them find a successful way forward instead of placing these students where you think they must be because of the assumptions you’ve subconsciously made or, most damagingly, deceiving yourself into believing you are free from all race-based judgment.

I think this is why it’s so hard for many teachers to hear that they might not be perfect supporters of racially marginalized students. Most do enter education or other such fields to help, but the society and systems around them have framed what “help” is in ways that harm the people they seek to serve. It’s not really their fault that they don’t know. It only becomes their fault once they’re told and they refuse to consider the possibility.

Will or Skill?

I’m coming to the tail end of my second doctoral semester. Based on credits, I’ll be 20% done, though I assume and know it will get much harder. Hunter wants us to take four years to finish, and I plan to do so if at all possible, as much as I love studying. I honestly wish I could enter a bubble of rich educational discussion for a few hours every day, but that’s now how this works (that’s not how any of this works).

An interesting discussion occurred last night in my ELT/MLL class, wherein we were talking about something interesting called “Dynamic Language Learning Progressions,” which you can read more about here. It’s potentially very useful, and it breaks down language proficiency in a way that I hadn’t seen before (more descriptivist than many other tools, though not perfectly so), but of course it could be used poorly and simply serve as a way to categorize and other people, like all such tools can be. I’m sure the BEST Plus seemed like a good idea at the time, too. (I hate that test.)

But anyway, it got us talking about how, useful though it might be, it would genuinely take a lot of work to implement, even if supported by one’s administration and institution, an exceptionally large “if.” DLLP cannot simply be taken off the shelf and used, at least not effectively.

A classmate suggested, speaking more broadly about teaching skill but applying it to the specific conversation, that some simply can’t hack it in the classroom and wouldn’t be able to implement DLLP, or any complex change. Another person said it was a question of willingness to make the massive internal changes that are probably required for effective and empathetic instruction.

I’m not sure where I stand on all this.

I think that just about anyone can stand in front of a classroom and count the hours, days, years until they retire. That? That’s the people dragging the entire profession down. They can go. It’s really, really easy to be a mediocre teacher.

But is there anyone who is eager to learn and improve, year over year, questioning themselves and their methods but not to such an extent that they are paralyzed by fear, who still can’t teach effectively? And what does it even mean to teach effectively?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, and if people did, I think it would be common knowledge by now.

With that said, I think the will matters much more than the skill. I think it’s very hard to force someone to want something they don’t actually truly care about, but that if someone is intrinsically motivated, they can absolutely improve their skill, be it as subject matter experts or at anti-racist praxis. When you consider that my own interest lies in figuring out how to get people to identify and then¬†lower their altruistic shield, I am clearly someone who believes improvement follows internal changes moreso than it does external impositions, though people do sometimes need a sharp nudge.

The reason I get so annoyed at obliviously racist educators (here come the “#notallteachers” people) is that, perhaps unwisely, I believe in most of us. If I didn’t believe in teachers on the whole, I think it would be pointless to try and make us better. That doesn’t mean I believe in our systems or our country, but I’m still trying to improve those, anyway. Might be stupid.

So I suppose I believe, at least for majoritized educators, that supporting our learners, truly seeing their humanity and lifting it up instead of consigning it to shame and silence, is a choice we must all make, and continue to make, day after day. I myself had to make this choice, and I continue to have to make it each time I’m challenged in the classroom.

After all, with the way technology is going, the only thing that’s going to keep us in the room is the connections we can make with our students, if we choose to care about such things.

We’re all capable if we want to be. But maybe I’m just being silly. It wouldn’t be the first time.

American History S

I hear, and have been hearing, a lot about how we should model ourselves after the lessons found in Scandinavian countries, or sometimes East Asia. I even read an entire book, The Smartest Kids In The World, about these and other similar places and their educational outcomes, which compare favorably to ours. And it’s true, certainly, that our system is rife with injustice from the moment a child is born to a family outside of the dominant groups.

I once admired that book, and even tried to contact the author after I read it (really, I did). But in growing more comfortable expressing the true beliefs you’ve seen me write about here recently, I now understand that there is no way to import the system of other countries without reckoning with the uniquely brutal history of our nation.

I imagine us, with a different administration, deciding to model a new public school system off of that in Finland or the Netherlands or Denmark or Japan. And I imagine how spectacularly it would fail. Similarly, as much as I agree with and support a move towards a more socialist economic system, replacing our current practices with those of another country without a true reckoning of what America is will just lead to disappointment. (We should still do it, though.)

You see, lots of other countries have violence in their pasts (and present). We are hardly the only country guilty of imperialism or predatory capitalism.

But it’s really only us, only the United States, that founded itself on not just the backs of slaves, but upon the lie that Americans could achieve equality without considering the humans we refused to recognize as such. Genocide is not an American concept, nor is slavery, but we are a country that wouldn’t exist without the way we came to be, and any changes we attempt to make that refuse to confront our deep moral failings will be half-measures that won’t lead to anything truly transformative.

To put a pin on it, we can’t become a better country without seriously grappling with the white supremacy in our blood, and we can’t reform our schools without dismantling the white supremacy that they depend on.

For educators, there is no neutral. It’s not fair, I know, to ask us to do more than the hard work we already do, but you don’t go into education to be treated fairly or paid well. (Well, you shouldn’t.) Any educator who isn’t actively fighting inequity – my focus is racial but there are many other forms of marginalization – is just supporting the status quo. And the status quo is a deeply American form of marginalization.

We can’t absolve ourselves of something we can’t admit we did in the first place. I understand that it’s probably painful to grapple with the enormity of what has been visited upon people of color in this country, so, even as many of us stand in front of students who are living through this reality, we would rather pretend it doesn’t exist, or pretend that each incident of racism is just the behavior of a Big Bad Person rather than the result of a system that values one group over all others.

Guilt doesn’t really help us, though; it’s paralyzing. Yes, we’re guilty, to some extent, but what’s more important is that we’re responsible, and have been since we chose to become educators. Because of the way our country was built, because of how it has always been run, it is our responsibility as educators to confront our history with honesty and humility. Our students deserve this. Our country deserves this. And, in the end, we deserve this.

The Altruistic Shield

This is just the first time you’ll hear me mention this. But I’ve received the green light to pursue developing this concept in independent study this summer, and so develop it I shall.

I was struck, during the process of conducting my survey and speaking about what I learned in Toronto, by the strong, emotional reactions that a few people had to the work I was trying to do. None of the scholars at AERA argued with me – I got some really well-reasoned ideas pointed out to me, and I appreciated that – and I really only caught flak from some Internet People (hi).

An academic told me that it’s only going to be possible to pursue this sort of work – on marginalization in education – if you sort disputants into two categories: those who are eager to engage through their disagreement; and those who just want to stamp their feet. From my limited experience thus far, the difference is pretty stark, in that the ones who really want to discuss will usually approach with a question that allows you to choose to engage or not, whereas the others just want to rant and froth at the mouth.

But honestly, the people who just want to rant are pretty interesting to me. That may sound strange, but I actually think this population is a large portion of the teaching force (and social services in general). Not that most teachers are actively hostile towards self-analysis, but when pushed to evaluate their role as part of an unjust system, many will fall back on the idea that, because they’re putting in long hours for what they feel is unfair compensation, and because they often work with “difficult” students, asking them to consider uncomfortable topics (race, in the case of my own interests, but it could be plenty of other things) is too much. They retreat behind the presumed social good of the work they do and raise what I’m calling their “altruistic shield” to guard them against any criticism or judgment.

I’ve wondered in these past eight months of school what prevents useful research from being absorbed by the masses, and aside from the outdated journal system (something I probably shouldn’t be saying online before attempting to publish, although those submissions are blind), I believe the major obstacle is this altruistic shield. People are set in their ways in every field, of course, be they social service or other pursuits, but there’s something about the omnipresence of education and educators that makes the shield so comforting to many. Nothing will change so long as it’s more convenient to hide behind the shield than it is to challenge yourself to improve your empathy for others, whether the difference is based on race, gender, disability or other factors.

Because that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? The shield protects people from criticism and self-analysis, but it also prevents sufficient empathy. And the farther we remain from our learners, the less hope we have of helping successfully guide them forward. You just can’t be a great educator (or social worker, or what have you) if you think that the only thing you need to do is show up and put in the hours. It’s not fair that we social service workers are often the only ones taking more and more steps to support our learners, and most of us surely aren’t paid enough, but if we’re not going to do it, who is? This should be why we do what we do.

I am planning to spend the summer researching and building up the tenets of this concept, so that I can stop using imprecise and mushy terminology to define what exactly the altruistic shield is. And I hope, by codifying it, I can figure out ways to work against it, and find ways that the people who have discarded the shield can help others lay their shields down as well.

Hopefully this works. I will keep you posted.