by Tonya Fitzgerald

After a discussion with a teacher who was telling me about the pushback at her school from teachers being forced to greet each child by forcing eye contact and shaking hands, she showed me this training video of a classroom in an Uncommon School.


I could barely get through it. Shouting: “Oh, hell naw, “this looks like they’re in prison,” I was not feeling it.

It gave me the same sick feeling I had watching the video of Sandra Bland’s exchange with a white police officer who sought to control her words, attitude, and body. In Sandra’s case it was the need of the white male to control a black woman. With the Uncommon School it was the heavy handed control over a black children.

Race-based social control is real and plays out almost every time black people face white authority, whether that is in courts, traffic stops, mortgage banks, or classrooms. The need to control us is everywhere.

I was honestly hurt watching these second grade babies being trained like animals to move and speak on command. I was angry too.

It’s videos like these that feed my intuition and impressions about white-led education reform. Our need for schools that do a better job with our kids shouldn’t put us in the position to accept inhumane and culturally dangerous situations like this one. Our children need academic opportunity, not canine training.

Don’t get me wrong: I know poor parents of color needed school choice. No one has to convince me that a child’s zip code shouldn’t determine whether or not they receive a quality education. The traditional public school system’s monopoly on black education isn’t meeting our needs, mainly because teacher’s unions dominate local schools, for their own needs and their own interests.

Yes, I see the urgency of developing alternatives to a system that has failed children and communities of color for generations.

At the same time, leaving the traditional public school system and going to schools run by white education reformers can be jumping from one educational plantation to another.

So when I saw that video, I was too done. I was angry at myself for hoping that the master poor families of color was going to would be kinder and gentler than they were leaving.

We should celebrate when charter schools are getting better academic results with poor children of color. Success with kids who fail in the traditional system, but do well in charter schools counters the ever present narrative of the teachers’ unions that say our children can’t learn until poverty is eradicated. Still, we should expect – no, demand – that the schools reformers run don’t trample on the culture values of black families on their way to improving test scores. There must be high expectations for academics, and for honoring the humanity of black children.

I expect more from education reformers. They often position themselves as the ones who believe in the potential of our kids when others do not. So why would there be a white teacher in this video barking commands and snapping her fingers at a group of Black children. How could she not see that as an assault on their dignity as learners?

If these schools are as innovative as they say they are, why wouldn’t they find a way to achieve a positive school culture that is structured and disciplined without demanding “100% compliance” and control of children to the point where they can’t think for themselves?

I mean after all, they’re calling these kids “scholars”. That’s some confusing shit. Scholars are people who passionately explore and question and take risks and fail and think.

Scholars don’t need tape on the floor marking a path determined for them by someone else or to march to the beat of someone else’s drum.

Scholars require think time after a question is posed and they certainly don’t parrot back or regurgitate what their teacher says.

Scholars are independent thinkers who don’t need to be told to have “a bright face,” to scratch when they don’t itch or laugh when ain’t nothing funny.

Some of my expectations of white reformers are rooted in the fact that they know a little something about Tony Wagoner’s work and know the difference between creating an innovator and a robot.

Scholars don’t learn and grow in places that value “memorized mediocrity” over passion, creativity and purpose.

Scholars don’t thrive in places that value symbol over substance, abusive control over cultivating genuine relationships.

Scripts are for the lazy, untutored mind.

Signs with acronyms like H.A.L.L.( Hands at your side, All eyes forward, Lips zipped, Low speed) and phrases like “economy of words” are all the new bullshit jargon packaged and sold at the expense of the hearts, minds and spirits of our beautiful black children.

Can’t nobody tell me that the people building these schools for other people’s children would ever put their own children in an environment like the one in that video. No honey, that ain’t happening. Trust me on that.

So yes, I know school reform is needed. I know traditional schools have fallen down on the job and don’t look like they can get up. I know we need better choices, higher standards, and accountable adults in our schools.

The bottom line for me is it better not look like what I saw in this video.

That picture is all wrong.

If you want to see a better example of what is possible when adults respect their students, “Teaching as Healing… [and] Education as Liberation:” Meet Wisdom and His Students

Tonya Fitzgerald is a parent in Colorado who has had experience with public, charter, and private school systems in multiple states. Follow her at @sowhesed


  1. Thoughtful, substantive and from a perspective that we need to hear from more often. Thank you Citizen Ed for bringing voices like Ms. Fitzgerald to the conversation!


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