I’m sick of feeling hopeless.
There’s so much wrong, so much not working, and day after day I go home carrying a little more of it and a little more of it and a little more of it. It is often too much. It is often too broken.
With the amount of time, money, and talent we spent on Education, we should be doing something truly staggering. Even some of the shabbiest school buildings feel like miracles, and there is such good people and we have these kids for so long every day, and it feels impossible that we are not doing better. Too often, it feels like we’re just doing not enough.
It’s not my school, my district, my state. It’s everywhere. It’s not just teachers. It is a system that is too comfortable where it stands, that reacts too strongly to any push, no matter how slight. It’s all broken in so many of the same ways. We are failing the same kids just about everywhere, and so there are successful schools where those kids aren’t and failing schools where those kids are, but it’s the same school. Sometimes, literally, it’s the same school.
I’m sick of it. I’m sick of being sick of it.
I brought this question to happy hour the other day: What is the percentage of teachers who are either actively or passively damaging students? In other words, what, really, is the percentage of teachers, not exactly bad, but just not good enough, that shouldn’t be teaching?
There were some answers. Whatever. Everyone had their own, and no one really has any idea how we’d start to agree to measure that. But, we all had numbers. So… think of yours.
Then, I thought and drank about it for a couple of minutes, and reframed the question: What is the percentage of classrooms you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting your child in if your child was a black boy?
Got that number too?
We all had different numbers. Some had way different numbers (also, shockingly, at a table full of teachers, we were nearly all white). My numbers were way different from each other (also, my numbers may be way off. It’s quite possible I’m in a bad place, like, mentally, about all this right now). I think I went from 15% of teachers are maybe not so great to somewhere around 70% of classrooms I’d feel worried putting my kid into. But, I mean.. how fucked is that? Somewhere in my brain there are 55% of teachers that aren’t good for black kids, but are still ok to teach? Shit. Nope.
I have no idea what that number really is. It’s a feeling. It’s a reaction. It’s hearing too many conversations between educators that made me scared or sick, it’s thinking of myself in my first many years, thinking of the work I do now to avoid some of those mistakes and how often I still fail, and looking at how many people in schools aren’t even trying to do that work, are trying not to step on toes, not to be noticed, are encouraged not to take risks. Call it the mediocre middle, and know we have a system that creates, supports, and protects it.
Why? Because I (because we) de-prioritize the damage done by racist teaching and racist teachers. Shit, we run away from the term “racist” because it makes people defensive and uncomfortable and hurt. Fuck them. Fuck that.
Not to call anyone racist, but… Not to say that we aren’t all good teachers, but… Not to say they aren’t trying hard, but…
Whatever your number, whatever your percentage, what should we do with these teachers? Are we just going to fire half the teachers in the state?
Yes, they should be fired. I care about them and their families and about teacher strength, but not more than I care about kids. Get better or get gone.
If we removed every teacher, every person who worked in, wrote about, or created policies for schools who minimized the impact of race to a level that is dangerous, who accept low expectations, who accept not just failure, but fail to embrace and expect and allow for the full potential of all our students, every teacher who isn’t outraged; if we fired every person who fell in that category, we straight up wouldn’t have enough people to fill our classrooms (not to mention our school, district, and DC offices). Also, there’s nothing to suggest we have figured out a way to replace them with anyone better.
So, what? What do we do? What we’ve been doing is talking about a certain amount of allowable damage, an acceptable level of harm that we hope is less sometime, that we hope gets better. We hope that things, that people, get better. We push gently against a system that is pretty comfortable where it is. We hope for good enough.
I’m sick of good enough for now. I’m sick of slowly better. I’m sick of how far it feels like we have to go, and sick at the mass of people and systems that need to be moved to get there. I’m disappointed in what we are doing with what we have.
I want to allow for it all, really. I want to focus on the good things. I want to write another piece that cheer-leads for all the things that teachers do every day because I do love teachers and I do love teaching. I love the exchange of love that comes through teaching, and for every shocking story of something carelessly or maliciously said about and to students, I have ten stories of amazing things, of sometimes simple and sometimes momentously amazing things happening in schools.
To break cycles, we need to break systems.
Ultimately, I just don’t care where you are on your precious personal little journey. If you don’t believe, truly and deeply believe in the potential of your students right now, you can fuck right off. I don’t care, ultimately, about how far you’ve come. Get better. Work your ass off till you are.
Look. I’m staring too hard at the bottom. I hope it’s been too long since I’ve been in the right room at the right time. Even when people are telling me about good work, good plans, I’m putting my head in my hands. It’s not enough. It doesn’t seem like enough to work small, but I don’t have any answers that are big enough.
I don’t know where to set my feet with enough leverage to move the whole goddamn system.
Tom Rademacher is an educator with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He blogs at Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.