One week ago at the New Teacher Center Symposium on Mentoring and Induction Chris Emdin used Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and urged me to examine which parts of society I am willing to be deliberately maladjusted to. The next day Monique W. Morris urged me to respond to behaviors demonstrated by Black girls, particularly those behaviors we consider unacceptable, from a place of love and healing. For the past week these ideas have been flying around my brain like particles in the Large Hadron Collider creating new possibilities and new ways of thinking as the concepts smash into each other.
Standard Operating Procedure:
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school intoxicated schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot be intoxicated and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school with a weapon schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot carry weapons and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school in clothing that violates the dress code schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot violate the dress code and remain at school.
More subtly Black girls are pushed out of schools for disrespect, disobedience, defiance and a host of other subjective violations. This is not unique to Black girls, but Black girls are overrepresented in every single discipline category from the most benign to the most severe.
If schools are structured, not to respond with love and healing, but instead to respond with punishment does critical love then require a position of intentional maladjustment in order to exist in the school environment?
Both Emdin and Morris were excellent speakers with a strong combination of academic credentials, anecdotal story, and personal history. The whole time though, all I could think was: “this shouldn’t be that hard.”
This stuff should be baseline. None of this should be controversial. None of this should be revolutionary. But it is. The fact that Morris needs to say that Black girls are sacred and worthy of love tells me that we live in an environment where this is not the status quo. The fact that Morris needs to explain that she centers Black girls tells me that this is a revolutionary act. The fact that Emdin has to say that neoindigenous (his term for urban) students’ interests from outside the school building are artifacts worth of exploration tells me that this is not standard operating procedure.
I can’t tell if I’m naïve or arrogant (both?) when I think that this shouldn’t be hard – that we should be able to assume that teachers care about and love their students. It is hard though and schools are highly resistant to change.
Why is it a challenge for educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents in their care? More specifically, why is it a challenge for white educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents of color in their care?
I could say institutional racism and sexism. I could say a history of class warfare. I could say centuries and decades of oppression that are passed down from generation to generation through epigenetic inheritance. I could say all of the above. Oppression, like liberation, is intersectional. Emdin made it simpler though and I’m biased toward explanations that cut to universalizing root causes.
Broken people break people. Hurt people hurt people. Broken teachers break students. And healing is hard work. We’re not adjusted to school as a healing place.
You want to make schools a place where we can heal students? You need to heal the adults. This, is not standard operating procedure. Standard operating procedure in schools ignores the need for healing and instead pushes teacher and students to leave their personal lives at the door in favor of a neutral academic environment. This simply does not work. We need to change what we’re adjusted to, and it’s not a new idea.
With all the talk last week about the importance of identity, love, belonging, trauma, and emotional health I’m frankly shocked that no one brought out Maslow. Maslow published the Hierarchy of Needs 1943. We’ve had access to this knowledge for seventy-four years. For seventy-four years we’ve been able to make claims that in order for people to self-actualize (which is what all our educational standards shoot for) we need to make sure that people have their physiological, physical, belonging, and esteem needs to be met. And yet all the time we have students entering our classes without these needs met.
Students come to class hungry and without sleep. Some students come to class intoxicated. Some students are homeless and come to school without shelter.
Students come to class from physically unsafe homes, through physically unsafe streets, into physically unsafe schools.
Students come to class from psychology unsafe homes, throughout psychologically unsafe streets, into psychologically unsafe classrooms.
Students come to class wondering if they have value. Wondering if anyone will miss them if they just stopped showing up.
Some students experience only one of these circumstances. Many students experience all of them at once.
And then we ask students to pay attention to the history of the Byzantine Empire, or to analyze The Iliad? Or when we’re really excited we ask them to do deep personal reflection and self-actualize in class? Please.
Students need us to see them as fully formed and worthy human beings. Emdin drew a parallel to graffiti writers who literally risk jail and their lives climbing buildings to write their names – to have someone see them. Morris spoke on how Black girls are trying their best to cope with trauma on their own by self-medicating, running away, or fighting, yet when they need healing the most, schools push them out and punish them.
Closing the achievement gap (or repaying the educational debt we owe students) will require that students of color are capable of self-actualizing within the school environment. The standards require it and to paraphrase Morris equity without a standard of excellence is not equity.
We need our students of color to succeed on their own terms as well as the terms of the dominant society if we have any hope of continued success for this country. People of color have the demographic dividend in this country and across the world. Our country cannot be sustained by an ever-shrinking ruling class. (Feel free to look at the bleak world of Lazarus) The small ruling class model does not have a history of long-term success and tends to end in horrific bloodshed. I am unwilling to accept that future for this country.
So if we want to close our gap (or repay our debt) we need students to be capable of self-actualization. This then helps us define or work. Maslow and Wiggins makes it easy for us: just backwards plan and move each step in the pyramid.
We want self-actualization: Do our students have high esteem? Yes – let’s go. No – work on esteem.
When working on esteem: Do our students have love and belonging covered? Yes – work on esteem. No – work on love and belonging.
If broken people break people then our first step is to heal the adults. Healthy adults are required for this work because we need to be able to stay present and calm when a student insults you. We need to know that a student’s outburst is more often a symptom of some underlying need for validation or healing than it is an intentional act of aggression.
The next step is to know our students. We cannot pretend to heal our students without knowing their authentic selves. This is the core argument for Emdin’s reality pedagogy model.
Accept What Is:
The core premise of Emdin’s reality pedagogy is that regardless of our opinions about it, we have to accept and interrogate our student’s realities. Particularly the realities of the neoindigenous because their realities are the least often reflected by the status quo. This is the path toward affirming identity and moving a student toward self actualization.
If your 6th grade student’s favorite movie is Scarface because their favorite rapper rhymes about Tony Montana then guess what – that’s their favorite movie and it’s an important reference point for their identity. You will make a stronger connection with your student if you see the movie and can connect this schema to the work of your class.
Is Genghis Khan similar to Tony Montana? Both self-made men interested in expanding their control that get brought down by hubris? Perhaps. And how many other literary figures or world leaders could be connected that way? You’ll only know that if you engage with your student’s interests. You don’t have to be an expert and you don’t have to like it. If you know enough though it will make you a better teacher for that student.
Emdin’s example includes the hypothetical of what if your student comes in singing “I wish I could f___ every girl in the world“? (Also interrogate if that student is male, female, Black, white, Latino, Asian?) Regardless of your opinion of the song, the song is already a part of the student’s reality. The student will engage with it whether you are there to guide them or not. If you can engage with them then you can bring this part of their reality into the classroom and interrogate it. Is this a sentiment that they truly believe? Does this extend to sisters, aunts, mothers, cousins? What’s their relationship to the message of the song? The mental shift is that teachers can’t reject things they don’t like out of hand because those touchstones are already real to our students. We have to work with the students to understand the meaning and context of the world they exist in. Even when it is uncomfortable or repugnant. If we are thoughtful we can also make explicit connections to the ideas, issues, and values in the standard curriculum. How many of Hemmingway’s protagonists could have written the same song under different circumstances or in a different time? What does this tell us about their misogyny? There’s a whole lesson right there.
I can imagine many teachers blanching at the thought of anchoring a lesson around Lil’ Wayne and a hook with an F-bomb in it, never mind the misogynist content. And you’re probably right to blanche and instinctually reject the idea. It’s a huge risk in most schools. We are adjusted to a certain version of school with written and unwritten rules. This is why in order to change standard operating procedure, we have to get maladjusted to the status quo. This shows up instructionally as described above, and it can also show up in discipline.
Respond With Love:
During her talk Morris rejected the school-to-prison pipeline when it comes to Black girls. Instead she offered a model that is more like a sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Under this model young Black girls are abused or assaulted, they then come to school exhibiting a variety of unhelpful coping behaviors like bringing a weapon to school, self-medicating or being aggressive. These behaviors typically violate school policy in some way, often the behaviors show up under the catchall of “disrupting the learning environment.” Students are then referred for discipline related to the violation (often suspension) and in many circumstances these violations escalate to the juvenile justice system. Black girls are then pushed out of school and prevented from additional learning due to how these coping mechanisms present in the context of school.
This brutal pattern forms the basis of Morris’ book and the premise for why she argues that we should instead respond to these behaviors with love and healing instead of punishment. These girls are not “misbehaving” in order to cause trouble or to “disrupt the learning environment.” They are responding to trauma in the only way they know how. And schools push them away. It doesn’t have to go like this. Schools could be places for healing instead.
On it’s surface this change again seems simple. Instead of referring students to the juvenile justice system or suspending students, you respond with interventions designed to heal the trauma at the root of the issue. The violence or self-medication is a symptom. We should treat the cause.
Yet this change in response stands in direct opposition to standard operating procedure on school discipline. In order to make this fundamental change educators need to be maladjusted to the idea that students who violate school policy should be removed from the school environment. And educators need to accept their students’ realities no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that is for the educator. Morris began to flip this narrative when she said: “Can we all agree that there is no such thing as a child prostitute? Instead we have girls exploited and forced into sex work.” This is an enormous paradigm shift away from criminalizing coping behavior, particularly in schools that use zero tolerance policies linked to criminal justice. It takes a healthy, bold, and confident educator to reject school or district policy at possible risk to their job and their livelihood.
Decide to Be Creatively Maladjusted:
Maladjustment is not a safe choice, but the stakes are high. The lives of our current students are the lives of this country’s future adults regardless of how they turn out. We shape the future through action and inaction at the same time.
I like the idea of individual teachers taking this on at a grass roots level. It has a satisfying revolutionary appeal: individual teachers opting out of referring students for suspension or teaching lessons rooted in students’ realities. That’s not going to fix things though. We have an enormous issue of scale when it comes to PreK-12 public education in this country. It takes larger commitments from all levels of the organization.
Oakland Unified School District is one district leading this work by making a move toward restorative justice across the district. This is the kind of change to policy that, when combined with day-to-day work supporting students, can allow teachers to take risks from a safer position. District leadership can create policies and guidelines that support and protect teachers when they actively engage students. We can recreate the standard operating procedure, but in order to do so we have to be maladjusted to the current one.
After the clip that Emdin used to illustrate the concept of maladjustment King asks for an International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Emdin made a claim that this association exists and that it’s hip hop. I think that public education can do it too.