The Neutral Lives of Teachers

I teach at a school that once was a church, and the steeple still resides atop the elementary school building. Most of the students I teach identify as Christian or Catholic. So far as I am aware, there is not a single Muslim student in our school. Based on what my students have disclosed in class, they have never met or regularly interacted with someone of the Islamic faith. Most of what they know about Muslims they have heard on TV or seen on social media.

Lately the media has abounded with hateful, degrading, and dehumanizing comments toward people of the Islamic faith community. After a certain politician took degrading comments about Muslims to a new level last week, I decided to tell my students that regardless of religious beliefs, we owe every faith and non-faith tradition the respect that we would expect to have from them. I gave my kids the option of sharing a letter on social media to tell Muslims that they have value, they are beautiful, and they have a place at our table. I myself wrote a letter which—although I stand by the overall message—I will not repost here as I wrote it quickly in class while keeping one eye on my working students, and thus did not polish my words to communicate everything exactly right.

After posting a picture of my letter, a (former) Facebook friend commented that I should not “indoctrinate” my students with my own personal opinions. And, although I generally do not take teaching advice from people who have never taught, I thought seriously about his position on the issue. Should teachers reserve their opinions in the classroom at all times? Does taking a stance in front of my kids inherently push my values onto them? Are educators expected to remain neutral in the professional setting of their classroom? Indeed, a poster above my desk says, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see” (Alexandra Trenfor).

I spend a lot of time teaching my kids where to look. If I had to guess, I would say that I spend more time than the average teacher talking about how to critically analyze the messages my students see every day. That is no dig to other teachers; if anything, it is a dig at a government that has consistently placed high stakes testing over the ability to actually think. I have an advantage by teaching an elective that focuses on the vague principle of “postsecondary preparation.”

I believe a large part of postsecondary preparation is having the skills to critically analyze media messages. Many college courses are student-driven discussions based on readings, and I believe that I am preparing my students for college by teaching them to critically read about current events. I just wrapped up a unit with my students where we studied the basic principle that (1) all media messages are constructed (2) using a specific language (3) with an embedded set of values and (4) are typically seeking profit or power. We talked about the myth of “unbiased news” and spent a lot of time reading, writing, and debating the messages we observed. Who is giving us this message? What message are they giving us? Why? And, ultimately, do we accept it or not, and why?

One of the best lessons my kids have taught me in the last three years is that you have to earn a relationship with someone; your age, expertise, or authority do not excuse your need to know someone before you start trying to teach them something. One of Maya Angelou’s many pieces of wisdom was that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Thus, my kids have learned to not take any message at face value. It doesn’t matter if they like the person saying something: what are they saying, and do I agree with it?

As their teacher, although many of them seem to like me (fingers crossed), my position doesn’t make my words gospel to them. I know they feel comfortable disagreeing with me, because they do it all the time. And I don’t mean in petty arguments about their behavior; I mean in the real issues that drive at the heart of what it means to be human in 2015. I have deeper and more respectful conversations with my students about political issues than 99% of Facebook is having right now.

I would hate to leave the classroom someday and have my students wonder who I really was. I like to think that they are getting all of me, not some paid pawn reading from a script. I am a fan of NPR’s Secret Lives of Teachers segment, but in my classroom, there is no secret life of Mr. Taylor. I am the same to them as I am to my friends. We argue about rap, I use my trademark self-deprecating humor, and I occasionally share an opinion about topical issues. On my birthday this past Monday, one said, “So you’re 25. No wife. No kids. No prospects.” This is indicative of how much they know me, and how sad my life sometimes seems to them.

I think more of us should recognize the distinction between telling people what we think and telling people what to think. In telling people what we think, we trust them with part of who we are, the experiences and environmental conditions that led us to believe something about the world, ourselves, and others. Conversely, in telling people what to think, we insult them by forcing our own experiences onto them and expecting them to fall in line with us.

If I could destroy one cliché, it would be “because I said so.” It implies that authority supersedes a relationship. It says that your power outweighs all other considerations. It says that an adult’s words are good enough evidence, when we live in a world where adults often abuse, mistreat, and otherwise disregard the feelings of children.

Instead, I tell my kids what I think and why I think it, and then I let them, as fully functioning humans, determine if it is true for them or not. They don’t absorb my words as facts; they have more critical eyes than all of the conservatives and liberals who read the same news sources every day and repeat what they’re told.

I also wonder what effect it has on kids to put them in front of eight adults a day and expect those adults to never share personal opinions. Take a look at your social media, your last family gathering, or the last time you were in the break room and Donald Trump was brought up. Did everyone stay neutral? Did everyone sidestep the conversation and reserve their personal opinions? I highly doubt it. And if in most cases adults do not maintain neutrality amongst their peers, what kind of false reality are we building for our kids when eight times a day they interact with adults who don’t seem to think anything about anything?

I would rather my kids know where I stand on certain issues and strongly disagree with me than assume that adults mostly feel nothing about critical issues. I would rather they know that the world is not a neutral place, and they need to know how to disagree with people and still maintain relationships. The person who posted on my letter has never actually hung out with me one-on-one, or spent any time in the last four years with me, so I felt compelled to remove him from my Facebook (and essentially, my life), and move on. I don’t want to teach my kids that eliminating friends with different viewpoints is how life works, nor is imposing viewpoints on people when there is no relationship present.

When it comes to neutrality, I think teachers need to do two things. The first is to teach kids how to think, because without teaching them how to think they will never truly be prepared for the realities ahead of them.

The second is to teach them, by example, how to be human. More often than not, when my students have class debates and discussions, I step out of the way and allow them to learn the ins and outs of forming opinions and having respectful conversations. I don’t share my opinion, because I don’t want to be the loudest one in the room. It’s a good way for everyone to try to live.

But every once in awhile, when the world seems to be going awry, and not enough people are speaking up for Muslims, or women, or people of color, or children, I open my mouth and I speak from the heart. And my heart, more than my brain, more than my opinions, more than anything else, is what defines me as a teacher and a person. I would rather be wrong in front of my kids a million times than not speak my mind to them even once.

Reverse Drake

IMG_0302I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 3 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.

I recently became engulfed in the still-unresolved beef between Drake and Meek Mill. A good friend once introduced me to a new teacher by saying, “Taylor’s expertise is pop culture.” This was a high compliment. I can playback high profile, tweet-by-tweet coverage of any celebrity scuffle.

If you’re unfamiliar with what took place between Drake and Meek Mill, do not fear: I am here to navigate you through the inner workings of the rap game and feuds herein.

A few weeks ago, Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to express her disdain for “Anaconda” getting snubbed for the MTV Video Music Awards. As she lit our feeds up, her fiancée, rapper Meek Mill, decided to fire a few rounds on Twitter as well. What was on Meek’s mind? Well, he accused Drizzy Drake of using a ghostwriter on a song he was featured on for Meek’s latest album.

Now, if you don’t know a lot about the rap game, to be accused of using a ghostwriter is a pretty steep claim. What you are suggesting is that, according to kris ex, a rapper’s authenticity or realness is false. A rapper must first and foremost be real, and to use a ghostwriter is to be unreal, inauthentic, un-hip-hop.

Drake did not appreciate this. Drake, who has a Twitter, decided not to tweet back, but to release two dis tracks (“Charged Up” and “Back to Back”) aimed at Meek Mill. And, of course, Meek responded with his own dis track (name not worth remembering). And, naturally, Drake then played his favorite Meek-mocking memes on the screen behind him as he played his annual OVO Festival.

The beef got so hot (I AM UNSURE IF MY LINGO IS STILL CURRENT) that Whataburger tweeted, “Meek, if you’re going to serve beef, make sure it’s high quality.”

Most incendiary, in my opinion, is that there is actual video footage of Will Smith, Kanye West, and Drake laughing at a Meek meme on Will’s phone. Talk about beef served cold (I AM AWARE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE BEEF KEEPS CHANGING).

I started to wonder why I was so fascinated by this high-profile interpersonal conflict. At first, I thought that I just pay attention to the wrong things. I do hate when people try to psychoanalyze celebrity’s choices and lifestyles, but when the celebrities are publicly displaying their grievances with one another, it’s not my fault if the dirty laundry was hanging outside and I happened to catch a whiff.

But then I dug a little deeper into my fascination with this beef, and I realized that the same way that Drake escalated Meek’s tweet from 0 to 100 is the same way we teachers often escalate our students’ misbehavior to unnecessary levels of humiliation and oppression.

As the school year begins, we all hang posters with our expectations of students. They include classics like “keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourself,” “use appropriate language,” “raise your hand before speaking.” All of them boil down to respect.

But what happens when we don’t live up to what we expect from our students? What happens when we tell our students to respect us and then don’t return them the same respect we demand?

My students like to use the bumper-sticker phrase, “You have to give respect to get respect.” It’s a troubling motto, because it implies that we both wait for the other person to respect us, and end up in a standoff where no one ends up respecting anyone.

Yet we do the same thing with our actions towards students. A student will make a comment that is as small as Meek’s tweet, and we will escalate it to yelling, rude comments, negative reinforcement, and outright oppression of our students.

Sometimes a student’s facial expression will set us off. Other times a student will say something we misinterpret. How often do we wrongly punish a student for a small miscommunication that we mistook for disrespect, or overly punish disrespect we grossly overreacted to? How seldom do we apologize when we realize we over-disciplined?

I have been guilty. I have let my bad moods affect the way I speak to my kids. I have raised my voice after telling my kids to never raise theirs. I have given full, impassioned lectures in what could have been powerful, teachable moments.

It is our responsibility as educators to Reverse Drake. We have to take moments of tension from 100 to 0 real quick, not the other way around. If we don’t stop to reflect on our cultural biases, we can mistake positive traits like outspokenness for open disrespect. Our choice of words can cost us the ability to reach a student and love them like we are called to do.

I don’t mean that we allow our children to run all over us. I have a strong classroom management system in place, but there is a difference between good leadership and oppressive dictatorship. One makes people want to follow you out of mutual respect and desire; the other makes people follow you out of fear or rebel against you altogether.

Children absorb messages from us, and they are taking on some of our character every day they spend with us. My kids know and point out all of my quirks, and I have noticed some of them adopting some of them as we grow and learn together. Your kids will learn character traits from you. Are you living the character you want them to have? If the answer is not always yes, or even often yes, perhaps you should live up to your classroom expectations before you ask anyone else to do so.

Maybe you need to read into your responses and discipline like I read into celebrity beef, and check whether you are taking tweets and turning them into dis tracks. You know where Twitter beef never gets resolved? On Twitter. If it ever goes away, it is because of a private conversation between the two tweeters.

Or maybe you have continued cooking the beef long after it burnt. I know teachers who hold onto grudges with students for years. We are human. We are not infallible, or impervious to personal feelings or prejudices. What is important is that we recognize these emotions and biases and work actively to reverse them.

We have a greater duty to our kids than teaching them equations and sentence structures. We need to teach them good character, and we first do this by practicing good character in front of them. Our words and our posters and our expectations are worthless without congruence of actions. Squash the beef and dish out more grace, more compassion, more love. Learn to Reverse Drake, and get back to the heart of teaching: to show children their immeasurable worth and lift them up in a world that is constantly trying to bring them down. Your children need you more than ever.

The 27th Line

Tomorrow my students will take their first round of STAAR testing in Writing, a subject I teach twice a day. The test is scored by their responses to 40 multiple-choice revising and editing questions along with 2 essays—one narrative and one expository.

Although the Writing test is one of three they must pass in the 7th grade (along with Reading and Math), it was important to me to communicate to my students that it doesn’t mean that much to me.

Allow me to explain. I have known my students for 8 months. I spend more time each day with them than with anyone else. I teach some of them for 3 hours a day (the lucky ducks who have me for Reading, AVID, and Language Arts).

They are more aware of my quirks than anyone else (including myself—apparently I have an “about-to-go-off” face). They have taught me more about love, respect, and how to change the world than any other event, person, or experience in my lifetime. They are incredibly intelligent, highly talented individuals who encourage me daily to be a better person.

I don’t need a test to tell me how valuable they are to our future.

If they pass the STAAR tomorrow, it may say a lot about their growth as students. It may provide some evidence of their success in middle school. It may slightly indicate some part of their intelligence.

But it won’t measure their worth as humans. It won’t tell the whole story.

There has been a lot of criticism in recent years about the way education waters down learning the common core, the way teaching has turned to content and skills that may not matter at all.

We have imprisoned creativity and labeled imagination worthless. We have boxed children into standards that say next to nothing about their abilities. We have mislabeled intelligence as the ability to answer multiple-choice questions.

Today, I reminded my students that no one—not the world, the government, test-makers, parents, friends, family, nor society—gets to tell their story if they don’t let them.

I sometimes hesitate to post stories about my students because it communicates to you that I believe my students’ stories are mine to tell. Just because I teach them and always speak highly of them does not mean that I always share the story about them that they might share about themselves. I try to do them justice, but I sometimes fall short.

Part of the reason I write about my kids, and tell my version of their story (because really, it is our story), is because there are far too many negative, incorrect narratives about them. Some of my students are unaware of the way society portrays them, but most of them are fully aware of the way the world sees them. They need fighters in their corner. They need someone to point out stereotypes of them and tell them, “This isn’t you.”

Since becoming a teacher, I have heard a thousand ignorant comments about how people see inner-city children. I have been devastated by friends who assume certain stereotypes about my children because they have never heard a better story about them. I believe it is my responsibility to tell the world a different, better, truer story about my children.

Don’t take this as me saying that I get to tell my kids’ stories for them—they are the only ones with the power to do that. All I have the right to do is tell my story, which often involves them as leading characters.

But when I was their age,  bullies had told me so many untrue stories about myself that I had started to believe their fairytales. If it weren’t for the people who told me a different story, I would never have become the man I am. I wouldn’t be the Ben Taylor who knows his story is important and worth telling to others. I owe the same to my kids.

Because of this, a day before the Writing STAAR, I read the essay below to them to remind them that their worth cannot be measured by any test, standard, or person. Perhaps you can find some hope in it too, if you have found yourself answering to the wrong measures of a person’s true value.

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In case it is hard to read from your Internet device, here is the full transcript:

You were born into the wrong times. In this age, they box you up, label you, and sell you for the price they think you’re worth. They size you up by how well you can shrink your brain to multiple-choice responses. If you cannot fit within their definition of intelligent, they will call you otherwise. They will work to ensure that opportunities aren’t handed to you by the same measure they are handed to others, that more doors close for you than open. They ask you to to tell them how smart you are in 26 lines–never mind that your story already stretches beyond lines and pages and books.

In the short time you have been on this earth, you have held the weight of love, felt the sting of heartache, known the joy of laughter, bitten into the sorrow of loss. You are not a statistic. You cannot be measured or weighed or labeled or boxed or held down. You are what is right in this wrong world. You will alter perceptions and destroy the shaky foundations of stereotypes. You were born into the wrong times, but you will make them right.

Whatever happens tomorrow–whether you pass or “fail”–will ultimately not define you, because you cannot be named anything you don’t answer to. Who you become is your decision. It is your story to tell, so make it a story worth telling. Many of the pages are blank, but rest assured: you are more than multiple-choice answers, and you are more than 26 lines.

You are the 27th line.


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