We’ve afforded these families and these kids all sorts of opportunities to lift themselves out of the appalling circumstances of their lives, yet they seem never to be grateful of our efforts; nor do they take advantage of the education. They’re late for class. Their homework is not done, or done poorly. Sometimes it is done but never handed in. They are disruptive in class – shouting out inappropriately, standing up, walking around, interfering with the other students who are trying to learn, intimidating the students…just overall disrupting the flow of the educative process. We call the parents. They either don’t come, or they yell at the teachers. They, themselves, seem complicit in the whole thing and call us racist. Or other times they don’t even call us back! Look, just yesterday the principal tried to break-up a fight between two of them in the corridor and got smacked in the face for her efforts. Come on Doc. This is your area. Tell us; what do they expect us to do?
In one form or another, this scenario has played itself out in at least eighty-percent of my meetings with principals or staff, or at seminars in which I am presenting. The “these families” that they are alluding to are generally “African Americans.” Although I am called in to deal with other ethnic and social minority populations, challenges with the African American population seem to more-often-than-not rise to the top. These emotional sharings occur most frequently during round-table discussions rather than in the large group settings. It would seem that there is greater comfort in these smaller groups – particularly if you allow a few minutes for ice-breaker activities and initial processing before joining them.
But that’s not the point. The point is, “How do you respond to that? What do you do?”
There is neither a single nor an easy response to this. If there were, we wouldn’t be still dealing with this fifty-five years after Brown vs Board of Education.
The first thing to recognize is that the approach to dealing with this issue is different relative to the age of the population (pre-primary, primary, middle, high), their history in the community (are they new immigrants or do they have a long history), the social grouping (lower, middle, high), the integration of that grouping (Is there a mix of lower and middle class, or is it a predominance of one class), the training of the teacher (has the teacher been trained to deal with that population or is it this one class he/she did) , the training of the principal, the readiness of the school district (particularly the Superintendent) to lead on the issue, the relationship between the Superintendent and the Board of Education (is the Superintendent a leader of a manager), and the level of integration of the families into the social fabric of the community.
Those questions (above) must be answered first because it is from that knowledge and insight that the plan of intervention is developed.
The frustration you hear many teachers speak of is normal. If you have not been trained to work with a population, and the population is relatively new and not yet integrated into the social culture of the community…this is expected. Plus, let’s be honest about it, this is no way to be a successful teacher. You cannot expect a teacher to do his or her best work if this is the situation he or she is walking into every day! It simply won’t happen. Additionally, without addressing the situation, you are offering those less-than-stellar teachers and easy “out.” They just blame the parents, blame the school, blame the District…blame, blame, blame.
Yes, that may be only 10% of your teaching fraternity, but do you know how many teachers ten percent is? I have met and worked with many terrific teachers and principals, psychologists and social workers, but I have also worked with my fair share of those who seem to have a standard complaint stuck in a desk drawer waiting for just the right kid to pull it out.
This challenge goes both ways.
Once we recognize and accept the fact that this challenge goes both ways (distrust, fears, concern, labeling, perceived targeting, etc.), our very next move is to get away from the emotional discussions and from the discussions of emotion. Those take us nowhere.
Frankly, it gets us into a game of emotional ping pong where one person serves and the others either deflects of tries to slam the ball back to the other side. The parents never win those games. They don’t have big enough rackets. So they retreat, or they don’t answer the phone, or don’t come to meetings, or become very belligerent when they do come. So we retreat to our corners in the same frustrated state that each of us came to the table with.
This is a multilayered challenge that demands a multilayered response, the first part of which is “Understanding and Normalizing the Challenge.” If you truly want to shift it, and that truth is different in different schools and in different school districts, you must first understand and normalize the challenge.
The story below attempts to explain and normalize one aspect of this enormous and historic challenge. Follow it slowly. It is written in very simple language but has profound parallels to our current conversation. Remember, this is a multifaceted challenge. This story simply takes one sliver of it and attempts to help you make sense of that aspect of the challenge. When you’re done reading it, you are simply supposed to say, “Okay, now I understand.”
Read it. Re-read it. Then let’s talk.
Spots On My Carpet
Once upon a time there was a pretty little lady
Who had a pretty little house.
And a pretty little car
A pretty little sofa
And a pretty little chair
The pretty little lady had a pretty little dog
Who had a pretty little bed
A pretty little bowl
To put her pretty little food
She had a pretty little bone
and pretty little toys
A pretty little collar
And a pretty little leash
To take her pretty little walks
In her pretty little neighborhood
They were such a pretty little pair
They took pretty little walks
Around the pretty little park.
They were so happy.
One day they thought –
“Wouldn’t it be nice to share our pretty little life with another dog?”
So off they went in their pretty little car to the pound.
In the pound they saw so many dogs.
They saw big dogs
Each dog in want of a good home.
They chose one dog to share their home with.
And off they went in their pretty little car with their new friend.
He was so happy.
He got his own pretty little bed
And pretty little bowl
Pretty little collar and pretty little leash
They went for pretty little walks
Around the pretty little park.
They were such a pretty little family.
One day the lady went to work leaving the two dogs at home.
After a long day’s work
She returned to her pretty little house.
There’s a spot in my carpet – she screamed.
Oh my goodness! What a mess!
Toys were strewn everywhere.
The place was in such a mess.
Who did this?
Didn’t I bring you from the pound?
Didn’t we share our pretty little home with you?
Didn’t we share our pretty little food with you?
Didn’t you have your own pretty little bowl and pretty little toys?
We brought you in as part of our family!
Is this how you repay our kindness?
She was so hurt!!!
Her pretty little house was ruined
And there was a spot in her carpet.
Moral of the Story: Do not expect me to change my behavior simply because either my geography or my social status has shifted. It takes much more than a change in environment to precipitate/encourage/support a change in behavior.