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Trying to articulate a coherent philosophy of education is not an easy task. It is, however, an extremely and worthwhile endeavor. It is only through this process that a new teacher is able to think and reflect upon what it means to be a teacher and how his/her philosophy of life has influenced not only the decision to enter the world of education but how it will impact the educational process. For approximately 20 years, I was involved in the development and implementation of technology for a large Boston-based law firm. More importantly, I have been involved in the struggle against poverty, racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression, and war for over 30 years. As someone who has been around the block more than once and who has been involved in the struggle for economic and social justice for most of my life, I think it is important to keep in mind the words of the great African-American leader Frederick Douglass, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." While it is true that these words were spoken in the context of the struggle against slavery, these words also hold true for education.
As educators, we have a tremendous responsibility. Not only are we responsible for developing lessons that enable students to become knowledgeable about a specific content area but we also must help them develop the discipline and skills necessary to succeed in college or in the workplace. We must help our students understand that learning is a life-long process and is not confined to the classroom. It is not enough to present the content we must challenge our students to think critically about what we are teaching and how it applies to their daily lives. This is especially true in history, which is my content area.
After spending almost a year teaching in the Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH) I am struck by the fact that it appears that many of my students have never really been pushed to excel in their classes. This occurred to me when I assigned them a challenging essay question. They struggled with it. They had trouble understanding the question and then being able to answer it even at the most basic level. I knew when I assigned it that it would be challenging but I did not expect that I would spend a couple of weeks working with them and helping them to understand how to correctly read and answer this essay. Many of my students are used to receiving all A's. The point is that by pushing them, challenging them, working with them and making them struggle with assignments such as this one they will become better writers and become better learners. They will better understand how to read and comprehend difficult questions, determine what information is required, organize the information, and answer it correctly. In short, they will become better students. Some of them were not happy. "You are asking too much," some said. They are absolutely correct, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." When they get to college the level of expectation will be significantly greater than in high school. These students need to be prepared for college and hopefully they will be.
Learning these important skills is especially important in an urban setting such as Boston. Every day my students show up for class. Many of them face tremendous obstacles just to get to school each day. They work, take care of family members, etc. Yet, every day the vast majority of these students show up wanting to learn. They may not articulate it as such but they are in school and our job as teachers is to develop strategies that help students develop the skills that will assist them in the process of learning. There are those within the system who have told me that I should not worry about the quality of my students writing I should be happy that they are writing and should focus on content. Poor writing is better than no writing, I have been told. While I have no doubt that there is a semblance of truth to this statement I am bothered by the fact that children who grow up in the suburbs are much better prepared for college than children in urban areas. Based on my experiences I understand the impact of poverty, racism, and lack of resources but it does not fully explain the disparity in learning. It was not until I read Shirley Brice Heath's book Way With Words and Lisa Delpit's book Other People's Children that I began to understand the impact that the cultural differences between the white community and the communities of color had on education. Brice Heath explains the differences in how children in these communities are raised and the influence of how family and community members interact with children. Lisa Delpit, however, explains the need for teachers to be more focused on teaching students the necessary skills in order for them to succeed.
My students are some of the most talented and intelligent people that I have ever met. I always make it very clear to them that my job is to help them succeed and that I will do whatever is necessary in order for this to happen. A significant aspect of this requires me to take the time to develop genuine relationships with my students. Students need to know that I trust them, have confidence in them, will listen without passing judgment, will be fair, have their back, and will be there if they need me. Developing this relationship goes a long way in creating a classroom environment that is safe, collaborative, fun and conducive to learning. Developing such a relationship helps to breakdown cultural differences and opens the door to learning.
Because of the social justice work that I have been involved in Boston especially in regards to the struggle against racism and for equal, quality schools, I have become aware that a significant problem with the Boston schools is that most of the teachers are white. It makes sense, and there is research to support this, that if this society is serious about beginning to address the "achievement gap" or the disproportionate placement of African-American males in special education programs then there needs to be more teachers of color in the schools. Delpit states, "That we should strive to make our teaching force diverse, for teachers who share the ethnic and cultural backgrounds or our increasingly diverse student bodies may serve, along with parents and other community members, to provide insights that might otherwise remain hidden" (p. 181). However, this only addresses part of the problem. Racism is so deeply ingrained in society that it needs to be addressed and challenged whenever it rears its ugly head. It is important that all teachers are more sensitive and cognizant of the role that racism, sexism, LGBT oppression, immigration and class play in our society and how they are reflected in the education system. Paulo Freire in his extremely important and timeless book "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" states,
"The oppressor is in solidarity with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor - when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality in its praxis. To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce."
As white teachers in Boston, we may not have the first hand experience with racism but we can be in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of color and strive to create a learning environment that will help students succeed.
As educators, more and more often we will be in contact with youth representing many different cultures. These cultures will include youth from different races, ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, social classes, etc. Since, at this time, most educators are predominantly white it is important for us to embrace and understand these cultures. This requires that educators critically analyze what it means to be teaching a class that is extremely heterogeneous. We need to reflect on this and work cooperatively with those within the communities to develop and implement meaningful lessons. We need to actively listen to our colleagues who are from these communities and seek there advice. We must embrace these differences and understand that this diversity brings immense value to the classroom. While there are some who believe that diversity interferes with the learning process I firmly believe that it not only enhances but adds significant value the learning experience of all youth. There has not been enough study done to examine academic success of African American students and that what studies have been done have found that academic success has been achieved at the expense of their cultural and social well-being. (Banks & Banks, Multicultural Education - Issues and Perspectives, 6th Ed., Wiley 230-231). What should be obvious to all is that most teachers especially those who are white have not been adequately educated to handle the cultural and racial diversity that exists within the classroom. As educators, we have to address our own cultural and racial biases before we will be able to effectively teach students of color. Failure to do so will only lead to more of the same - disproportionate numbers of African-American males being assigned to special education programs, higher drop out rates, etc. Teachers must believe that all students are capable of learning and as such they must break free from old ways of teaching and implement more flexible strategies that leverage the various cultures instead of trying to fit them into a pre-existing box.