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Building a social justice teacher caucus: The story of BMORE

Screenshot 2019-05-22 12.31.18.pngSome context: Why was there a need for a social justice union caucus in Baltimore?  

    Public school teachers around the country are engaged in strikes. They are walking out of their classrooms and schools to gain attention from state legislators, and not just for better salaries and benefits for themselves (although most American agree that teachers need to be paid more). Teachers’ main demand is for funding for public education. Teachers are calling our attention to a sticky problem that we have in American public education funding: It has remained inequitably distributed for decades, no matter what new initiative comes down the pike. Moreover, this inequitable distribution of funding falls along racial lines.

   In Maryland, just like every other state, faces this inequity. The state has repeatedly and consistently underfunded Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS) in violation of their own constitutional definition of adequacy, upheld by the courts multiple time. According to Corey Gaber, teacher in Baltimore City schools, “When adding up this gross underfunding of BCPSS, which is nothing short of the crime of theft being committed against the predominantly Black youth who attend these schools, we reach a very rough education debt to Baltimore City of 3.2 BILLION DOLLARS!”

           There have been commissions appointed, like the one formed in 2000 named after Alvin Thornton, the Howard University professor leading the commission, that recommended equity in school funding across the state. Following the commission’s report, there would be a phase in process of millions of extra dollars into districts like Baltimore that faced budget challenges every year.  In 2008, the state claimed that there were no funds to provide equitable school funding because of the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, every spring, there is an assembly of hundreds of parents, teachers, administrators and advocates rallying for additional funding from the state to ensure that schools in Baltimore schools can keep their doors open.

     In reality, the funding inequity dates back to the Jim Crow period during which Blacks paid taxes in Maryland, but received nothing in return to fund their schools. There were Black schools, but since they did not receive public money, they had crumbling facilities, second or third hand books, and poorly compensated teachers, (Baum, 2010).  In this way, governments “reasserted Black inferiority and proclaimed white supremacy the cultural and economic law of the land and the preferred social order,” (Rooks, 51). Not much has changed since. Nowadays, Black school systems still suffer from unequal funding, have inadequate facilities, like in Baltimore where they cannot even provide heat in the winter to the students.

    Part of the problem is that after the Jim Crow era, the state still has not invested in the city and its Black community. A clear example of this was when Spiro Agnew was governor of Maryland. Riots followed after the death of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, and Agnew summoned Black leaders to the state capitol to demand that they help restore order, but offered nothing to the city or to help Black communities in any way, (Baum, 2010). This lack of investment reveals a clear disdain for the city of Baltimore. Interestingly, Agnew went on to become vice president under Richard Nixon and continued this policy of “benign neglect” of urban centers for decades to come. Cities like Baltimore around the country, therefore, lived with this divestment which compounded over four decades. We can trace the problems that many cities face today to this period.

    This disdain for the city became clear when advocates appealed to the state for funds to fix its crumbling school buildings. In 2012, the ACLU’s education reform project along with others proposed leveraging bonds to pay for school renovations that were long overdue. The state agreed as long as the city promised to shut down 26 of its 200 schools. Sheepishly, the city agreed to this, but the process of closing schools has been more difficult than the city bargained for. The city used metrics of under-performance and under-enrollment to close schools. Given the historic lack of investment in the schools and neighborhoods of Baltimore that has occurred over decades (Baum, 2010 Pietila, 2010), the blunt instrument used to determine which schools to close led to closures in the most low income and the neighborhoods with the most Black people, what is now commonly known in Baltimore as the Black Butterfly.

 In 2015, public outrage blew up when Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody. Schools shut down while the city dealt with the public uprising. People poured into the streets demanding justice not just in this case, but justice for the decades of disinvestment into Black communities that resulted in the conditions that created neighborhoods in which poverty was endemic and police brutality was a daily reality. The state, once again, responded with disdain for the city. The governor called the mayor to task for not getting her city under control, and demanded that there be law and order.

    A few days later, schools opened again and teachers resumed their work without paper for photocopiers, without heat in the dead of winter, and without support for students experiencing trauma. In spite of this, teachers had discussions with their students about structural racism, the police and police brutality, inter-generational poverty, and how to get involved in making change in the city.

   Suddenly, it seemed as if advocating for more school funding was important, but not enough to ensure justice for the teachers and the children of Baltimore. The organizing work at the state level to ensure equity in funding was certainly on everyone’s minds, but there was a sense that more needed to be done, and that the leaders that had been at the helm were not going to be able to bring more back to Baltimore. A change was coming.


The role of the teacher’s union

   For many years, the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) has argued for more funding and increased salaries for its members. It was so committed to the latter, in particular, that it negotiated a contract which included merit pay. The 2010 contract was hailed by groups across the country promoting school choice as a ”progressive contract.” Many teachers were unhappy with this contract negotiation, and thought it did not address many of the issues that were important to teachers. In fact, teachers voted against the contract in the first round and the AFT (the national teachers’ union) sent in organizers to persuade teachers to agree to the contract. What is more, the superintendent at the time, Andres Alonso, who was instrumental in expanding existing alternative certification programs (i.e. Teach for America), rallied those teachers, in particular, to support the contract, which promised items inline with his neoliberal approach to reform, like an end to seniority as the only way to earn more.

 Although there was a public statement expressing excitement about the new contract, city teachers were much more divided than the press about the contract let on. Mirroring union members around the country that were disaffected with their union leadership, many Baltimore teachers wanted their union to fight for more than the bread and butter issues for teachers. They wanted a union that would fight for better conditions for teachers, students, whole schools and communities. These teachers wanted a social justice union, focused on justice for Black students whose neighborhoods have been disinvested in for too long.

   Like union leadership in other cities, the leadership in Baltimore’s Teachers Union (BTU) has been the same for many years, elected by a tiny slice of the rank and file membership. Only 1200 or 6000 members voted in the last election in 2016, giving the current president, Marietta English, her eighth term in the position. In the last recent attempt, in 2016, teacher Kimberly Mooney lost to English by a small margin. Among teachers, she lost by only seven votes (paraprofessionals also vote in the election), suggesting that there was and is dissatisfaction with current leadership. Mike Miazga, a veteran teacher, said,“I make more money than I thought I would ever be able to make as a teacher, but there are too many things I don’t hear coming from the BTU. I feel like their focus is not the focus of the teachers and students a lot of times, and I wanted a different voice.”

    Over the last several years, there have been groups of teachers trying to organize and present alternative visions of what the union could be, but none have had grown beyond a few members. In 2015, a group of teachers decided to be a little more deliberate in their efforts. They came together informally, just like some groups in the past, but began by learning. They read common texts, visited union caucuses in other cities (i.e. CORE in Chicago), and regularly discussed their vision for schools in Baltimore. Through this process built durable relationships with each other, reached out to others, and began to identify leaders among them. This group called themselves, BMORE, the Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators.

Stories that describe BMORE’s development

by BMORE teachers (Corey Gaber, Cristina Duncan-Evans, and Natalia Bacchus)

  One of the things that was important for us during the beginning was that we were just forming was getting a strong sense of who we were as a group. One key piece of that was to think about who we were in relationship to a Black city like Baltimore. As a group, we spent a lot of time talking and thinking about race. We knew that race equity and Black leadership were important qualities for us, but it took us a while to figure out what that meant, and specifically what about Black leadership in Baltimore was significant for us. We also needed to stay secretive and closeted for a long time because as a small group we knew that the people who were part of our initial group would have an outsized impact on how we would eventually be perceived. So, when establishing our own identity we tried very consciously to avoid being co-opted by strident leftists whose mansplaining alienated would-be allies; neoliberals who want to use market-based ideas to “improve” the union; and people whose animosity towards the union leadership was nothing but thinly veiled anti-blackness.

    We used this slow period to also build relationships with each other, bringing food and drinks to book club gatherings where we read about similar efforts around the country. Developing trust was crucial because there is a long history of folks claiming to be supportive of social justice movements, and then turning elsewhere when presented with an opportunity to personally rise through the ranks. We were set on this not happening to us, and to building a solid community of educators that made decisions democratically. It meant we would eventually be comfortable saying, “Cristina, can you handle that?” “Natalia, can you represent us at this event?” “Corey, can you write up something on this issue?” Over time, we were able to rely on each other knowing that our team would handle it well, without having to peer over each others shoulders. Now we have a steering committee with seven people representing elementary, middle, high school, traditional schools, charter schools, teachers, para-professionals.  Five of our seven members are people of color, and that is intentional.

      We first had to develop our knowledge base, and that happened in discussions as well as reading together. By talking though, we realized that our working conditions were severe and we needed to address them. Teaching can be such an overwhelming and isolating profession that it’s easy to not even know what’s going on elsewhere in your school, much less across the district. Consciousness grew tremendously as a result of listening to stories from teachers around the city.  Teachers of ESOL students explained, for example, their teachers work to protect their families from ICE outside of the building. These students were also being asked to take the PARCC test, and their teachers would be evaluated in part based on those results. We gained greater empathy for the work of the Black para-professionals, who shoulder a disproportionate load of the behavior management side of teaching with ⅓ of the pay.

  There was also a lot of invisible work that we needed to do to build our own common knowledge base. In our group we did research on the history of underfunding, which allowed us to properly frame the facilities issue in the context of decades of state abdication of responsibility. Bouncing different potential ideas off of other teachers we knew allowed us to craft something quickly that accounted for a variety of perspectives. Talking on the phone with principals we knew gave us another angle when considering a solution that worked for all people on the ground in school buildings. Without this prior invisible work, we couldn’t have churned out such a thoughtful list of demands that caught on and allowed concerned citizens to channel their outrage into a tangible path forward.

    That said, we feel that, in many ways the circumstances of teaching in Baltimore are the hardest that they have ever been, which gives limited energy for organizing, but the issues are so pressing that they need organizing in order to solve them. In January 2018, the temperatures dropped below freezing for days on end. There were schools across the city without heat. There were reports of teachers and students in classrooms with hats, coats, and gloves to make it through the school day. One teacher even launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for winter wear. This was a crisis. The school board got an earful from community members at their January 10th meeting, and still had no solution to offer. This was a great organizing opportunity for BMORE, we reacted quickly and it taught us how to do a campaign in a short period of time. Learning how to be public and loud was the last important piece of the puzzle that we started, and having an immediate outrage to respond to was a teachable moment.

    We put out a set of demands  in English and Spanish about the school temperature which asked for transparency, communication, a clear plan, and to close schools if the conditions were too cold for students and teachers. The district answered the demands, and eventually the governor stepped in to provide emergency funding. This campaign put us on the map, and got us working in coalition with many other groups around the city.

    After the temperature crisis subsided, we returned to our October conversation about  doing a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Baltimore, like many other groups of teachers in other cities had done. We were all 100% behind the idea, and also terrified of taking on another project on our own. Committing to something that extended beyond our current capacity forced us to reach out in partnership to other groups we admired from afar. Originally, we thought we’d get some t-shirts and do a single event. The response from Baltimore Algebra Project, Dr. Lawrence Brown, a professor of public health at Morgan State University, and so many other individuals and organizations was so overwhelming that we ended up having an entire week’s worth of events. One key event was our Black Teachers Matter panel discussion at a local elementary school. At it, we showed this video, which conveyed the loss of Black teachers in our city which stands now only at 40%.

     The week garnered enough positive attention that people now know BMORE. With our name on the map, other groups are now reaching out to us, eager to partner, and inspired by the work we’re putting in. This makes us think BMORE can be the kind of group that connects the dots between the people on the ground doing real work in the community, and lift up the voices of those who are traditionally and systematically ignored.

      The ongoing challenge that we face is the nitty gritty of organizing. We got a lot of attention. We have been embraced by Black-led community organizations, but we need to expand our base of teachers. We needed more teachers to actually show up for meetings and the work. There seemed to be general support, but not consistent energy to move folks to add an additional obligation after the school day. In many ways, we needed to remain true to what we started, and continue to build relationships with teachers as much as we can. We could not let our visibility distract us from that. It took CORE (Chicago’s social justice teacher caucus) years before they were ready to take over their union leadership, which they did in 2010. We had to take a page out of their book, and continue to do the challenging work of organizing.  We also had to recognize that the work is slow. If we just got everybody involved in BMORE, without considering that the people most likely to join up would be those with the most resources, time, and lack of discrimination on the worksite, we would be stuck with only liberal white teachers who over time, would create a white space that was no longer safe for educators of color to join and speak out at. We were very conscious of staying true to our original goal for Black leadership. After all, we are in a Black city.   

  Looking forward, we looked nationally and locally to build our power in order to transform the BTU from a service union to a social justice union. We believe educators should be proactively leading the efforts to advocate for, protect and improve our profession AND the communities where our students live.  Public education serves the common good, and labor unions do the important work of protecting it from exploitation and privatization. We understand that public education is a tool for liberation and essential to a functioning democracy.

We will work to counteract Baltimore’s history of structural racism by intentionally promoting the voices and leadership of educators of color within our group. We intend to amplify the power of the people through relationship building and providing educators the tools to organize their schools and communities.

    Part of achieving this vision was running delegates for election so that we can be represented at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) national convention in Pittsburgh summer 2018 (we have 33 candidates on the ballot). Locally, we planned a one day teacher organizing workshop as part of a week long coalition event commemorating the events of 1968, called Baltimore Freedom Summer. We submitted 850 petition signatures from BTU members to amend the BTU constitution to make voting more accessible. We are a regular presence at school board meetings and smaller work groups adding teacher voice to conversations around curriculum, teacher evaluation, and the recruitment and retention of black teachers in the district. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we put together a slate for the next Baltimore Teachers Union election. After a lot of organizing at individual schools, hosting events, and a social media campaign, we won! We succeeded ousting an 8-term union president. The Baltimore Teachers Union will be represented by teachers and para-professionals who have commitments to social justice and equity.  


My comments sent to Maryland’s Kirwan Commission on education


Dear Commissioner Kirwan,

I write to you not only as a private citizen and taxpayer, but as a parent of two public school children and a professor of education who has taught and studied education policy for twenty years. I wanted to begin by commending the commission for putting the spotlight on education equity as an issue that needs attention. My children are not receiving the kind of education that I had growing up because of its slow reduction of schooling to its bare bones- literacy and math. As a teacher and researcher, I see the inequities that schools face depending on the zip code in which they are located. In one of the wealthiest states in the nation, there is no reason that the conditions of schooling should be this way.

I know that you and the members of the commission share my concern about the state of our public schools, but our ways of addressing the problems we face are very different. For me, I think that the people that know the answers to how to solve our problems in schools are the people who are most impacted by the schools- students and teachers. We do not have any students represented on the commission and only one teacher. As a result there have been blind spots, many of which were pointed out in Dr. Toldson’s remarks on November 14, 2018. Toldson suggested that the commission pay attention to the stakeholders who were arguing for racial equity, which the commission had overlooked in its initial workgroup recommendations.  Racial equity, not just a focus on concentrated poverty, would lead to a redistribution of school funds so that the students in Baltimore, for example, where we have the largest concentration of Black students and of poverty, would not only get their fair share of funding pie, but would also get extra funding to compensate for the many years they received less than their fair share.

Another blindspot has to do with the issue of the recruitment and retention of a diverse teaching force. Teaching certainly needs to be elevated and salaries need to increase, as the commission recommends. However, research and experience tell us that in order to get the kind of teachers we want, we need to make the conditions of teaching attractive and supportive to people who teach. As a former teacher myself, I wanted three things: (1) A supportive principal (i.e. one that cared about my professional development),  (2) A flexible curriculum (i.e. that allowed for cultural responsive pedagogies), and (3) An opportunity to build culture and community with students and families. Richard Ingersoll, an expert on teacher retention, recently showed that teachers of color are leaving at higher rates than white teachers. In order to shift this, we will need more than salary increases. The commission will need to explore what obstacles need to be removed (i.e. high stakes testing, teacher evaluation based on tests) and which supports  (i.e. quality professional development) need to be put in place so that principals and teachers can have the freedom to serve students well.

A third blindspot is around how to address struggling students and schools. The commission refers to struggling students as “at risk,” which as Dr. Toldson points out, is a dated term that describes students as deficient. Thus, the solution the commission has suggested is to correct what is wrong with the students. However, another way to approach the issue of struggling students is to broadly examine the root causes why students struggle. To address those causes, the commission will find that students need more than extra tutoring or a higher bar to reach. They need access to regular healthy meals, culturally responsive curricula, and health and mental health services, enrichment programs, among other supports. The community school model comes the closest to this, but even those schools do not provide all that students need.

From where I sit, the commission has had a difficult time. One reason seems to be because it is working from a paradigm that reflects a desire to compete on the global stage. If we are truly going to compete, and I am not necessarily endorsing that as the goal for our schools, we should be asking the people most impacted by schools how to improve them. Teachers and students understand the issues of schools better than anyone. They understand the need for equity, for improved conditions for teachers, and for stronger supports for students.

There are many other issues to discuss, and am happy if I am ever invited to do so. However, for now, I am hoping that you will take these comments into consideration as the commission finalizes its recommendations.


Jessica Shiller


Envisioning equity

Screenshot 2017-10-20 15.00.25 The idea of equity is something that I have been hearing a of people talking about in schools and at the university.  With the failure of policies like No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and Race to the Top to “fix schools” and solve intractable problems like the achievement gap, now educators have turned to equity as a possibility.  Education leaders and educators themselves have begun to realize that academic achievement will not be resolved by curriculum or testing fixes, but what do we mean when we talk about equity?

Equity is different than equality. Equality is providing everyone the same thing. Equity is acknowledging the differences between people, and providing what they need to succeed.  Equity is harder work, and forces us to examine historical and institutional nature of inequality.  Once we engage in that process, we have to go along the journey of continually checking ourselves around the ways in which we contribute to and enact inequity in our every day so  that we can interrupt it.  Those of us who are white have an important role to play because so much of what we do reifies inequity. We are blind to it often, and until we go down the road of deep self-reflection, we cannot notice how we are contributing to inequity.

For the first time, my university, a predominantly white institution, began to open up a space for dialogue and reflection around equity in education. They spent the day on October 7th listening and learning about how to apply a racial equity lens.  The whole day, which we entitled Envisioning Equity, allowed educators at public schools, universities, non-profits, community centers, to start to explore what equity can look like in classrooms, in whole schools, as part of discipline practices, in access to the arts. Here is a video one of my students made about the day. It is optimistic because they are hopeful about equity. I am a little more realistic in that I think this will take hard work, and some people will not be up for it, but I do believe it’s a start.

Free Minds, Free People

IMG_0916   Free Minds Free People, or FMFP, is a space where youth and adults can converge to discuss social justice and education for liberation. This year it was in Baltimore at Loyola University. FMFP is a space like no other, where folks come together to discuss praxis, the blending of theory and practice. Folks discussed the decolonization of schools and universities, ethnic studies, youth-led movements, and emancipatory teaching.

I was proud to be a member of the planning team and a presenter. But it was the youth of the Baltimore Algebra Project, who led the charge. Without them, the conference would not have come together. It was an impressive effort that should be a model for any conference on social justice. There were vegan meals, childcare, and safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.  There was art, music, and poetry.  And there was a march in solidarity with immigrant communities facing raids and deportation by ICE.

IMG_0918   My presentation was about how teachers are working in a classroom in the time of the Trump administration. It was a great collaboration between faculty and teachers. The well-attended workshop was an example of how folks can come together to reimagine educational spaces as well as form networks of support in a climate in which people committed to social justice are being targeted.

Kudos to the Algebra Project, and look out for Free Minds Free People 2019!


White fragility as resistance on university campuses


Francis Kendall, who writes about the need to examine white privilege, wrote a semi-autobiographical book about her own privilege which I use in my classes. Often it is eye opening for my students, who are majority white, to surface the ways in which they benefit from privilege. I use the book so that they can begin to understand their own identities, how they are impacted, and how power has been inequitably distributed as a result. They do indeed begin to understand their own privilege, but this sets them on a course of racial identity development which can lead to real road blocks.

I teach at a predominantly white institution, and there are very limited opportunities to address race and racism, until there is an incident of racism. Without these ongoing opportunities to talk about race, race becomes something unusual to discuss– both exciting and taboo. This is not only true in my classes, among students, but with colleagues and administration as well.

Among students, as I said, they are usually animated by the discussion of race, but often express in evaluations that their professor brings a liberal politics that make them uncomfortable.  Among colleagues, a conversation about race is challenging as well. When  our new vice president of diversity addressed our education faculty, she talked about the importance of creating a more tolerant campus, but what people remembered was an off-handed remark she made about her unhappiness with the Trump administration’s influence on the climate on schools and college campuses. Faculty members balked at her being too political.

Another example comes from my own experience of planning a conference on equity and education. The conference will focus on race and the need to address it at all levels of education in order for us to more effectively and equitably educate young people. The focus on race was met with surprise and anxiety from administrators. I was asked numerous times if I was sure this was a good idea to focus so narrowly, if I was sure we should use the terms Black and Brown youth, and if I was sure that the focus would make enough people feel included in the discussion.  One white faculty member was suspicious of the single focus on race, and wondered if it was “promoting an agenda” and was “exclusionary.”  I argued that this was an opportunity to engage directly with race and racism, which has been a major problem since we have not fully grappled with it as faculty or as a society. This was met by silence. The message was clear, there was real resistance to focusing on race and racism.

This year, I had a white colleague call me, at home, out of the blue. Someone with whom I had never really spoken. She told me that she felt that the climate for faculty of color, and anti-racist faculty was inhospitable and they were feeling vulnerable in a time of Trump. This and all of the examples I mention is worrying because we cannot expect our students to be comfortable talking about race if we are not.  It is these set of experiences that cumulatively have shown me how the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the reproduction of white domination continues, leaving campuses like mine inhospitable to the experiences of Black and Brown students as well as faculty.

If directly confronted, I am sure that white students, teachers, faculty and administrators I know would say that they are interested in dismantling racism on campus. They would reiterate their support for inclusivity and would celebrate diversity. But celebrations will not get us to where we need to be. If we cannot have open discussions about racism, then it is clear the university cannot create a welcoming space. Of course, there is always the possibility that things will improve. The university hired a new administrator to focus exclusively on diversity. She immediately identified the problem of silence around race and racism on campus among faculty. I don’t know how successful she will be, but the alternative is that the campus cannot engage fully in the work of changing its culture.

Still, I cannot shake the worry that white people cannot handle the conversation about race, their fragility and discomfort is problematic at best. I do not have the answer for how to proceed, other than to keep on talking about race and confronting racism when I encounter it.




The Towerlight highlights school closings work


By: Nilo Exar, Staff Writer

Students and guest panelists gathered Monday, March 23 to discuss the potential closings of some Baltimore City Schools and the role of racial inequality in education.

A video, entitled “School’s Out,” was shown before the panel discussion.  The video was co-produced by TU assistant professor Jessica Shiller and her “The Possibilities and Challenges of Reforming Urban Schools” honors college students. The video touched on issues like the lack of a community and city relationship when closing schools, as well as the general racial issues surrounding school closings and the greater racial injustice that the schools closings represented.

After the video, panelists including Johns Hopkins associate professor Lester Spence, Morgan State professor Lawrence Brown, Jamal Jones of the Baltimore Algebra Project and Ryan Good, a doctoral student at Rutgers, discussed both Baltimore and the country’s history of racial discrimination.

According to Spence, many of the cities where many schools are closed have high rates of segregation and removal of black population.

“117 of 188 schools [in Baltimore City] are 99 percent or more Black,” Brown said.

Spence also talked about racial zoning, which refers to the period when African-Americans were restricted from living in certain neighborhoods, as well as redlining, when banks refused to give mortgages to minorities.  He said that this discrimination still occurs in the closing of schools.

“14 of the top 20 cities for school closings are in top cities for segregation,” Brown said.

Schools are closed down when they are under a 71 person in the utilization formula, according to Spence. This can mean that schools perform poorly on standardized tests and general academic performance.  However, usually these schools are already being slighted in terms of funding.  Jones, who went through Baltimore City Schools himself, attested to the existence of this.

Another reason city schools can’t succeed is the lack of permanent teachers and administrators at the schools.

“There’s a lot of leaving that happens,” Jones said.  He said that many teachers are brought in through Teach for America, but leave at the end of their time because they are drained, which creates a revolving door for teachers and faculty.

The panelists also looked at outcomes of community-based schools being closed.

“Getting rid of schools perpetuates this other history of not knowing where you’re from,” Jones said.

He said that having deep and truthful conversations about the racial issues behind school closings is the first step to bettering the situation.

Students of Shiller’s seminar class were in attendance at the panel discussion.  Junior exercise science major Daniel Andrades spoke to the value that educating about such issues plays in motivating people to help the cause.

“Before we came to class we had no idea what the policies were about the schools, we had no idea about Jim Crow and how it actually affected what’s happening today,” Andrades said.

“I think this program also really showed the inequalities that go into urban schools, and not just education itself but housing, neighborhoods, [and] the distribution of wealth,” junior psychology and sociology major Maia Williams said.

What do schools do post presidential election?

By now the election of 2016 is over. Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States. Leading up to the election, the country was engaged– or at least glued to social media– as this election was like no other. There were personal attacks, accusations of law-breaking, tampering to gain the advantage, and grandiose promises. Comedians took this and ran. Saturday Night Live may have had its most-watched series of episodes as it lampooned the debates between the candidates.  As adults were consumed with every move that Trump and Clinton made this fall, young people were as well. In response, schools across the country held discussions, civics lessons, and mock elections. It was a great time to be a teacher of English and social studies as it was an incredible opportunity to teach debate, rhetoric, government, and the electoral process.

However, this election was also filled with discrimination and hate. There was talk of inner cities as “hell,” banning Muslims from entering the country, and objectifying and belittling of women. The election also elevated talk of law and order in response to police brutality and immigrants as dangerous.  For the most part, Trump grabbed the headlines for making these insulting remarks about race, class, and gender, and young people were listening . For schools, it was an opportunity for all teachers to discuss systemic oppression as well as tolerance  with their students in the classroom.


As a teacher educator and partner to public schools, I saw teachers engage in dialogue  about civics and debate as well we tolerance and hate.  There were resources flying around the internet and discussions about how to teach the election. Some teachers shared their own feelings with students to open up the classroom dialogue, to make discussions less abstract, and more personal about the country’s current state and its future. As the election ended, however, things become more tense. In my blue state of Maryland, many teachers were very surprised that Trump would be elected. Many students were too, and came to school on November 9, 2016 with tears, questions, and fear as well. Teachers were tasked with helping students as young as 5 with discussing the election. In my own children’s schools, there were amazing discussions about feeling about the election, how the electoral college works, how Trump won, and implications of his presidency. With so many students and teachers who felt the same way about the election, the classrooms were by and large peaceful, safe spaces for children and teachers to share their perspectives. There were many schools that fell into this category.

In other schools I visited, however, there were different things going on. In a number of schools I was in, Latino students reported students– of all other races– saying things like, “bye, bye” and “guess I won’t be seeing you anymore.” There were reports of this around the country. From California to Michigan to my own context in Baltimore, there were reports of this kind of hatred, from micro-agressions to hate speech and attacks. There were also reports of similar incidents regarding Muslim students. On the other side, there were also calls for tolerance and unity. Teachers largely took that stand in the schools I visited, letting students know that they were safe in the school and that as a school community they should all try to get along.

Of course tolerance and unity is a positive message to send to young people, but with the teachers I spoke with, it was often a defensive posture rather than a rallying cry. It was a way to avoid talking about conflict and racism. I spoke to teachers who were not sure of what to say when students in their class made racist remarks. They were not sure how to keep their Latino or Muslim or other targeted students safe. Rather than engage, one teacher told me that she spent 10 minutes letting students discuss the election and then it was onto math! There is a long history of teachers avoiding conflict. Diane Hess, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written:

“Even when teachers believe a topic is a controversial issue, they do not necessarily include it in their curricula. When talking with a group of high school teachers about what Supreme Court cases they think deserve attention in high schools, I encountered an example of avoidance: virtually all of them said they did not teach Roe v. Wade (1973) though they acknowledged it was a landmark case and that abortion rights were still an important controversial issue in the United States. Their reasons for avoiding this controversy fell into two categories. First, some teachers were afraid that the very mention of abortion in the classroom would cause uproar in the community. More prevalent, however, was the influence of the teachers’ own views.Thus, these teachers avoided including issues in the curriculum not because they thought it was an insignificant issue, but for precisely the opposite reason: Their strong views about the issue prevented them from teaching their students about it in the pedagogically neutral fashion they assumed was possible,”(Hess, 2004).

This is interesting. For teachers avoiding the topic of racism in their classroom, it may be because of uproar, conflict, or upset parents calling the school. It also could be because they are worried that their own views may be racist or considered racist. If that is true, then we need to be really concerned as people who teach teachers and for those who supervise them once they are in the classroom. What can we do to help teachers feel comfortable with controversy in the classroom? What can we do so that they can really be allies to students who are targets of aggression and prejudice? How can they make their classroom spaces that are free for students to feel like they can express themselves without worry? There is much to say about these questions, including research and great work being done to show teachers how they might lead discussions about difficult topics. But all of it starts with a willingness to do it. Teachers, and all of us, need not to avoid conflict and always keep the peace. We actually need to actually dig into conflict and controversy and be willing to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to be uncomfortable. That will help students develop civic capacities that would assist them, as adults, in engaging in healthy political debate, which is what we need now more than ever.


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