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.

Aim Higher

One of the biggest day-to-day battles I face is convincing students to turn assignments in. If I give students an assignment and tell them it is due at the end of class, some of them will find a way to lose it before the bell rings. They won’t leave the room, and yet the assignment will vanish into thin air. It’s like I’m teaching in the Bermuda Triangle.

Last year, this daily headache induced a destructive attitude in me called the “take-what-you-can-get” method. I would be grateful to receive a worksheet from some students within the month I had assigned it to them. My late work policy became lax, my mercy was at an all-time high, and students who were setting a low bar for themselves continued to jump that low bar with my help.

The problem with the low-bar method is that people often meet the expectations you set for them. If you expect greatness out of someone, and push them to get there with the tools and motivation to be successful, they have a high probability of becoming great. Conversely, if you expect little to nothing out of someone, they will probably not attempt to convince you otherwise.

This summer I had my low-bar attitude checked. I was at a professional development session learning how to increase rigor in the classroom (yay, summer break!) when a woman raised her hand and said, “I’m sorry, this is probably off-topic but I just don’t see how I could teach my kids something at this level. You don’t understand what it’s like to teach at a school where 1,000 students are just waiting to drop out. My kids couldn’t do something like this. They don’t care about school. Their parents aren’t home. They’re just trying to get out.”

That statement should make you angry. I hope you don’t believe that just because children are dealing with incredibly difficult circumstances means they don’t care about school or can’t perform at a certain level. That story—long told and widely accepted—is a tall tale.

I am going to get vulnerable here: I don’t believe this tall tale, but I have allowed it to be told around me. I set a high bar for my students, but when they didn’t live up to it, I often caught myself lowering the bar rather than pushing my students harder. I caught myself accepting less from them because I feared I was expecting too much of them. I caught myself—I am ashamed to admit—pitying my students because the odds were against them.

I have never heard a good story where pity helped the protagonist succeed. I have never known a person who got somewhere great because others let them “get by.” I have never seen great heights reached by people who only cleared low bars.

Great HeightsTrue, my students are dealing with a lot more than I can understand. Some of them are in single-parent homes. Some of them are all too familiar with the weight of poverty. Some of them have lost more people in twelve years than I have lost in twenty-three. Each and every child everywhere struggles with something, not just because of circumstances, but because they are all human. To be alive is to struggle.

Though my students struggle, they do not need me to lower expectations, accept failure, or pity them—even if it is well-intentioned. My students need me to set a high bar for them and then help them clear it.

My students need me to teach them that colleges, workplaces, and the world at large have no interest in the tall tale about the struggling kid who needs lower expectations. They care more about the underdog story. They care about the struggling kid who overcame immense obstacles to graduate college, run a company, save lives, and help other kids who are in need. They are searching for the next Steve Jobs, the next Jay Z, the next Lupita Nyong’o.

We do a disservice to our children, our future, and our world when we tell the tall tale that kids in tough places cannot do hard things. The reality is that they do hard things every day, whether or not those hard things are always apparent in school.

They can handle difficulty; if we do not hand difficulty to them, they will not have any reason to try. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in a letter that “the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.”

The woman who made the comment about her students expects them to fail, and increases their risk of failing by perpetuating the stereotypes that exist about them. I’m not saying she is a bad person, or that she hates kids. But she has bought into the tall tale. Until she believes a different story can be told, she will continue to tell the same story about her kids and she will be one more person they have to resist to succeed.

It is hard, both for my students and me, to resist these popular stories and reach for better narratives. But lower bars do not challenge us to reach for anything new. Lower bars harm us, and keep us at status quo.

Higher bars ask us to aim higher, to set our sights for heights unreached. JFK once said of the first trip to the moon, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because it is easy but because it is hard.”Aim Higher

Contrast this with Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughey’s character in the film reflects sadly on the current human condition: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars; now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

No one gets to the moon by staring at the ground and hoping for the best.

This year, I give my students homework every week, and only allow students who complete all of their homework to go on our field trips. We had 66 students on the first field trip.

I assign an outside reading project every six weeks, and students cannot pass the six weeks without completing it. Though I had around 15 students fail the first six weeks, only 6 failed the second six weeks. I’m aiming for 0 this time around.

Students who fail a quiz or assignment are required to attend tutoring to make up the grade. Students who failed the first six weeks now make up some of my best students because they want to meet and exceed my expectations. (They also don’t want me to call home, which they know I will.)

My students and I have grown tremendously since I raised the bar. They are not discouraged when they don’t reach it, but encouraged by my belief that they will soon enough. Someday they will run their own companies, save others’ lives, and change the world as we know it. Those who listen to the tall tale now will be surprised, but I won’t be.

If you have set the bar low for yourself, for your relationships, for your life, I want to encourage you to aim higher. You will be surprised at what you can do when you stop telling the tall tale and start writing your own story. Write it well, and make it worth telling. The world needs higher bars and better narratives.

Same Old Story

I wrote this poem for my students before saying goodbye for the summer. A video of my performance for one class can be found here: 

you were born into a story you had no hand in writing
before you got here
people already thought a particular way about
your race
your sex
your potential abilities
the money your parents made: that was part of your story
the way people looked at you when they saw
your clothes
your house
your hygiene
and your education was based on how people predetermined
people like you turn out
they didn’t want to leave you behind
but they didn’t want you to get ahead
so instead they created a home for you inside of a box
and gave you just enough light to make you think you could see
and just enough air to make you believe you were breathing
it wasn’t a scheme
it wasn’t a plot
it was simply a way for them to keep contained what they couldn’t comprehend within their brains
you can blame them
but they, too, were born into stories they had no hand in writing
born into families that raised them to believe, “we are okay,
and everyone else is other.
we are right, and everyone else may be right as well,
but less so.”
instead of blaming them,
ask yourself how well you fit inside the box you’ve been placed in
if you have the audacity,
step outside the box and read the label
and ask yourself, “is this me?”
another way to phrase this is,
“who am I?
and who gets to decide?”
are the names
young
white
male
probably protestant
college-educated
economically privileged
heterosexual
above any other name?
do societal norms get to dictate who gets to succeed?
and if I am different then that, then it must not be me?
you have been told that you are a product of your environment
but you were also born with feet to walk away from your environment
and create a new one
born with a voice to speak and say who you are not
born with hands to create and point to what you are
and true, there are those will try to silence you
and too often they will succeed
they will block the paths you choose to walk on
cut the mic you wish to speak from
tie the hands you try to create with
and too often the story you had no hand in writing
will end without your pen ever reaching the page
the multiple choice world didn’t like that you couldn’t fit your intelligence
within a, b, c, or d
so they failed you because you are “none of the above”
they gave you 26 lines and said, “write within the box.”
but you have an infinite amount of thoughts that cannot be captured
by factory-processed prompts
so they denied your college apps
your job apps
your improbability didn’t add up
so they kept you inside the box
that they might second guess
that might give them guilt
but it just makes sense
because they, too, were born into stories they were not invited
to edit or throw out
just told, “stick with the status quo.”
so they stuck with it
and stuck you to it
and all of us turn the gears of a machine that manufactures products of
poverty
racism
classism
sexism
environments we cannot survive in
but one day
while you were on break
at your minimum wage job
after days with no sleep
weeks with no relief
and years with no peace
you found a pen
and you checked your shoulder like you were trained
but for once no one was watching
and you didn’t have paper but you had a handkerchief
that you use to wipe the sweat away
so you used it to wipe the slate
and you wrote a story about a father
who cares for his daughter
despite what the world says about
fathers who look like him
and you couldn’t wait to wake your daughter
and tell her the story
and the next day
she found a paintbrush
and she created something that looks like nothing to no one
but you
and now it hangs in a frame in the hallway
because you said, “the fridge is no place for a masterpiece.”
and the next day she whispered the secret to her friends
about a story we weren’t told
a story so bold
that now they can barely hold their tongues
when handed tests that say nothing about them
and everything about the lie we were handed
and commanded not to change
but the truth finds its way through time
and fights its way through lies
and now there are boys and girls of every
color, shape, and size
age, orientation, and status
who tell the story to each other
and weigh what it means for them
and tell it in a different way
because they are becoming acutely aware of the radical idea
that no one can tell their story who is not holding the pen
one of them is your president
some of them are your teachers
all of them are your children
and all of us
are coming to check our stories out of your library
and never return them
because they were never yours to begin with
right now we are ripping the pages and adding new ones
we are skimming history and laughing at the way things used to be
we are creating entirely new ways of telling the truth that
our story is our story
and the only way to be a part of it is to understand
that before we got here
there was a story we had no hand in writing
but after we leave
it will never be the same

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.

IMG_2645

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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