As the United States stands at the nexus of an unprecedented global pandemic and a nationwide civil rights movement, one lifelong educator reflects on his last 25 years of serving in the US Public Education System and how it will change in 2020 and beyond.
By Peter Dufresne
Former 16 year High School Principal and Curriculum Director
Academic Lead, Knovva Academy
Let’s take a moment to review what the classroom teacher in the 2019-2020 school year has had to face. For the record, I will skip right by the consistent challenges of crowded classrooms, state and national learning standards that seem to be designed for a 13-month school year, and the inability to fund all mandated educational programs. In fact, I will even skip past the murder hornets, (which kind of slid right through my newsfeed into obscurity), Tiger Kings, and all of manner of animal and insect chaos that has permeated 2020.
I will focus on only two issues that faced teachers in the US this year. The first is a global pandemic that forced many teachers to suddenly and immediately abandon the classroom, and the second is the race protests and riots across the country due to the horrific on-camera murder of George Floyd by an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department.
I was a teacher, my wife is a teacher, and most of my friends are teachers. There is no doubt that this is the most difficult year in my lifetime to be a teacher in the United States. After a 26-year career in public education as a teacher, principal, and curriculum director, I can say that unequivocally.
This is not a blog on politics; it is a blog on education. Hence, I am going to steer around many of the pitfalls of both of these issues. The essential question here is “how do you teach responsibility in a time of racial disparity?” That issue is so difficult to tackle that the US education system has been working on it since Horace Mann overhauled the Massachusetts education system in 1837. Recently, 2020 decided to double down, making the question look more like “how do you teach responsibility in a time of racial upheaval when you can’t be near your students?”
The Systemic Racism
I realize I was not in the classroom for bussing desegregation efforts in Boston, nor during the ‘50s in Alabama when Ruby Bridges broke the color barrier at an all-white school. So I acknowledge that I might not have the experience necessary to compare what it must have been like to try to teach in those schools at those times.
How do you acknowledge the fact that systemic racism exists in the United States? The facts don’t lie. Does anyone really believe that Black students can’t pass standardized tests at the same rate as caucasian students? Do Black students lack the same ability to attain college acceptance rates as their caucasian peers? Also, don’t the first two issues I listed contribute to the fact that our nation’s jails and prisons are disproportionately full of Black men?
I will state here that I am a white male who grew up in a city that is perennially on the list of the top 20 most dangerous cities in the United States. We had Section 8 housing in my area, and I had friends of all races that I grew up with and played with throughout my childhood. I enjoyed a privilege of my skin color that I was not even aware of. So I understand it when white students say “I am not a racist. Why do we have to talk about this?” But it isn’t about the individual person. It is about a system that is slanted in one direction, for one set of people. I believe that every life has value, but right now, it isn’t all lives that are being snuffed out. It is Black lives that don’t seem to matter.
So back to our problem: How do you teach when you can’t even be in the same building as your students? If you can teach over one of the video platforms, what should you teach? I read a study once which stated that if you were to teach all of the educational standards you were supposed to teach, we would need public schools to go to grade 22.
I know how hard it is to teach, and I know how much teachers work to “cover” all of the content. So what should you do when you finally get that precious time over Zoom or Google Hangouts with your students? Do you do the right thing and discuss the racial issues we are facing as a nation, do you address COVID-19 and the fact that we are all separated, or do you cover the topics in your plan book?
The Role We Play as Classroom Teachers
If you came to this blog for answers, you clearly haven’t been reading my blog posts much! However, research will show that classroom teachers have an incredible influence on their students’ views of the world, second only to their parents. This issue of racial imbalance is bigger than algebra, history, or whatever else you teach. A society that is truly merit-based, where the playing field is level, where people of any color can walk down the street without fear, is more valuable than covering our educational standards.
Classroom teachers, you have a responsibility to be role models for your students. There is a concept called functional conflict, which is where a difficult topic or issue leads to conflict among people. If guided correctly by a leader (or teacher), it can lead to a productive solution. I implore you to engage in a dialogue, even over the internet, with your students. This racial upheaval in our society demands that we have nurturing, productive, even-keeled discussions on race. You are so fortunate to hold the future of our country in your hands every day.
Have these difficult conversations, right now, today, with your students. It will provide more value than the lesson you had planned.