Ceding Environmental Privilege

This week on social media I’ve been following the adventures of a group of education leaders from the US who have traveled to another country to learn about the education system there. I’m also reading inspiring messages of what educators from around the country are learning at the various national conferences happening throughout the month, with attendance at each in the many thousands. This all got me thinking about the relationship between education and environmental habits.

I believe that these group experiences are truly deeply meaningful. They bring people together to pursue the best practices in teaching and learning. They are catalysts for growth. They promote collaboration and collegiality.

But in an era where we have already reached irreversible and catastrophic levels of global warming, these practices are prime examples of how leaders in education, for the most part, have turned a blind eye to their reliance on environmental privilege.

Does it hurt anyone?

The amount of carbon expelled into the air and the amount of arctic ice lost from 30 people going on round trip flights from anywhere in the US to another continent has an actual impact on every community around the globe suffering the effects of extreme weather, and every non-human population that’s being wiped out.

But those flights are going anyway, so my not going doesn’t make a difference. That’s how I’ve always thought of it. But, by absolving myself of any personal responsibility, I’m exercising my environmental privilege.

Could we calculate the footprint of a huge national education conference? Think about the air miles, the hotel usage, the plastic and lights and trash in the vendor halls, the food waste from the many sponsored receptions, and everything else that I’m not even thinking of x approximately 9,000 attendees. And most k-12 education organizations hold these annual mega-events.

But that’s just the environmental impact. I once heard a recording of Bobby Kennedy speaking about his life-changing trip to South Africa. He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Those of us who diet are forever obligated to those of us who starve.” Environmental privilege refers to hoarding environmental resources so that one group benefits at the expense of others. With education programs that involve mass travel and energy consumption, which by their very nature are then exclusive, we must consider who’s dieting and who’s starving. And then we need to take action.

What would it look like?

Back to social media. The other day I saw an invitation to #cleartheair participants for a Zoom call. Not a summer gathering in one city or another, which involves air or car travel and hotel stays and immediately leaves people out. A Zoom call. Everyone can participate and no negative environmental impact.

Traveling across the globe to learn about a school system sounds amazing and I’d love to be on that trip, but is there anything that they’re learning that couldn’t be achieved with a virtual study group, a series of readings, and local experts? I know that’s a lot less appealing, and I bet 30 people wouldn’t participate, but ceding privilege means giving something up. We have to make space for others to benefit, even if we can’t see them benefitting or point to our individual impact.

Educators, it’s time to change our practices. We have to lead on this, too. Who’s with me?

The Co-Opting of Progressive Education

I’ve always been really proud of being a progressive educator. I really believe in its core tenet, that the purpose of progressive education is to prepare students to be active citizens of a participatory democracy. I also believe in the pedagogy of progressive education, that students should learn by doing and that teachers should facilitate a classroom environment that is based on active learning rather than passive sitting and listening.

But lately I’ve been thinking that progressive education as educational philosophy is just another tool to uphold white supremacy — not the hardcore ideology of neo-nazi white supremacists — but the structural capitalist enterprise designed to keep white people on the top. I don’t necessarily mean that John Dewey meant it that way; but, over time, that’s how it’s been implemented.

Progressive education loses its bearings

While I’m not an educational historian, I know that in the first half of the 20th Century, public schools caught hold of progressive education as a means of tracking. Principals didn’t consider it a practical solution for students who weren’t going on to higher education; those students should have vocational education. They saved progressive methodologies for those promising young (mostly) men going on to college. For sure, “promising” meant white, Christian students who were not recently arrived in the U.S. Just like that, a philosophy based on active citizenship shifts into the service of upholding the status quo.

Radical lesbian educator and John Dewey-disciple Elisabeth Irwin started her experiment in progressive education in a public school in New York City, but with the onset of the Depression, she was told that it was too costly and was being scrapped. The solution? Make the experiment into a private program. Who benefits, then? People who can pay. People with privilege. People whose right to citizenship isn’t questioned or worse, actively suppressed.

In the past 25 years of schooling, and particularly since NCLB, the push towards “accountability” and the testing that is required to measure accountability means that progressive methodologies have been systematically pushed out of public schools, even at the elementary level. That’s a generation of public school students losing out on the kind of education that centers them as learners, community members, young citizens with ideas and value. So, while they’ve been losing out, who’s been benefitting?

Testing companies. Textbook companies. Charter school networks. And white kids in private schools.

In pursuit of social injustice

Which leads me to take a hard look at what I’ve been participating in as a card-carrying progressive educator. And it’s not pretty. Those of us who benefit from white privilege must persistently interrogate the ways that we participate — often unwittingly — in systems designed or leveraged to uphold one group over others. Doesn’t mean, like in the case of progressive education, that the thing itself is inherently problematic, but the way it’s been co-opted is.

Grit. Mindset. All these philosophies that perhaps begin with good intentions, to develop young people as active learners, are quickly subverted. The urge to keep our systems socially unjust is that strong.

I’ll still carry my progressive education card in my wallet, but when I’m called upon to take it out, I will be sure to take a good hard look at who benefits.

Fix the Teachers

In my recent period of unemployment, I applied for a lot of jobs. A LOT of jobs. Most of them were remote education jobs.

One of the jobs required a performance task as part of the interview process. One component of the task was to review a variety of edtech tools. As part of the review, I had to assess the strengths of the tool and what it couldn’t be used for. My answers were all the same: “This tool is cool because of X. A classroom teacher wouldn’t use this to promote classroom discussion, student-to-student discourse, critical thinking, reflection, or analysis.” Hmmm.

The more jobs I applied for, the more I began to recognize a subtext in the mission of the organizations. It went something like this: “we are here to fix the teachers.” Or, “we fix the broken schools by minimizing the teacher’s presence in the classroom.” When things are broken, you need something to blame. Or someone. Teachers are an easy target.

The schools are broken

Help! The schools are broken! “I know! Let’s hire (primarily white & wealthy) undergrads from elite colleges and place them – untrained –  in schools in underserved communities. Let’s be sure to tell them that because they went to brand name schools, they’re better than the long-serving teachers, and that after those two years of teaching-as-community-service they should be shaping education policy.”

Help! The schools are still broken! “I know! Let’s start testing students in reading and math every year from a really young age and let’s tie those test scores to school funding and teachers’ job security.”

These are not good ideas. When I arrived at Math for America, I told my boss, “Let’s be different. We’re not here to fix the teachers. We’re here to uplift them, support them, cheer them, challenge them, sustain them.” He agreed and became the biggest advocate of all for the importance of respecting teachers. Teachers are not what’s broken about the schools. If you’re still reading, you already know that the root of the problem is systemic racism and its good buddy, poverty.

And those jobs?

I didn’t get offered any of those jobs. Something tells me I wasn’t a good fit. I’m using my time now to build something that reflects my values and offers a counter-narrative. We don’t need to make the teachers better; we need to do better for our teachers. Especially the ones who are in it for the long haul.

(for more information about my journey to founding SchoolHive, please read Pts 1 & 2).

Sometimes teaching is about unlearning.

The woman who founded the school where I first taught (back in the early 90s) held the philosophy that “the school should fit itself to the child.” Many of us have experienced what it feels like to have to fit yourself to the school — that seems the natural course of things. Three generations of women in my family attended the same high school and we all read the same books in 10th Grade. If you are a student whose voice, or sex, or race, or sexual/gender/cultural orientation, or religion aren’t visible, aren’t represented, in the faculty, curriculum, or co-curriculum, then you are forced to fit yourself to the school, and not the other way around.

But I didn’t know any of that when I started teaching, at least not in a conscious, intellectualized way. I was shaped by privilege and whiteness and that’s what I brought to my first teaching job. Our high school had 60 students and no racial majority. I was the only English teacher. The racist teacher narrative whispers insistently that some students care about doing well, and others don’t. I had noticed that my white students always revised their essays for a higher grade, just like I “told” them to, but my black students didn’t. “Why don’t they care about their grades,” I puzzled. Did they not like my class? Did their grades not matter to them? Do they not care about going to college?

That summer, I attended a subsidized boot camp for beginning teachers. For two weeks, I was on a boarding school campus with other newbies, more homework than one could imagine, incredible speakers, and a worship-inspiring mentor English teacher. One night, we were assigned a chapter from Lisa Delpit’s, Other People’s Children. One passage, in particular, turned me cold with horror. In it, Delpit describes how white middle-class children are raised with questions that are understood as demands, “Why don’t you take your bath now?” Where middle-class black children are raised with directives, “Get into the tub now.” White teachers, ignorant of familial cultural differences, assume their way is the only way, and this impedes their ability to deliver an equitable education to “other people’s children.”

I returned to school in September. A month into school, I returned the students’ first essays to them with comments that contained questions about their work, and directives about their next steps: “please revise this essay per the comments and turn it back in a week from today.” And lo and behold, everyone cared about their grades. I understood that I had fit the school to the child, finally, and I could see clearly the unlearning that I needed to do in myself to create a true learning environment for my students.