Sorry? Not sorry.

You know what?

deskhandsolueletu

I’m tired of people thinking that racism in the workplace isn’t actually a problem unless someone burns a cross on someone’s desk or yells, “Hey, nigger!”

Honestly. The signs of bigotry don’t have to be that obvious in order to be harmful.

When it comes to claims of racism and believability, writing about teaching has taught me a valuable lesson. The rumours are true: When you confront people with racism in an institution, some of them would rather be defensive than listen to what you have to say. It’s very easy for your words to be dismissed as a lie or exaggeration.

I discovered this after I shared some of my experiences in trying to break out beyond the boarders of substitute teaching, into the profession’s full-time fields.

Most of my feedback revealed a basic understanding that what I claimed was possible. However, some disagreed with me based purely on their privileged perspective.

Although I’m frustrated, I’m also not a fool. I don’t know how to make a stranger understand how problematic racism is in teaching. Especially when they’re not interested in grasping the possibility.

Racism is so pervasive within the profession that the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators commissioned a study on it. Participants were anonymous. Yet in “Voices of Ontario Black Educators” (published on May 29th, 2015) they shared their insights regarding diversity in the educational community.

Let’s take a look at a commonly understood truth. Regardless of background, many teachers know the profession is prone to having a cliquish culture. Teaching is a people-driven industry. In certain schools if you want to progress, you need to be perceived as a part of the “in” crowd. Those of us who are on the margins can find it hard to traverse that line. Or, as one individual stated, “[A school’s] networks tend to exclude Black and other educators of colour. Compounding the effect of being excluded from these networks is the limited ability of Black and other racialized educators to create their own networks with the same reach and impact.”

Some of us are hyper-aware of the consequences of being an outsider. As one study participant said, “…if you are not part of the social scene outside of the school, you are not going to be chosen, recommended, included in the ‘outside of school’ discussions when transfers, new staff lists, new school hirings are being discussed.”

During those “‘outside of school’ discussions” critical decisions are being made. When your success depends on your social connections, yet your connections do not exist, you can wind up feeling as though your career is doomed. And that feeling is not that far from reality.

What about those who are able to progress? Surely they do not have any reason to be concerned. Some would disagree. As an educator cited in the study explained: “When I became a VP there was a stalling of my career for a number of years. I had a hard time moving to principal. I had to go through twice. One superintendent openly stated that she did not believe the experience that I had stated. I asked for an explanation and was not given one. I found that I had to stay quiet or risk not being promoted.“

Fifty-one percent of the study’s participants noted that “personal biases about Blacks influence promotion decisions in this board”. We, Black teachers (and other teachers of colour) are aware of how our colleagues perceive us.The fact that we risk not being taken seriously because of those perceptions is demoralizing.

Limited representation in the classroom suggests to me that Black teachers are rarely given room to obtain permanent opportunities. If and when they manage to slip through the cracks, they’re denied the chance to be promoted. As indicated in the above quotes, they may find their careers stymied in other ways. For instance, consider the examples I mentioned in my previous essay: Being relegated to substitute-only status, or repeatedly made to work with hostile students. Some of said students may be intimidating or even dangerous, depending on the school itself. I know that I am not the only teacher who has experienced this. Whether people choose to believe it or not, students’ behaviour can affect a person’s ability to teach.

In the end, I know that my words can’t change people’s minds. They will either believe that what I’ve discussed is possible, or not. But when random members of an ethnic group collectively notice negative patterns concerning how they are regarded, that’s a problem.

Every teacher faces challenging circumstances. Yet I feel that my research, along with the feedback I received only managed to reinforce my main point. Even (some) white teachers notice a disparity between how they are treated versus their more-melaninated peers. I’m thankful for their candor. Those who insist that racism doesn’t exist in the teaching profession are in denial.

Photo by Olu Eletu on Unsplash.

The Trouble with Teaching

Note: This is a piece on a sensitive aspect of my teaching career. Although currently I live in an area that’s predominantly monocultural, I’ve worked for a school board that has a very diverse population. It was at the top of my mind when I began writing.

Teacher at Chalkboard

It took time for me to fall for teaching, but once I did, I was committed. Sadly, though, the profession that I loved didn’t seem to love me back. I spent the majority of my career working as a substitute teacher. Slowly but surely I noticed a pattern related to those who worked long-term in various schools. Stories of nepotism were popular, but something else was going on.

I’ve seen the occasional article claiming that boards with diverse populations are making an effort to include more non-white teachers in their schools. But I am not a fool. Teaching isn’t a profession with a high turnover rate. It’s true that new teachers may give up when faced with challenging circumstances. However the majority of staff at any given school are established professionals. And from what I’ve seen of said professionals, most are white. My concern is that in spite of the occasional hire, diversity in the teaching profession remains primarily a discussion. Little action has actually occurred to provide diverse students with instructors who reflect their cultures.

I should have caught the hint that people might object to me being an educator after I first left teachers’ college. Back then I’d heard an odd rumour: A classmate had said I wasn’t “cut out” to be a teacher. At first, I naively thought she was right. Teaching isn’t for the faint of heart. The transition into the profession involves a disturbingly steep learning curve, and a life change arguably as drastic as the arrival of a child. Eventually, though, I wondered what my colleague had meant. What was it that made her suited to a teaching job over me?

This essay doesn’t show it, but I know that I tend to be more exuberant than your average citizen. For a moment I wondered if her doubts were related to my personality. However, let’s be realistic. Just because someone has a cheerful disposition, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be an awful educator. Over time, as I thought about my classmate’s statement, reality dawned on me: People of colour are streamed and steered out of professions all the time. And what of those who resist the tide? From architects to doctors, folks just can’t seem to envision Black people in positions that command respect. Should I really be that surprised that someone didn’t think I was equipped to share knowledge with others?

“But Claire,” you say,”You worked as a substitute teacher. That’s more than most people!” True. But let’s take a closer look at the types of “opportunities” I was given. During the rare occasions when I received assignments lasting longer than a day, I noticed a trend.

For example—I once worked for an entire term, full-time. Great, right?

Not so fast.

In a landscape where solid teaching jobs are as plentiful as literate internet trolls, that may sound good. But let me share a bit more about what I was up against. I had three classes. Each involved a different subject—English, World Religions, and Civics/Careers. Yet I was only qualified to teach one of them. Therefore, I didn’t know the other two subjects.

And again, I hear you. I know I was supposed to play catch up and properly prepare for my other two classes. But if you know what the pace of a full-time teaching job is like, you’ll understand me when I see your,”Claire, PREPARE!!” and offer up a big, fat, “WHEN?!?”

To top it all off, the students in the class involving my terra firma—English—were challenging. By that, I don’t mean that they had intellectual difficulties and I was ill-equipped to accommodate them. I have training in special education. When I say “challenging” I’m referring to their behaviour. My students were disrespectful and often downright hostile to me on a daily basis. In return, I was constantly stressed and terrified. I barely got any teaching done. Between my workload and my kids’ behaviour, I felt it was a wonder I made it through the semester.

Adding insult to injury, their behaviour left me second-guessing myself. You know those moments when someone’s so rude that you wonder if you dreamed it? That was me for several weeks, until one day it happened: I received confirmation that I wasn’t losing my mind. Back then I’d built a rapport with one of the non-teaching staff, a safety monitor whom I’ll call “Tony”. Tony told me flat-out that my English class contained “the worst” students in the school. Admittedly, it’s horrible to label students. But there needs to be room to be honest about young people’s conduct. Leaving and entering the room without permission isn’t kind. Incessant heckling isn’t kind. Snapping at both your teacher and your fellow students isn’t kind. I think it’s disturbing that administrators would deliberately put their rudest students in a single class and then assign them to a new teacher.

I wondered what the point of it all was. I used to wrack my brain to understand why I might have received this kind of assignment. Earlier this year I felt some relief when I learned about Through Our Eyes. It’s a report filled with insights from Black teachers in America, and it mentioned something that caught my eye.

Teachers have indicated that being labeled as the disciplinarian meant that their colleagues and administrators believed they could only teach the troublesome or lower performing students.

Looking back on my career, I wondered: Is that why I’d been hired? Had I been cast in the role of “disciplinarian”—a ball-buster who would whip tough students into shape? Considering this class wasn’t my only assignment featuring aggressive students, the thought had crossed my mind.

Somehow, here, I feel like I ought to justify myself by discussing my background. I already mentioned my sunny ways. Let me also share that thanks to my parents (one of whom was a teacher) I could read before I went to school. Once I started, I spent my elementary years in private institutions, and then attended one of my area’s academically-focused high-schools.

And reading that, I realize how spoiled I must sound. I can assure you that I wasn’t. My point was to help you understand that I don’t fit whatever stereotype I fear my colleagues and superiors may have expected. Rather, I’m someone who’s used to a certain amount of readin’, writin’ and–God help my math-phobic self–arithmetic.

Overall, when I went to school, the expectation was that students would behave.

To this day, I wonder if school administrators truly understand that Black teachers are qualified professionals, every bit as intellectually competent as their white counterparts.

So again, the question remained: Was I given antagonistic students on purpose? Were administrators patting themselves on the back for hiring me, a “token” Black teacher? And how wonderful was it for them, when they knowingly gave me such unkind kids?

It horrified me to consider the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been sabotaged. But eventually I learned that my experience wasn’t that far out of the ordinary. Earlier this year Bee Quammie wrote an article entitled Are Diverse Hosts…Set Up to Fail? . In it, she discussed something called the Glass Cliff phenomenon as it relates to the firing of certain Black media hosts. Ms. Quammie explains that the idea of the Glass Cliff

was developed by Dr. Michelle Ryan and Professor Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter, and looks at the idea that women and other minority groups are more likely to be appointed to high-profile positions with a higher risk of criticism and failure.

In my experience as a Black teacher, I found it hard not to believe that I was purposely given difficult assignments. Also, keep in mind that in a classroom, students’ behaviour and their academic level tend to go hand in hand. I once asked myself, “Do they [administrators] realize that I’m capable of supporting intellectual students?” I took Honours English when I was in school, and have the same degrees as everyone else who applies to be a teacher. Yet the fact that my students were both underperforming and badly-behaving spoke volumes to me. As a new teacher, the stress of the situation stung. Who would want to attempt to continue in a field that left them feeling raw and weary?

In hindsight I know the onus was on me to be able to help my students. However that would have been easier as a new teacher if I had access to my own resources. I remember a vice principal spoke to a colleague of mine on my behalf. This woman was in charge of coordinating the school’s educational assistants. My VP’s request was simple: Could I be assigned one? In reply, my coworker’s “No,” came so fast it nearly knocked me over.  I knew that personnel were limited. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if she got some sort of joy out of inconveniencing me.

How effective can a teacher be when she or he is constantly stressed? And what if the source of that stress is his or her students? That sort of circumstance can be tantamount to an abusive relationship.

Placing Black teachers with badly behaving teens and offering no support via administration or an EA sends a very negative message. It suggests we are incapable of supporting academic excellence. It also suggest that we deserve professional hardships. Meanwhile, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the days when I was trying to get hired, it was hard not to take my unemployment personally. Until I caught on, I thought something was wrong with me. Yet for teachers of colour there’s an added obstacle to entering the system. Over the years I’ve dealt with people (well-meaning) relatives and family friends who believed my lack of a job had something to do with my Blackness—specifically my hair texture. Surely “they” would hire me if only I wasn’t natural. (This is a sentiment that’s sent my way to this day.) If this seems too far-fetched to you as reasons for unemployment go, read on. Although it’s 2016, certain employers still believe that a woman wearing natural hair deserves to be discriminated against. For our southern neighbours who wear locs, the law is not on their side

Thankfully I don’t take objections to my hair seriously. To me it isn’t a problem. However, I believed another more obvious aspect of my identity was. Over and over again I couldn’t help but notice the demographic of the majority of those who worked in schools on a permanent basis: white women. Here, to clarify, I have no problem with Caucasian women being employed. But as a Black woman, it’s been hard not to recognize that I’m the polar opposite of my profession’s norm. In that sense, as I think about hiring trends, a part of me wonders if there’s a point in my being upset. When it comes to looking for someone to hire, it’s clear to me that I’m not on administrators’ radar.

As an industry, education hasn’t always been welcoming to new professionals. In writing this, I hope that school principals will begin to look at how teachers of colour are treated once hired—if they are hired at all. Whether we work temporarily or not, teachers of colour see who’s working permanently. Currently, the odds are stacked against us.

People who would make excellent educators are losing interest in their dream profession. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to want to find a space in a field where you’re not welcome. The past few months’ news has featured incidents of prejudice both in and outside of the classroom.   These, combined with the law suit against the York Region school board  haven’t come as a surprise to me.  Current staff ought to be trained to appreciate diversity. However beyond that, people of colour should be given fair consideration when the time comes to hire teachers for permanent positions. We have as much of a right to be at the front of a classroom as everyone else.

Photo Source

 

So I Think I Can Teach.

Still. In spite of everything. In spite of being an overly-sensitive dreamer.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve worked for  my local school board. In that time I swore I was done with working in education for good. If only I’d known that this week my Little Demon Chickens would have come home to roost.

I remember when I first graduated from teachers’ college in 2005. I was naive. I was also incredibly in love with education as a profession. I applied repeatedly to various school boards but to no avail.

Over the years, teaching broke my heart again and again. I began in the realm of substitute teaching. Although qualified at the Intermediate/Senior level, I never really felt equipped to deal with jaded teenagers—I simply didn’t think I wasn’t strong enough. There was the odd unprofessional colleague who was nasty enough to put me off of my game. And worst of all, in spite of the hope I had after working on one brief contract, I couldn’t secure a permanent position.

The possibility of working overseas beckoned to me. In fact, it still does. But I kept telling myself that I wanted to to work at home. That hasn’t changed.

Nevertheless as I said, I wasn’t getting anywhere. So I left the insecure pastures of substitute work for good in 2013.

I went to Toronto and studied television for a year. After that I returned home, to nothing.

Well…Not exactly nothing.

I’ve done some temp work, and a bit of freelance writing. I’ve recorded a few podcast episodes. Still, I haven’t hustled as hard as I should.

I’m not yet the woman that I want to be.

Something’s been missing.

And so, on the morning of a Wednesday that was already off to a craptastic start, I watched this:

The speaker, Jameelah Gamble, is a professional educator and television host. She works with children who have special needs. Around eleven minutes in, I broke into tears and had an epiphany.

In spite of everything, I still want to teach.

When I first graduated from teachers’ college, I felt unstoppable. My fellow classmates and I were in a cohort devoted to diversity and social justice. We joked about wearing a symbol on our chests like a bunch of educational superheroes.

And then reality hit.

No one told us what the teachers’ job market is really like. For some reason after I left OISE, I thought there’d be a position waiting for me at the end of my pedagogical rainbow. Boy was I wrong.

Back then, nepotism was the name of the game. Teaching jobs were widely advertised, yet the majority of administrators hired educators that they or their colleagues already knew. Never mind a rookie’s skills. If you baked Ms. Stevens’ kids cookies and had your OCT certification, chances are, you were in.

Since then, just as I exited the system, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Regulation 274 was created to ensure that teachers were hired due to seniority. Right now I’ll admit I wonder how effective it’s been. (I have the feeling that certain school boards find ways to circumvent this policy.)

Nevertheless, in 2013, leaving teaching felt like the next logical step in my life. What point was there in trying to participate in a profession where I clearly wasn’t wanted?

And yet, in spite of all of this, Ms. Gamble brought me back to the single reason that I thought I could be a teacher.

Love.

I love helping people learn—regardless of age. I want them to have faith in themselves, no matter what their circumstances may be. It breaks my heart to see humans lose hope. I may not be a parent, but I had hoped to influence the next generation for the better one way, or another.

Meanwhile, I know why I walked away. I’ve been wrestling with the words to explain the ways that I was challenged. It’s been a long time since I first tried to teach, but I think my soul is ready. Stay tuned.

Books: See Me After Class

Well, guys. I still want to work in education.

I’ll tell you about that another time. Long story short–yesterday I had one hell of an epiphany about my career. Last night I went and shopped my basement for teaching books. Thank God I didn’t burn them like I’d once planned. I found most of them. Among the pile, I was happy to see one in particular: See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden.

seemeafterclass-cover

This was the first authentic book on teaching that I’d ever read. The teaching-book landscape can be tough. Some volumes can seem polished to the point of stiffness. And don’t get me wrong. Those sort of books have their place.

Yet that’s not the only thing that new teachers need. When you’re in or out of the classroom and you feel like you’re losing your mind, you need a voice that can offer you perspective. You need someone who knows that classroom management issues don’t correct themselves as magically as they do in the movies.

I have a ton of other books, like Teaching to Transgress and When Kids Can’t Read. But I think Ms. Elden’s book is going to be the first one that I re-read as I get my mind back on track. Her work covers a variety of scenarios–dealing with colleagues, your “teacher” personality, marking assignments, etc. And of course, there are the myths. Have any of you teachers out there heard the phrase “don’t smile ’til Christmas”? (If you don’t work in education, you should know that some people advise teachers not to smile until before their first major holiday. No doubt, this is supposed to show students that we are serious professionals.)

Man.

If I followed that rule, my face would fall off.

See Me After Class offers readers a realistic look at teaching. I recommend it to anyone who’s new to the profession.

Schooled.

This is one of those random stories I was talking about…

I was about 34 and in his office.

He, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more than 27.

This wasn’t the only time this would happen to me. Chastized, scolded, treated as an underling, when in fact, I was someone’s elder.

To what did I owe this encounter?

Somehow, it had gotten out that I had called Mrs. Smith–the teacher I had been summoned to replace. The subject? French.

Years ago, I’d known it well enough to have kept a drunken Quebecois man at bay. Yet to contend with a room full of teenagers…?

Something in the day’s instructions had given me pause.

So I picked up the phone.

Our exchange had been light, airy–even sunshiny.

“Have a lovely time with my kids!”

“Thanks!”

“Let me know if you need anything else!”

But here I was, sitting on the opposite side of the vice principal’s desk.

For some reason, the fact that I’d dared to call a colleague was alarming.

I was being reprimanded. I was there without cause, and I was in shock.

I held my tongue. For a second, I considered the expression on my face. Did I look afraid? I was.

Any misstep with these people could mean the end of my career.

All the while, I had wanted to defend myself…

Did you know that I used to go here? If you look closely enough at the photos of the alumni in the hallway upstairs, you’ll find me. (I’d wanted to add “…before you were born….” to my imaginary rant. I’d wanted the VP to feel the weight that the phrase could bring, even though it wasn’t accurate.)

Did you know that some of the teachers and staff who knew me still work here?

This school was every bit my turf as it was his.

And then there was the question that I wanted to ask most of all…Why are you talking to me like I’m 12? I’M A PROFESSIONAL!! I hadn’t called Mrs. Smith so I could ask her how to bake a pie. I know how to speak to my colleagues. I may be sweet, but I am not a fool.

There are a few things that I reckon I will miss about my non-career as a teacher. The rudeness of some of my coworkers is NOT one of them.

So you want to be a teacher?

Be careful.

I’ve wanted to share my thoughts about teaching for a while. In the middle of the last decade I graduated from teachers’ college. Since then I’ve spent a great deal of time as a substitute teacher. However, I’ve also had glimpses into the world of full-time teaching. I believe I’ve had enough experience that I can honestly say that at this time, the world of public education isn’t where I belong.

Don’t get me wrong. I have tremendous respect for the profession. I have family members and old friends who are teachers.  I understand that it’s one of the hardest jobs out there, and that saying such a thing is truly not a cliché.

Yet I can’t shake the notion that more light needs to be shed on what teachers really go through. As I look back on my career, in some ways, the bad has outweighed the good. And this “bad” is something that I feel more people need to be honest about.

Mind you, I don’t know how much I want to say. Earlier this week, I read Kate’s story and felt inspired to speak up. My experiences don’t match hers. Yet nothing that she said came as a surprise to me. The classroom is a domestic battleground. The stress of working in one is constantly underestimated.

Overall, when I hear about people who want to teach, I wonder if they truly have any idea of what they might have to face. I understand that attrition rates teaching are high. (Google terms like “teacher turnover”.) The public needs to know that this isn’t taking place for frivolous reasons.

Elementary, Dear Claire.

School’s out.

So I can talk about it, no?

The following is a creative non-fiction piece. It contains some solid memories melded with echoes of shenanigans that I’ve witnessed over the years. 

Enjoy!!

 boyandbooksSource

Dear Readers, lend me your ears and your sympathy. I work as a substitute teacher. When I first started, all I wanted was to help kids. Now, all I want is to run away.

Years ago one morning I was summoned to an elementary school. I was elated. I figured a class of Grade 7s would offer a nice break from the teenagers I usually worked with.

Before I arrived, my heart was filled with hope.

Hope that the kids would like me.

Hope that we would all get along.

Hope that I would lead the students’ math lesson without breaking into hives.

I arrived just in time. Carefully, I reviewed the teacher’s plans. Then I waited for her students to appear. I breathed deeply and thought positively.

Yet in spite of my optimism, the kids weren’t happy to see me.

“Where’s Ms. Stevens?!?” One of them yelled.

I didn’t have a clue, and I actually told him so.

“You don’t know?! Whaddayamean ya ‘don’t know’?”

I sighed and got the class started.

As the kids began to work, in a corner, a gaggle of girls giggled.

“How old are you, Miss?”

“Um, what…?”

“You look like you’re 20.”

I made a face. “Uh…Thanks?” I tried to look stern. I wanted them to know that flattery would get them nowhere.

Just then, a paper ball sailed past me.

I turned around. My eyes ping-ponged across the room. I couldn’t tell where it came from.

I bit my lip and headed back to my desk. Paper or no paper, I was determined to persevere.

Within seconds, my resolve was shattered by another unidentified flying object. I saw something shiny, then heard a clang on the floor. What was that? A penny..?!?

“Boys!” Thinking I recognized the culprit, I shouted in his direction. “Stop throwing things!”

I gave them my best death-stare—which I have since learned resembles an angry puppy—then looked back at my schedule.

I wish I could say things got better. But I’d be lying.

At one point, I left the room. I slipped into the hallway, looking for a lifeline.

Friends had told horror stories about leaving purses alone with students. But I didn’t care. I would have given away all the fantasy-funds in my bank account if these kids would sit down and be quiet for more than two seconds.

My mission proved unsuccessful. The two nearest classrooms were empty, and in the third the teacher was busy. It looked like he would’ve blown up if I’d interrupted him to ask for help.

Dismayed, I went back to my room. I needed an Advil, and it wasn’t even 11 o’clock.

 *****

After 3:30, I visited the principal. She blamed me for the day’s events. When addressing me, she actually used the words “Because of you…”

Right. I’m the one who told Johnny and Jasmine to throw random papers and laugh as I nearly cried.

I left, alarmed. And I never worked in an elementary school again.

Mr. D and The Day Job

The other day I had the chance to sit in on some great conversations about television.  One concept that was brought up was the magic that happens when a show “gets it”.  That’s when a program is able to connect to its audience by offering a realistic portrayal of its audience’s life.

Currently, I work in education. Apart from a few semi-steady gigs that I do not talk about I have spent the bulk of my time as a substitute teacher.  Still. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never taught a day in your life.  If you have friends who teach, surely you’ve heard stories. All sorts of crazy things can happen, both in and out of the classroom.

On that note, let me introduce you to Mr. D–a program that airs on my nation’s broadcaster, CBC Television.  Here’s a clip from last year…

My first instinct is to say that no teacher is ever that bad when they mark. And yet…I know otherwise.

I love this show! If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Granted, there are some darker aspects of teaching.  But I’ve already seen and had a taste of Boston Public. A spoof of some of the lesser-known parts of the profession is a refreshing change.

Kids these days…

Today I sat in on a class of Grade 9s. They were hyper, but lovely. Check out the response after I tried to tell a student that something he’d said was false…

Student A: That’s not a lie, that’s a fib.

Me: Actually, they’re both together, under [gesturing] a big umbrella called Dishonesty.

Student B: I have that umbrella. At my house…

Is it any wonder why I can’t keep a straight face?