Data is not the story.
When outsiders look in at my school, they see test scores, our API, our demographics. If they’re digging really deep, they’ll hit our median family income, but even that’s an abstraction from the very real, very human, and very damaging poverty that enters our classrooms every day. I thought, because of those numbers, I knew what it would be like before I started working here, but I came to find out that I legitimately had no idea (numerically zero). The numbers didn’t prepare me at all for what I’d encounter and didn’t illuminate the reality I’d find myself still so overwhelmed by years later. Sadly, the actual real-life stories and experiences of our yearly hundreds of kids are being willfully ignored in favor of these simple, quantifiable plot points taken from a staggeringly narrow scope. Furthermore, the imposed adherence to “data-driven” conversations in education (which so seduced my college-engineering mind) is actually actively silencing the advocacy of the professionals who are working to address all of the immeasurable issues that we witness, experience, and attempt to mitigate in our classrooms, offices, cafeterias, and gyms, day after day, and year after year.
High expectations are not the answer.
I thought they were back when I knew nothing about the community I’d be teaching in. “High expectations” was a mantra I could get behind because it fit into my misguided view that minority students were underperforming as a result of the internalized racism of teachers that caused them to, subconsciously or not, lower their expectations for kids of those populations. What I have since learned is that a mantra of “high expectations” for low-income kids is, at best, a politically-charged way of imposing a set of values on a population for whom they’re not designed and, at worst, a backhanded way of silencing dissent through the demeaning and implicit accusation of “low expectations” (i.e. “racism”). There is nothing sacred about the middle-class push for college and high scores on absurd tests, and it’s frustratingly and appallingly arrogant to assert those on communities we are not a part of and know nothing about.
Failure is not a motivator.
I used to think that it was, but that was because, at the time, I was someone who was repeatedly successful. What really motivated me was a fear of failure, but the actual act of failure itself is almost always demotivating — repeated failure increasingly moreso, as it becomes harder and harder to bounce back the more and more times that you see it. I see it in my students and I see it in my co-workers and I see it in me, since, according to nearly every piece of measurable data there is, we’re all “failing”. Repeatedly. At best, failure is something we exist alongside and in spite of, and, at worst, it’s something we finally succumb to and internalize as a comment on ourselves rather than on the systems and structures under which we work and live.
Children are not a monolith.
I used to think of kids as innocent, or creative, or charming, or devils, or hyperactive, or foolish, or brats, but never all of those at the same time. The truth of the matter is that children are as equally reflective of the diversity of the human population as adults are. There are quiet kids, loud kids, mean kids, sweet kids, funny kids, serious kids, and thousands of other identifiers — many of which are dynamic and still developing. Shoehorning kids into the box of what we think they all are or should be like does them a great injustice — one which they might not yet know how to articulate but that they definitely feel the sting of.
Teachers are not a panacea.
It seems our hope is that if we can just find good enough teachers, then we can finally get into kids’ heads all these facts, ideas, and solutions to problems that they can, these days, easily find within seconds on their smartphones. In seeking that, we’re trying to hammer the wrong nail using the wrong tool. I’ve described it in the past as a “make every horse drink all the fucking water” approach to teaching, and it narrows the scope of our educational system from a social institution that helps turn toddlers into graduates into one that completes arbitrary checklists ad nauseum. Education is about empowering individuals to discover themselves and their passions through meaningful learning. It’s about giving them the skills to learn (and, more importantly, to want to learn) on their own. It’s about getting them to want to use that smartphone as a pocket encyclopedia and a digital megaphone/canvas/journal/studio/computer/camera for their individual brilliances and talents. I’m not saying that it’s about the smartphone itself, of course, but it’s about having kids unlock their own potential using the things they know, love, and care about instead of trying to force a potential using the things only we love and care about.
To make that happen, we need to start framing education around the needs, wants, hopes, and desires of the students in our seats rather than the mandates of outdated adults with boxes to check and axes to grind.