Several months ago my students asked me to say the above catch phrase. When I did, it was all they could talk about. For some reason, whenever I say slang they think it’s hilarious. From time to time I like to interrupt my own rants by daintily proclaiming, “I’m about to fry”, or “I know she did not just say that.”
“I ain’t about that life.” It means a lot of different things depending on the situation, but lately I’ve been reminding myself that I’m really not about the things I see around me. Somehow education has become a business, and the profits are test scores. The argument has been made so many times and in so many ways that even I’m tired of hearing it.
Lately I have been reminded of another casualty of 21st century public eduation – professionalism. Instead of working together, teachers more often than not act like competitors. Rather than sharing best practices, we share insults and exchange passive-aggressive remarks during meetings. Instead of finding solutions for our students, we find ourselves working in isolation against insurmountable challenges in the classroom.
And the test scores aren’t enough. We must be leaders in every area of school culture, even if it means backstabbing, lying and cheating our colleagues out of the recognition they deserve. The incentive programs designed to recognize good teachers and encourage others do just the opposite – they recognize teachers who find shortcuts, and discourage the truly great educators.
This school year has put me on the verge of reconsidering a career in teaching altogether. Moving states and schools was difficult enough, but I was looking forward to being part of a team and being able to teach the subject that I love. Instead I have been called derrogatory names by my “colleagues”, purposefully left out of meetings, been thrown out of a classroom by another teacher, been hung up on, been mocked, and told that my presence was not wanted. When I’m asked why I will not be returning to my school next year, I will have only one response:
I ain’t about that life.
This month is Black History Month, and every year it seems more of a challenge to do something that my students have not already done to celebrate the month.
This year I decided to create a playlist on Spotify honoring notable African American singers and songwriters. The list had everyone from Beyonce to Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix to Otis Redding. My students reactions were varied, but I included one track that got their attention.
I happened upon the audio from Martin Luther King Jr’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, so I added it to the playlist. When it started playing, you could have heard a pindrop in my classroom. It was less than three minutes long, and afterwards I asked if anyone had a question or comment. Hands shot up across the room, and one student who I called on asked a good one:
“What did he mean when he said, ‘no lie can live forever?'”
“Well what do you think he meant?” I responded.
Other students chimed in with some good but surface-level responses. Finally one young man raised his hand.
“The lie is that white people are better than black people,” he said.
“That’s what people really thought?” she asked.
Suddenly I found myself in a different type of class altogether. I knew the best way to talk to students is honestly, so I did. I gave them a 5-minute history of race relations in America from colonization to the Civil Rights Movement. They asked why slaves were black, who the KKK was/is, and if there is still racism in America today.
When they left for their next class, three students resumed their debate about whether or not Lil’ Wayne really is the best rap artist ever. I cringed, but I was proud that for about 10 minutes they were captivated by the same man whose words and message captivated their grandparents 40 years ago.
Something magical happens halfway through the curriculum – my students start to realize it can be interesting. This is because we’re learning about political parties, elections, and the influence of the media. The first thing I present to my classes is the concept of the political spectrum – liberal, conservative, moderate, and the extremes. This year I had my 8th graders participate in one of the oldest activities in the book – debate starter. I posted signs for liberal and conservative on either side of the classroom, and began calling out issues. After reading each side’s platform on the issues, students chose which side they agreed with the most. I am always surprised at their responses – here are the most memorable:
1. On the issue of the military, all of my classes were overwhelmingly conservative. They support a strong military with more government spending on defense initiatives. I informally surveyed to see how many of them are in military families – about 80%.
2. Taxes are always an interesting topic, especially when my students make the connection between tax dollars and welfare programs. 75% of the students at my school are on free/reduced lunch, which means they receive some form of government assistance. On the issue of taxation, they were split in every class almost evenly. Those who took the liberal side argued that it’s the government’s job to help those who cannot afford to help themselves. Those who took the conservative side argued that individuals have the right to keep more of their hard-earned income. In every class, someone chose a side because of a personal circumstance. If I had a dime for every time a story began with “My uncle didn’t get his check last month…”, or “My mom works hard and it’s not fair that her money gets taken away…”
3. Gun Control Laws. I am terrified. 99% of my students agree that everyone should have the right to own and carry a firearm for protection. Nothing wrong with that. Most of them believe it should be mandatory for everyone to carry a weapon because it would make us all safer. One brave student chose the liberal side in one of my classes, arguing that guns are not necessary in a modern society like ours; moreover, she argued that firearms only endanger people more. Many of them did agree that we need more stringent licensing laws and waiting periods for purchasing firearms.
4. Marriage. I could see the anticipation in their eyes leading up to this question: “Do you believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry?” My first observation in every class was that my students were divided almost evenly on this issue. My next observation was that in nearly every class, every student who chose the conservative side on this issue was male. Of those males who chose the conservative side, almost all of them offered a religious reason for their argument. One male spoke up for the conservative side, arguing that “man-on-man is just gross.” Of those who sided with the liberal argument (to allow same-sex unions), nearly all were female. Most of the liberal arguments began with “If two people love each other…” I also learned that three of my students were adopted by lesbian couples, and one has a gay uncle who she believes should have the right to marry.
All in all, I was extremely proud of my students for their participation and their respectfulness during this activity. I think they were also pleasantly surprised at how interesting school could be. At the end of each class, someone would inevitably raise their hand and ask, “What do you believe Mrs. Russ?”
I’ll never tell.