Earlier this fall I was invited by the owner of an HR company to present at a conference being given in Greensboro, NC. Never one to turn down an opportunity to talk in front of people, and eager to see if my presentation would be well received by a group that was not affiliated with a college, I jumped at the chance. I found out very quickly that dealing with business folk is different from dealing with academic types. Academic types had never picked me up at my hotel, driven me around, bought me dinner and introduced me, at dinner, to national figures. I was beginning to love this business style existence! The night before the conference there was a fancy reception at the International Civil Rights Museum and Center. Johnny Taylor, Jr., the CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and I had begun a conversation at dinner about education and K-12 education reform, particularly as it impacts black folks. ( Johnny is black). At the museum he was holding forth to a mixed race group of people about some of his ideas on reform. I had no problem with most of what he was saying until he began to pontificate on how important it was to make black parents participate in the education of their children. Whaaatt?? First, the idea that black parents, any more or less than any other parents are falling down on the job as far as what goes on in our public schools is a facetious and unproven assertion. We have incidents reported, of course, of black parents who do not do what most of us would consider due diligence. They send the kids to school without proper attire, or proper nutrition or proper “respect for education” whatever that is. But, my contention, and it is bound to be unpopular, is that if the kid shows up sentient the rest of what happens that day is up to the adult educators.
I was not integrated, at least not in school, until the 9th grade. Following Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, Xenia City Schools all white board of education drug their heels as long as they could to integrate the schools, closing down all of the black schools and sending the black children to the formerly all white schools. Full integration in Xenia did not occur until well into the 60’s. They also demoted virtually all of the black teachers, sending the secondary teachers to the elementary schools to teach. After the 8th grade I never had another black teacher. Yet, even with that, integration and all white teachers I was not permitted not to learn. My white teachers demanded excellence from me in the same voice that my black teachers had and would not take any resistance on my part. I do not remember any of them calling my parents, demanding things of my parents or for that matter consulting my parents on any matter. If I did not achieve what they wanted me to I was required to stay after school. When Mrs. Boli, my French teacher, decided I had promise she not only required that I stay after school to learn more, she placed me on a competitive scholarship team and insisted I come to her house some evenings to learn more so I ( and my other teammates, Sally and Sharon–both white) could be competitive.
Imagine a teacher today insisting students learn, even if it meant she had to stay after school or have them over to her house to make sure they did. (Mrs. Boli lived next door to the owners of one of the only restaurants in town that did not allow blacks to eat there. When I made a joke that the female owner had looked at me entering Mrs. B’s house and probably thought I was coming to clean up, she marched me over to the house and informed the woman that I was her best French student and I was coming to her house to practice for an important competition). I think what I described above gives us a great picture of what is wrong with public education and it cannot be placed at the feet of the parents. To begin with many of our parents are not educated themselves and did not have particularly pleasant or rewarding experiences in schools that have not been welcoming and/or nurturing of black students for the most part for some time.
Educators go to school for years to study pedagogy. They had to take classes in discipline ( I used to teach teacher prep classes, I know they have to take such classes, cause I taught them! ) If they cannot teach the students regardless of the situation their parents send them in they have some choices. First, find out what failure of the parent is causing the child to be unteachable and ameliorate it. Call Children’s Services, call the local police, call the local charities, call the local churches, call some damn body, and quit sitting there wringing your hands. I had a slush fund when I taught to help out poor kids in my district (and I taught in what was basically a suburban district). I got my slush fund money by soliciting items from local merchants which we then raffled off at the home football and basketball games. Students could petition for money for any reason. I organized a work day to paint my classroom when the school system said it could not be done due to lack of funds. After other teachers at my school Warner Jr. Hi. heard what I was doing they pitched in and agreed to come on a Saturday along with parents and students, to paint halls, classrooms,etc. local merchants donated paint and the local KFC agreed to feed all the volunteers for free.When I was doing educational research I had teachers tell me that they could not teach the kids because they came to school hungry, their parents having failed to feed them. I was flabbergasted. I could not imagine one of my teachers, white or black, finding out I had not had food that day, and not doing anything about it.
Second choice, find a new career. If you are taking money to teach children you say cannot be taught you are perpetuating a fraud on society. Teaching is not a job, it is an avocation. If you lack the passion for it, get out!
When I was doing educational research I noticed a trend. The teachers who were good teachers always referred to their students as ” my kids.” They did not say ” the students” or even worse “those kids. ” Until we are ready to stand up and claim every child as our own and treat him or her as such public schools will continue to fail far too many of our children. Educators, and I certainly include administrators in this group, who are looking to lay blame on anyone else need to look in the mirror.
So, I am going to end by telling you what I told Johnny over a glass of wine at the reception. Public schools have no control over parents. Unless and until we begin to fine or jail parents for not preparing their children the way we would like for them to come to school we cannot put the future of public education in the hands of the parents. Nor should we. Research tells us that children from poor families hear 4 million fewer words than children from middle class and upper class families before they come to kindergarten. Without some intervention that child is starting at a deficit. What would you have the poorly educated parent do about this? The child whose parent is lacking, whether that lack is financial, emotional, or physical needs more from the public schools not less. If we place the burden of reforming schools on parents we will end up the way we began. Those with power and privilege will have a good education for their children, those without will not. in other words the luck of the draw at birth determines your future.
I am not willing to settle for that.