Education, Minnesota

The Disbandment of the Forest Lake Police Department and Student Resistance

I’m home sick from school today.  It is the first sick day that I have taken on a school day in my three-year career as a secondary teacher with Forest Lake Area Schools.  I threw up in a garbage can after 5th hour yesterday, so you know it’s legit!  But even in my sickly, sofa-ridden state, I cannot help but feel moved and inspired by what is taking place in the school and community in which I teach.

The events I refer to started back in January, when Forest Lake Mayor, Ben Winnick, first floated the idea of disbanding the Forest Lake Police Department.  To take its place, Winnick proposed a cost-saving measure that would switch the city’s law enforcement services to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, potentially saving the city more than $300,000 annually.  The switch would also cost 23 Forest Lake police officers their jobs.

The idea was met with strong resistance from the community—resistance that last week culminated in a flurry of emergency meetings in which dozens of Forest Lake community members (high school students included) aired their grievances about the proposal.  The final meeting took place Monday night, when the Forest Lake City Council voted 3-2 to approve the contract with Washington County Sheriff’s Office, effectively disbanding the police department of the city of Forest Lake.

 Resistance only escalated from there.  At 1:15 on Tuesday afternoon, as many as 1,000 students walked out of Forest Lake High School, and went on to march all the way to City Hall in a show of support for their police officers.  While Monday’s vote was an ominous one for FLPD supporters, the decision ultimately needs to be approved by Washington Country, lending the protesters hope that further action can still halt this unpopular decision from taking root in their community.

Forest Lake High School did not sanction the students’ actions.  Students who chose to walkout should have been marked with unexcused absences and will be responsible to make up whatever learning they missed.  In my opinion, that’s what gave this protest teeth. Student willingness to stand up for what they believe to be right, in spite of whatever consequences they might face from their school and/or parents, provides a powerful undercurrent to Tuesday’s actions.  Cancelled classes and signed parental permission forms would have turned Tuesday into less of a walkout and more of a field trip, and field trips usually don’t create social change.

What is more, it is not the school’s place to take a stance on this issue.  The school expressed its support for the free speech rights of its student body, and that was all that it should have done. Certainly every one of us educators has an opinion on the issue at hand, but as one of my students put it, regardless of what our own personal opinions may be, we live in a democracy, and on this issue, it appears that the people have spoken.

As a teacher, I could not feel more proud of the student leaders who are so effectively using their voices to stand up for what they believe in.  Even if their quest proves to be unsuccessful, I hope that this experience leaves them feeling empowered, and that it encourages them to continue to act as the agents of change that they are proving to be, in Forest Lake, in Minnesota, in Washington, and in the world.

Tomorrow I will return to work and rejoin the student body who, during a difficult stretch of the year, have reminded me how special it can be to teach high school students—guiding them as they find their voice and identity in the world.  More than anything else, that is what us teachers are hoping to cultivate, and in the case of many of yesterday’s class-ditchers, it appears that, to at least a certain degree, our school is succeeding.

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Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Forest Lake Area Schools or anyone else associated with the district.

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Education, USA

Public education and Teaching outside the ideal

The end of the school year is a reflective time for teachers. We think a lot about the things that we did well. We think more about the things that we could have done better.

There’s a lot of good vibes floating around. The end of the year offers us teachers an opportunity to admire the fruit of all the care and work and thought and love that we poured into our students over the months that we spent with them.  It’s a time when we can feel like we actually made a difference in their lives—a time when we can say things like, “Wow…I taught them that,” or for the less egomaniacal/more pretentious among us, “Wow…I helped to facilitate that learning.”

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Minnesota Regional History Day competition, St. Cloud, MN, 2016.  Some of the most inspiring young ladies I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching.

I’ve got a long way to go in my professional development. I’m still in the very early stages of crafting my curriculum expertise and honing my pedagogical skills. Hell, I’m still discovering who I even am as an educator. Looking back on my 2015-2016 school year, there is a lot that I would have done differently, and a lot that I will look to change heading into next year. But what is disheartening to me is that while my own personal shortcomings surely played a role in curbing my effectiveness in the classroom, I feel that the most limiting situations that I encountered resulted not from a lack of knowledge or ability, but from the impossible task incumbent upon me as a public educator in the United States today.

There is no perfect teaching job—no perfect set of circumstances in which an educator can completely and totally enlighten every mind that has been assigned to them. Even if there were, the teacher occupying that perfect position would still teach like an imperfect teacher. But the problem with public education today is not that the teaching jobs aren’t perfect, it’s that they are so far away from perfect that they make the fulfillment of our professional responsibility, the responsibility to provide a high-quality education to all students, damn near impossible.

Class sizes are growing. I have colleagues that see over 150 students every single day. That’s a lot of students for one person to educate. What is more, many of those students have individualized educational plans that call for special adaptions and modifications in order to meet those students’ unique learning needs. In an ideal world, every student would have one of those plans. In the real world, those students are often the ones who fall through the cracks.

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The deprofessionalization of teachers is at an all time high. Between the federal government, the state, the district, and the school administration, there are so many standards and mandates and regulations that seek to control what and how you teach that it almost makes you wonder why you even went to teaching school in the first place.

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Teacher bashing is everywhere. Many parents see teachers as incompetent, a sentiment often emulated by their children. To be honest, they sometimes are right, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the educational system, a prophecy that is bound to come true in a job that has become so undervalued, a job in which disrespect is such an inherent norm. Even for us teachers who feel tremendously appreciated, we as a collective bunch are still a far, far cry from the days when teachers were viewed as public intellectuals.

All these things work together to make my job very tough to do well. That doesn’t mean that I’m not doing my best. It just means that even my best is nowhere close to enough.

The decisions that I have to make on any given day reflect this dilemma. Do I spend my time trying to provide students constructive feedback on their latest exams, or do I put it into writing thoughtful lesson plans that will make for a richer in-class learning experience? Do I stay knelt next to the desk of Kid A and continue to provide them with the guidance that they desperately need, or do I cut them off early in hopes of addressing the raised hands of Kids B, C, and D before the bell rings? Most of the time you can’t do both, and sometimes, you can’t do either.

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It’s crazy how quickly you can get sucked into the trap. Less than two years ago, I was a spring chicken, an idealistic young whippersnapper hell-bent on taking on the status quo, on transforming social studies education into something deep and meaningful—something beyond the boring memorization of the names and dates and facts so often associated with classes from my department. Yet here I am two years later, bulldozing through content in hopes of getting my U.S. History students through the end of the Vietnam War, in turn satisfying the requirements placed upon me by my state and school.

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This is not a slight against my specific school district. The problems are much deeper and more systemic than that. Some teachers would kill to be in my situation, but I think that says a lot more about the undesirable circumstances of their job than it says about the desirable circumstances of mine.

You can’t always fix a problem by throwing money at it, and a lack of funding is hardly the only problem with public education today. That being said, some well spent dollars could go a long way in helping to address some of the things mentioned above, such as reducing class sizes and hiring more staff that can help meet the needs of all the unique learners that inhabit our schools. I know that spending like that would help me to do a better job and be a better teacher.

And at the end of the day, that’s all I’m really looking for. I don’t need perfect, just better. Better for me, better for my colleagues, better for the kids. I want to be able to do my job more successfully—to help kids think and learn and grow—to care for them and challenge them and help them to blossom into beautiful human beings that will make this world a better place to be. If education is something that we truly value in this country, better is exactly what we’ll do. We’ll fund schools, rethink curriculums, and turn teachers back into the respected figures that they need to be if schools are going to work the way that we want them to. But until that happens, us teachers are stuck with no other choice but to just keep doing the best that we can.

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Education, USA

Student Loan Debt: One year in

A year ago last week, I officially started paying back my student loans. Although I finished my undergraduate degree in December of 2010, a unique set of circumstances allowed me (or forced me) to put off my payback for a number of years. Upon graduation, I immediately enrolled in grad school, and with the help of a scholarship, was able to pay for that tuition out-of-pocket. Because I was still a student, I did not have to make payments on my undergraduate debt during this two-year endeavor, not that I could have afforded to make them anyway.

Immediately after grad school, I took a teaching job in Mexico, and while my job paid plenty to enjoy a comfortable standard of living down there, it certainly did not leave me with enough pesos to pay back my growing debt up here. When converted into American dollars, my salary qualified me for what the banks called “financial hardship,” allowing me a yearlong grace period to get my financial shit together.

That grace period ended last October. Between my three banks, my total student loan debt as of October 17th, 2014, was $82,961.02. That’s how much it cost me to get a B.S. in Social Studies Education from Minnesota State University, Mankato.

It was worth every penny. My education from Mankato readied me not only for teaching, but for life. I am a better person today because of the things that I learned at that institution, and the knowledge and skills behind the paper diploma I ultimately received.

Do I wish that it had cost me less money? Yes. Do I think that it should have cost me less money? Abso-fucking-lutely. Higher education is way too expensive in this country, and even though my debt is partially the result of more than three years of untouched accumulated interest, it’s still a travesty that anyone could end up $80,000 deep for a four year degree from an in-state university. That being said, if I could go back in time and see that $82,961.02 price tag, would I still do it? You bet. Every fucking time.

But here’s the part that pisses me off: For twelve months, I have been making student loan payments of just over $500 a month. That means that over the course of a year, I put about a $6,000 dent into my student loan debt, or so I thought. On October 17th, 2015, a year to the day after I began paying off my loans, my total student loan debt was…

$82,264.27

If you don’t have a calculator handy, that adds up to just under $700—$700 out of the $6,000 that I put in. $700 that actually went towards reducing my nearly six-figure debt. $700: about 11% of the total amount paid, just enough to reduce my total debt by almost 1%. Where did the other 89% go? The other $5,300? Interest. Not interest that I gained during my time in grad school or Mexico, but interest that I earned over the year in which I was paying.

That’s fucked up. I mean c’mon, man, I understand interest. That’s why loans exist. The lender needs to see a return on their investment. I get it. But this is more than a return. This is a rip-off.

Full disclosure: I am making minimum payments. Had I chosen a different repayment plan and paid a little more each month, that huge number would undoubtedly be just a little bit slighter, that percentage reduction just a little bit greater. But the key words are “a little bit.” Either way, the lenders still win. They win big.

And those other repayment plans sucked anyway. Could I afford a little higher payment if I cut out some social outings, cancelled next summer’s travel plans, and scratched my monthly subscriptions to HBO and the WWE Network? Yeah, probably. But I enjoy those things, and I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of life that I enjoy today just so I can pay my loans off by the time I’m 48 as opposed to 52.

Some people say that these things are not mutually exclusive—that you can spend for today while also saving for tomorrow. That might be true if you’re making bank, but it’s not exactly true if you’re not. Every dollar spent now is a dollar not saved for later. Every dollar saved for later is a dollar you can’t spend now. And when you don’t have a ton of money left over at the end of every paycheck, this does turn into an either-or scenario, either you enjoy life now, or you enjoy life later. In other words, you’re either making bank, or you’re making decisions.

At the end of the day, I don’t expect people to feel bad for me, a middle-class white guy who, immense student loan debt aside, has it pretty damn good. However, I do expect people to be angry at those mother-fuckers who are keeping me, and millions of others like me, from having it a little better. Those greedy sons of bitches who rig the game in their favor and then force us all to play. Those lenders who are preying on the vulnerable, exploiting those in need of help for their own personal gain, and exacerbating the enormous gap that already exists in this country between the haves and the have-nots.

As for me, I’m hoping our political leaders will figure something out, that they’ll come up with some kind of combo-platter solution that offers forms of student loan forgiveness mixed with caps on the currently exorbitant interest rates that our lenders are allowed to charge. Until then, I’ll just continue being one of the millions of fucked-over young adults in this country, lucky and privileged enough to receive a college education, but not blessed enough to be born in an era where this kind of exploitation has been outlawed.

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Education, History, USA

Textbooks are not neutral

A few weeks back, there was a news story about a rogue world geography textbook with a couple of historical inconsistencies. The main point of contention involved the choice of language that the textbook used to describe the Atlantic Slave Trade of 16th-19th centuries, particularly its description of the unwilling participants in this system most commonly referred to as “slaves.” Instead, the textbook labels these owned and oppressed peoples with the title of “workers,” and furthermore, refers to the system of human-trafficking that they were forced to endure as if it were a form of “immigration.”

It’s easy to see why these semantical slip-ups created such a stir. On one level, it’s just bad history. It’s an inaccurate portrayal of what the past was, and begs people to arrive at false conclusions when trying to answer the what’s and why’s of history.

On another level, this historical re-write could have potentially dangerous consequences. While words like “workers” and “immigration” certainly sound friendlier than the horrible truths that they replace, they could reinforce some dangerous disbeliefs regarding racism in the United States that far too many Americans already hold today. How are we supposed to convince people that racism is still a problem in the United States if they are taught that it never was?   How are we supposed to address the racism that still exists if we don’t understand where that racism comes from?

“Immigrating workers” may create a more digestable story, but it does so at the expense of a truth that we need to hear in order to fix a problem that’s still very real. We need to hear the ugly truth, not the pretty lie.

This story was treated as an anomaly, a crazy ass-outliner that somehow slipped past the all-seeing auspices of textbook publishers and district curriculum boards. But while this error may have been particularly egregious, what was missing from this story was a larger discussion about the ways that textbooks, particularly history textbooks, shape and sometimes distort the ways that we learn about the world, despite their claims of neutrality.

All textbooks are biased. They are over-simplified mono-narratives that emphasize the stories and perspectives of all things white, male, and European at the expense of those things with more colorful, feminine, or indigenous flavors. Voices of the former take center-stage while those of the latter are relegated to supporting roles and side margins.

This is no accident. The aforementioned geography textbook from publishing giant McGraw-Hill was approved, like most textbooks in the field of social studies, by the Texas State Board of Education, a conservative body responsible for buying 48 million textbooks a year. Approval from this body is often viewed as a green light for publishers to begin marketing nationally. Hence, no matter what corner of the United States we may happen to live in, it shouldn’t surprise us when our textbooks seem to have been baked and barbecued in Texas conservatism.

That being said, you would need to be pretty well practiced in the detection of ethnocentrism to pick up on that conservative bias. That’s because these books are supposed to be neutral—objective presentations that strike an unbiased balance between liberal and conservative principles. And while it’s possible that these books do indeed have a conservative agenda, I think it’s probably much more likely that they are just written by people with conservative worldviews, and that those worldviews are reflected in their writing.

And that’s why their neutrality is bullshit.

To be neutral means to not favor one side over another. It means to give equal voice to all parties, no matter how many parties there may be. This is impossible for a textbook to do, no matter how many pages the authors decide to include.

Nor is neutrality even neutral. The goal of neutrality is to not choose sides, but neutral is a side. By staying out of the conflict, neutral leaves things the way that they are. By refusing to challenge anything, neutral automatically legitimizes all positions, with no consideration given to whether or not all positions are equally deserving of legitimization. By neglecting to ask questions, neutral teaches its readers to do exactly the same.

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This is what makes “neutral” textbooks so dangerous. They portray themselves as objective truths, when in reality they are not. All bias is not created equal, and there are certainly more biased accounts out there, but there is a key difference. Usually when reading accounts more traditionally thought of as “biased,” the reader is conscious of that bias. They will evaluate the information with the proverbial grain of salt, and carefully consider how that bias will affect their consideration of what it is they are reading.

With textbooks, it’s the opposite. Readers read the textbook as a neutral report of the topic at hand, all the while being unknowingly persuaded and influenced by the hidden values of the author written between each and every line of text.

Referring to slaves as “workers” is pretty bad, and it deserved every ounce of bad publicity that it recieved. What I would like to hear is more discussion of the larger problem, the one that this particular incident is only a symptom of.

Textbooks have a place in the classroom as a resource, a version, a voice…but never should they be presented as the objective truth. Textbooks are as biased as Howard Zinn and Bill O’Reilly, no matter what they pretend to be. If we don’t treat them that way, if we refuse to be critical of them and challenge their versions of history, our students will continue to grow up believing that early black Americans were migrant workers and that Christopher Columbus discovered America—that important women are the wives of important men and that people of color only exist in the margins.

Slaves were slaves, Columbus was a jackass, and the stories and perspectives of women and people of color have always been important, whether or not society recognized them as important at the time.

Textbooks are not neutral. They do there due diligence in cramming the entire history of a world and/or nation into a 974 page volume, but they are still only one version of the truth. To pretend otherwise is to lead our students down a perilous path where they will believe everything that they read and hear and be susceptible to the very indoctrination that we were hoping to avoid in selecting a “neutral” resource.

So at the end of the day, neutrality is not only something we shouldn’t strive for, it’s something we can’t achieve anyway. History is objective in the sense that it happened the way that it happened, but we still rely on humans to tell us about it. And once a human puts their fingerprints on something, be it history, geography, math, or science, that neutrality ceases to exist.  That is what needs to be recognized and acknowledge, be it textbooks or otherwise.

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Education, USA

What a professional educator looks like

The deprofessionalization of teachers is one of the greatest threats to American educators today.  From curriculum confining state and federal standards to micromanaging administrators, we teachers are constantly fighting back against a system that treats us as glorified presenters rather than the intellectual professionals we study and work so hard to be.  And while this form of deprofessionalization deservingly receives the lion’s share of the attention from those who are fighting back against it, there are other infringements on teacher professionalism that should be challenged too.  One of those infringements is the monopolized dictation of what a professional educator looks like.

I have a somewhat unique appearance for an educator.  I’m a white guy (which ain’t all that uncommon), but I also have tattoos on my neck and forearms, gauge earrings, and prefer to dress in black jeans and flannel shirts nearly every day of the school year.  My district was great last year in letting me be me, but after a week of back-to-school workshops, I am a little worried about some of the language that was being thrown around about “professionalism.”

What is more, I know that I have male colleagues in other districts that have far less liberty in this area than I do. Teachers who have to dress in collar shirts and ties, Dockers and penny loafers, and whose visible tattoos would not be tolerated.  Teachers who, in a word, are required to dress like “professionals.”

The accepted notion of what it means to be a professional is one that is generally unchallenged in educational circles. However, I would argue that it is a notion that is incorrect on the one hand, and worse, harmful to our mission as educators on the other.

Professionalism Defined

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The idea that professionalism can be defined in a dress code is blatantly false.  An incompetent teacher gains no additional ability or credibility by slipping on a necktie.  Likewise, a competent teacher is no less capable of providing a quality education to her students when she happens to be wearing a pair of sneakers.

Professionalism is not a look; it’s an attitude.  Professionalism is not about the way you dress; it’s about the way that you carry yourself.  Teachers demonstrate professionalism when they hold all their students to high expectations, when they create a curriculum that is rigorous and culturally relevant, and when they show respect to each and every one of their students, eliciting a mutual respect in return.

I understand the rationalization behind “professional dress,” the idea that we need visual representations of the line that divides teacher and student.  I simply disagree with its ability to achieve those results.  We teachers distinguish ourselves as professionals by what we do in the classroom, and that is something that a dress code cannot help nor hinder.

The Paradigm of a Professional

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But how can a dress code for teachers be harmful?  Dress codes for teachers can be harmful because they monopolize the idea of what a professional can look like.  We want all of our students to grow up to be professionals in their chosen trades.  But when we create a cookie-cutter version of what a professional is, we are consequently alienating any students who don’t fit that mold, oftentimes students that already feel alienated in school due to things like culturally irrelevant pedagogies or a lack of peers who look and think like they do.

To link professionalism to certain articles of clothing, clothing that for the most part descends from White European traditions, alienates those students that struggle to envision themselves dressed in such attire, as well as students who simply do not desire to dress in that way.  Hence, those students may come to the (false) conclusion that they can never grow up to be professionals.

But what happens when you expand the paradigm of a professional to include those of us who choose to look or dress less traditionally?  What kind of cognitive dissonance might that create?

Admittingly, at first, it could be met with some resistance.  “Professionals tuck in their shirts. My teacher leaves his shirt untucked. Therefore, my teacher is not a professional.”  But as the school year passes, this initial rejection to expand one’s paradigm will be repeatedly challenged as the teacher continues to gain students trust and to facilitate a safe, caring, rigorous learning environment.  The only option the student has left is to allow their paradigm to be expanded, to accept that teacher as the professional they have proven to be.

Credibility as a Status Quo Challenger

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The other reason I believe that stringent teacher dress codes can be harmful to our mission as educators, particularly educators like myself who wish to build their classrooms and curriculums on a platform of social justice, is because they reduce our credibility as status quo challengers. Social justice teachers are constantly encouraging their students to challenge institutions and question traditions. This message simply isn’t as powerful when it is delivered by someone who looks like either a tool of corporate capitalism or like they have a 3:30 tee time after school that day.

Social justice teachers gain credibility by practicing what they preach. Students recognize them as different, an especially powerful experience for those students who feel different themselves. Witnessing such challenges from their teacher could inspire students to push back against unjust policies as well. This probably isn’t what most districts want, but it is what a district deserves when they enforce student dress codes that contain so many racist and sexist underpinnings.

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Of course there are limits to how far one should take the “new professionalism” that I propose. For instance, I would never advocate for teachers to be able to wear bathrobes and slippers to school, nor would I approve the wearing of a t-shirt featuring Bob Marley enjoying a marijuana cigarette. That being said, a tee containing some Marley lyrics, “One Love” for example, could be very powerful both for making connections with students and spreading a message of love and acceptance. Bob, too, was a social justice advocate, after all.

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NOT OK

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 Also, I do not want this to be misperceived as an attack on those teachers who do choose to dress in attire more traditionally considered as professional. I think it’s great when teachers rock funny ties or high heel shoes or don a dry-cleaned suit. Some kids really dig this too. I just don’t want these to be the only kinds of professionals that I see in my building.

Teachers with non-traditional dress and appearance show students that there is more than one way to be a professional. They teach students that being a professional is about who you are and how you act, not what you look like. And in that lesson, those teachers also teach students to be fuller, truer versions of themselves, to chase passions and follow dreams. “Be you,” they say, “and be the fullest, most successful version of that you that you can possibly be.”

Our physical appearance is how we express who we are. It’s how we show others our history and our culture, our interests and our values. Limitations on a form of expression so vital should only be made with the utmost care and caution, and only when the added security provided clearly outweighs the consequences of any damages such limitations might cause. That rationalization works for swastikas, but not for blue jeans, especially blue jeans with so much potentially powerful symbolism sewn into their seams.

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