Excerpts from Teaching Community by bell hooks

I finished Teaching Community by bell hooks this past week. After loving Teaching to Transgress last year, this was my second bell hooks read.

She has a way of writing that, as the reader, bonds you to her. She never talks over you — she welcomes you into her world. While very theoretical in nature, she never loses me as she reflects on lessons learned and decisions made in her personal and professional lives. Her words are swift, but they pack a punch. She is one of the few authors that I’ve read who speaks of teaching with emotion. She even drops the L word (gasp!) when it comes to her students. There’s so much talk about humanizing teaching and learning these days, but combining social justice with the struggle we face in the classroom everyday, bell hooks was doing this work 20 years ago. Most of us, like me, are just catching up.

Before I return it to the library, I want to tap out a few excerpts that I know will stay with me for a while.

Serving students well is an act of critical resistance. It is political. And therefore it will not yield the normal rewards provided when we are simply perpetuating the status quo. …Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environments wherein they teach. More often than not, we work in institutions where knowledge has been structured to reinforce dominator culture….Conventional pedagogy often creates a context where the student is present in the classroom to serve the will of the professor, meeting his or her needs, whether it be the need for an audience, the need to hear fresh ideas to stimulate work, or the need to assert dominance over subordinated students. This is tradition of abuse the caring teacher seeks to challenge and change. The teacher who can ask of students, “What do you need in order to learn?” or “how can I serve?” brings to the work of educating a spirit of service that honors the students will to learn. (pp. 90-92)

 

Most of the time white men allow themselves to deny awareness, to keep from sensing moods and being empathic. Feeling the mood, being open comes from a practice of respect, a willingness to acknowledge up front that you may not and will not be automatically accepted everywhere you go. The practice of “pausing” is a practice of respect. It allows you to aknowledge and access other people’s feelings without violating that space with your insistence that you have a right to be there, or anywhere you want to be. By pausing, by demonstrating deference to those who may reject you, to give them the opportunity to be in doubt and to possibly reject you is one way to repudiate white male privilege, and one way to allow others to be in the position of the chooser, the authority. (pp. 113-14) [Ron Scapp, quoted by bell hooks]

 

To speak of love in relation to teaching is already to engage in a dialogue that is taboo. When we speak of love and teaching, the connections that matter most are the relationship between teacher and subject taught, and the teacher-student relationship. When as professors we care deeply about our subject matter, when we profess to love what we teach and the process of teaching, that declaration of emotional connection tends to be viewed favorably by administrators and colleagues. When we talk about loving our students, these same voices usually talk about exercising caution. They warn us about the dangers of getting “too” close. Emotional connections tend to be suspect in a world where the mind is valued above all else, where the idea that one should be and can be objective is paramount. (p. 127)

 

When I asked one of my students, now a law professor, if my love of her created a climate of favoritism in the classroom, she laughed stating: “Are you kidding? The more you loved us, the harder we had to work.” There can be no love without justice. (p. 137)

 

College education is so often geared toward the future, the perceived rewards that the imagined future will bring that it is difficult to teach students that the present is a place of meaning. In modern schooling the messages students receive is that everything that they learn in the classroom is mere raw material for something that they will produce later in life. This displacement of meaning into the future makes it impossible for students to fully immerse themselves in the art of learning and to experience that immersion as a complete, satisfying moment of fulfillment. …Of course these students are obsessed with grades and willing to do almost anything to ensure that they will get the evaluation that most boosts their future chances of success….today’s frantic need to push towards deadlines, covering set amounts of material, allows very little room, if any, for silence, for free-flowing work. Most of us teach and are taught that it is only the future that really matters. (pp. 166-67)

 

I am troubled because our institutions are conservative and they confine our voices and our imaginations more than we know. Unwittingly, we become our own gatekeepers, representatives of an institution, and not devotees to the sacred world of imagination. We censor ourselves. We bring an aura of death into the classroom when we close down the imagination’s right to say and to do what it needs. (p. 169-70)

 

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Dear M, (Student Letter #3)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 3rd post in the series.

Dear M,

I’ve had you as a student for two years now. I’ve gotten to know you well. It pains me think about your struggles because your feelings towards math have soured while in my class.

Last year was good for us, productive. It was the first half of the two-year track for algebra 2 that you were involuntarily placed in by our school. You worked hard all year. Asked lots of questions. I found you very capable. Little did I know what was bubbling underneath the surface.

This year I assigned the Mathography in September. In yours, you opened up about your strong dislike for math through the years and how being placed in a two-year course against your wishes affected your self-worth. It made you feel inadequate as a learner of mathematics. Given our experiences last year, I found both of these things surprising. I should’ve known. That’s on me.

I made a focused effort to listen to you more this year. During our talks — all during class time mind you — you’ve helped me feel the negative emotions that can come with learning math. From jump, you shared your frustrations about the class, about our school. Being a small crop of seniors in a sea of sophomores and juniors taking the class, you looked inward and wondered why you were so bad at math. M, you are not bad at math. We made you believe that.

Hearing your story firsthand and seeing your tears hit home. I told you that for the last two years I lobbied for our school to reform how we track students in math classes. No one has listened to me. While we do a lot of things right here, tracking has created a social hierarchy within our school that is hurtful and unjust. It shames students and reinforces stereotypes about math that you know well. You are a product of this system. I’m sorry for being part of the problem.

But my weak apology and efforts to advocate for systemic change on behalf of students like you don’t matter. Not at this moment. Not now, in late April, when you’ve all but given up. I had my chance to do something different, to help you engage, to help you find a purpose to our class, and I didn’t. We had a few small wins, but nothing consistent. No lie, I get frustrated with you — like I did today with the quiz. I can’t escape my own flaws, M. I wish I could. I’m being pulled in so many directions during class, the needs so great and so diverse, that instead of being creative and resourceful, I indirectly place blame on you. Again, this is on me.

Now you’ve lost interest in achieving anything meaningful through math. Respectfully, you come back each day to spend another 45 minutes in a haze of confusion. While never rude, you’re in so much pain that you laugh and make a self-deprecating joke anytime I approach you about grades or hand back assessments. I want you to know that this eats away at me.

I can only hope that somebody down the road can help you reconnect with math. I know it won’t be me and I’m ok with that. I hope that when you discover success through math, you relish it in all its glory. Stay in touch.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

 

Resisting the expectation that content must supersede humanness

Any halfway-decent teacher understands that knowing our students is essential for success in the classroom. Heck, most would agree that it’s the most important thing we can do.

Prior to this year, I saw my students, but I never saw them. I never looked beyond who was in front of me. Outwardly, my passion for teaching and learning shined, but subconsciously I remained detached from the personal lives of my students. I had empathy, but always accepted surface-level excuses that naturally rise to the top when there’s an underlying issue. Not doing homework? Consistently late? I would accept a lack of effort, forgetfulness, or laziness (whatever that word means), say that they needed to be better, ask more questions in class, or attend tutoring. I would rarely follow up. Sheepishly, I always sidestepped the tough, emotionally-charged questions that were, and are, always there.

This year I find myself saying things like, What’s really happening? Or, Why are you hurting? What’s bothering you? I want to listen. The result has been a lot of tears. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many students break down right in front of me. These have been tough conversations, but needed ones. They have brought us closer and created an intimacy that I’m appreciating more each day.

Looking back, I avoided asking these types of questions — and listening to confessions of pain and struggle — because I was utterly classroom- and performance-oriented. Outside of their knowledge of the Common Core Standards, I had no gauge for the individual in my room. With 120 students, how could I place emphasis on the individual? Efficiency and rigidness are inherently demanded from high school (math) teachers. While these two qualities serve the content well — optimizing the passing rate on some standardized exam or similar non-humanistic end — they work to divide student from teacher. They force us to assume that content doesn’t emerge from bodies. They force us to overlook the student who is crumbling under the pressure of being a parent to their younger brother.

A colleague asked me when I have time for these types of interactions with students. We are already expected to do so much and our curriculum is so dense, how could we possibly serve as pseudo-guidance counselors, too? Adding on, he thought that the humanities were where teachers and students looked inward and reflected. No disrespect to him, but his concerns were symptoms of No Time Disease. I mentioned that it’s not about having enough time…it’s that I now make time. In class, after-school, whatever. I now expect these conversations. They’re important to me because my kids need it — especially in math. I build in time to simply listen.

I get the weight that he was putting on content. Besides, its why my students and I were even brought together in the first place. We probably wouldn’t cross paths otherwise. But while my students and I are bound by mathematics, and use it to venture to the edge of knowledge together, our humanity dictates how we interact with it. There’s a sort of duality at play here and math is but only half the story. For my entire career, this was lost in the midst of the pressures to perform and digest content at alarming rates. Beyond replying to emails about homework late into the night, giving high-fives, or writing a recommendation letter, I never felt the need to invest my self into the social and emotional capital of my students. I never chose to join their struggle. Maybe it’s because I’m old and a parent, but it’s different now. I’m learning how to resist the expectation that content must supersede humanness. I’m learning how to play an active role in their personal lives.

I’d be remiss if I left out how stressful this has been for me. In a way, it’s been like turning on the light in a dark room. With a determination to learn and listen, an explosion of information is now available for me. But I can’t unhear things. They stay with me. They cause me to lose sleep. My efforts to truly see my students as more than just students, to better understand them, and to help them cope, have added yet another layer of complexity to the messiness that is teaching. And I thought that this job couldn’t get any harder.

 

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Parent-teacher conferences

Parent-teacher conferences used to be a grueling affair. On top of saying at school until 8pm, I used to prep my room, jazz up bulletin boards, and print 3-page progress reports on every student. I even created slideshows, cleaned my desk, and put out a graphing calculator. In a way, it was a way for me to show parents just hard I was working to serve their children.

Three years ago, I became a dad. With this dramtic change in lifestyle, all of my shenanigans around parent-teacher conferences — and parental interactions — went out the window. Mainly because my students were no longer just students. They were now sons and daughters.

Naturally, I saw parents and guardians differently. I gained the type of empathy that only a parent can have because I was one now. I connected to their struggle in raising a child. I internalized their 24-hour campaign to unconditionally parent another human being who is responsible, kind, and mindful. It is the toughest and the most important job in the world — and becoming a dad was the only way I could grasp this. I was a teacher, but I now had conversations parent-to-parent. I was immediately closer to these people who raise my students and it made a world of a difference for me.

As a parent, I’ve learned that parents don’t need us teachers to impart knowledge to their kids. They need partners. Partners that will help shoulder the load in helping their child navigate this messy world. They also need us to close our laptops. And to read behind the lines. Sure, a 3-page report broken down by standard and a slideshow may do this for some, but most parents I meet just want an honest, two-way conversation. What am I noticing at school? What do you see at home? How might we move forward together?

Tonight and tomorrow are parent-teacher conferences at my school. Here’s how I’ll meet with parents:

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There’s no desk that separates us. No screens. Just a circle of chairs and eye contact.

 

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My frustration with snow days in NYC

As a teacher, I am about to do the unthinkable. I’m going to complain about having a snow day. In fact, I’m going to complain about most of the snow days New York City has had over the last ten years. 

Hear me out. I have numbers.

I started teaching in 2006 and I’ve taught in New York City my entire career. My first snow day was March 2, 2009, and while I don’t remember the 8.3″ of snow that fell, I do remember everyone’s reaction to it the next day. They were bewildered. While they felt it necessary to not be in school, everyone was surprised that the mayor decided to close the schools. This sort of thing never happened. Snow-day, shmow-day, New Yorkers went to school. Not being a native New Yorker, I had no idea what they were talking about. I was just thankful that I had the day off. I had no sense of history.

The following year there were two snow days, one of which I didn’t know about until I arrived at school. My commute at the time was an hour and a half by subway and I left for school before Mayor Bloomberg made the call to close schools. Needless to say, that was the worst snow day ever.

The following year, in 2011, there was another snow day. But this time it wasn’t just a regular day. No, no, no. Schools were closed despite the fact that the Geometry Regents Exam, an exam that’s only offered three times a year, was scheduled for that day. It wasn’t rescheduled. At this point, I started questioning the rarity of snow days that had been so boldly declared to me in 2009. They were becoming commonplace.

Over the course of the next seven years, we had 6 snow days. This includes 2 during each of the last two years.

I’ve enjoyed my snow days as much as anyone, but somewhere in the middle of being told that “our schools never close” back in 2009 and having 10 days off over the course of next nine years, I’ve grown weary. A lot of these days off have been unnecessary.

So on Sunday night when Mayor DeBlasio declared that he was closing schools on Monday, I immediately rolled my eyes. While getting group texts from colleagues saying things like “Yesss!” and “Enjoy!”, I couldn’t help but sigh. Not at my colleagues, but instead because our society’s sensitivity to challenging circumstances had once again trumped rational decision-making. The forecast wasn’t terrible. I saw predictions of upwards to 6″ for the city. By the morning rush, the roads were mostly clear. But, hey, we gotta keep the babies safe! 

Despite my frustration with yet another unnecessary day of keeping 1.1 million young people away from their schools, I enjoyed the day. Really, I did. It was almost mild. But when I got back on Tuesday, I wanted numbers. Thinking back to 2009, I was hungry for a history lesson on snow days. I started googling. After a while, I found this great post from The Gothamist from February of 2014 that details the history of snow days in New York City since 1978. Accounting for snow days occurring from February 2014 until now, here’s the breakdown per decade:

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In the last 10 years, there have more snow days than in the previous 3+ decades combined. There were only five snow days between 1978 and 2001, but 12 since then. This is crazy. 

Having experienced snow days that had no business being snow days, I can’t help but connect this sharp rise in snow days to our society’s increasing level of worry…ABOUT EVERYTHING. Parents, administrators, teachers, students — everyone is guilty of wanting the easy way out of snow. We relish snow days and put excessive pressure on the mayor and his crew to keep the babies at home. Ironically, despite longing for snow days, we teachers are the first to complain about having no time

This is bigger than snow. The rise of urgent care centers around city is another example. Got a scratch? Go to urgent care! Stub your toe? Go to urgent care! Tummy hurt? Go to urgent care! Worry and immediacy run our lives. 

As a people, we are more sensitive than ever. This isn’t a bad thing. In many ways, our heightened sensitivity helps us gain a deeper understanding of each other. The world seems to be getting tougher and tougher to navigate — especially for young people. That said, a downside of this has been the fear of making everyone happy and stressing out when we can’t live up to this lofty expectation. The dramatic increase in snow days over the last decade is a manifestation of the city’s awareness of the backlash that they’ll get if they make the tough choice to keep the schools open. We’re overly sensitive and it’s keeping our kids out of school. 

Despite all of my bitterness towards snow days, there is evidence that closing school due to snow has no impact on student achievement. But is student achievement all that matters? I’m not sure. 

The unthinkable is done. Let me check the weather for my next day off.

 

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