June 4, 2015

At the Waterfall, Part 1

This post and the next are excerpts from Chapter 5 of my dissertation, a chapter which explores perceptions of race and equity among the teachers. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.

Chapter 5: At the Waterfall, Part 1
“It’s always been a discussion at our school” explains Teacher Charlotte, “our school culture in general…everybody’s opinions can be said and heard. And with that a lot of feelings come up and a lot of things come up.” We are sitting at a coffee house around the corner from Pence, and Charlotte is describing her decade at the school and the key structural issue that in her view impacts the culture of Pence the most. “There was a lot of things about race” she continues, "and it was a time I was the only African American teacher period. And when I say period, well, we had like African American [teaching] assistants. We did have a black nurse. We had support staff and like office staff, but as far as classroom teachers there was a year or two where I was the only African American classroom teacher…So there was times when I was like ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I’m going to dental school. I don’t want to do this!’ [Laughs] So this was hard at times. I’d take it home and my mom would say, ‘you can’t leave, like you have to stay there. When you look at the makeup of your students and they need somebody there to start looking up to that looks like them or someone that’s behind a desk that looks like them.’ So I felt like I needed to stay. But I enjoy working at Pence. I mean, with any teaching job it’s always hard, there’s always things, it’s frustrating, and you’re underpaid, but for the most part I don’t hate coming to work every day” (Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

Charlotte has moved from being a fulltime classroom teacher to a Teacher Leader at Pence over those ten years, and she views herself now as a both a teacher and a mentor. Her role is part administrative, part classroom; she teaches part-time (third grade, Fluency Track), trains, observes, and mentors new hires, acts as a liaison between the CEO, Principals, and teachers, and helps define and present relevant professional development sessions for the Pence staff. Race is the most pressing and most pervasive topic in those professional development sessions, and teachers at Pence have been engaged for more than a year in a structured discussion (led in part by outside consultants) on race, privilege, and teaching students with backgrounds different from your own. The aim of this ongoing series of professional development sessions was for teachers to gain “racial proficiency,” meaning they would become more skilled at recognizing how race and racism intersects within Pence culture and in their own teaching practice.

Ella is a co-coordinator of these sessions, and she defines racial proficiency as having to do with awareness, meaning “how aware I am of my own racial identity, how conscious I am of how that…impacts my teaching…how much space I create in my classroom for students of all races and backgrounds to be academically and behaviorally successful” (Teacher Ella, personal communication, October 16, 2014). According to Ella, part of the impetus for this work was the observed disparity (which is just now starting to be analyzed by the administration) in disciplinary action between white students and students of color. More students of color regularly receive negative disciplinary actions at Pence, which the coordinators of the professional development sessions on racial proficiency believed was correlated to the cultural competence and awareness levels of staff and teachers.

Charlotte and I discussed how Pence has approached this problem and where the story of this particular feature of the school began. The invisible (to outsiders) feature of social segregation is, as Charlotte describes it, an outcome of the choices made by the former CEO and the school’s founders about how to approach bilingual education. “I think it started – honestly, the race talks started years ago, again, because I’ve been here, I’ve seen the evolution – started off with the blatant line of division between [Fluency Track] and [Language Instruction Track]” she explains, a division which was present almost since the day Pence opened its doors: “All the rich, white kids [were in Fluency]. And [Language Instruction] was all the black kids of all backgrounds. Like financially it was like you had the blacks who were doing fine, and then there was the ones that were living in shelters. Like it ran the gamut. So then when they started encouraging, because this is how they would present [Fluency to parents], ‘this is immersive, it’s really hard, you have to do a lot outside of school. You have to do this, and this, and this, and this, and then you homework in Spanish…’ Well if I’m a single parent of three kids, and I don’t get home until 7:00 pm, it’s hard enough just doing regular homework. I can’t do that. So it’s really hard for the dynamic of the parents…But then they started to sell it differently, so then you started to see a little bit more of the speckles into both [Fluency and Language Instruction]. So like I remember a couple of years when I started having like more than one or two black students in my class…and that blows my mind, that I remember when it was so blatant”(Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

Charlotte has been actively engaged both in the creation of professional development sessions for teachers on race, and in working with the administration to find ways to alter the two-track system. She is a member of one of several strategic planning task forces the new CEO has formed to review plans for the school’s future expansion. And the message that Pence is “one of the only schools [in the city of Philadelphia] successfully teaching an integrated student population” (as noted in the school’s new racial equity task force mission statement, shared with me by Ella) is a prominent school feature, a prominent aspect of Pence’s current marketing approach, and part of their argument for expansion. But as Hannah explained to me, students in the Language Instruction Track have always been viewed through a “deficit model” by Pence teachers.

Compounding this is the evident social division of students who “have been in the same grade for five years…and don’t even know each others’ names” because their academic lives have been so separated by the two-track approach (Teacher Hannah, personal communication, March 21, 2014). Charlotte reiterated that in her view everyone is missing out if students (and teachers) are starkly segregated by track. “I just remember a crucial time when it was like we had to figure out how to make it stop feeling like ‘us and them’ or ‘them and us, and them’” Charlotte says, “so discussions happened, ‘how do you all think as teachers we can start to blend in the two, [Fluency and Language Instruction] and that’s when the [blended art and dance classes in the lower school] started.” And making this core change in Pence’s organization after years in operation has meant that the administration and teachers have had to face the impact of that division, and the language used around and about race:”[T]here were teachers – it was beyond the students. It was the culture of the teachers also, and the teacher in the middle of this conversation said ‘well it’s just, my students are afraid, because a lot of the [Language Instruction] students are aggressive and loud, and my students are scared of them.’ And that was my deciding moment of, ‘wow, it’s beyond the parents.’ They always say it’s the parents, the parents, the parents. And it was like that moment, and someone called them out on that, and said ‘do you realize what you just said about them, they’re scary, them?’ It turned into ‘a group of students are scary.’ And so that’s, that’s when the conversation I feel like really was like administration was really like, ‘okay, we need to figure this out.’ I don’t think they were fully equipped on how to deal with it”(Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

Charlotte describes her understanding of the purposes of teaching succinctly: “No student doesn’t want to learn. It’s my job to figure out how to make them want to show that they want to learn…Every child wants to feel good about themselves and their learning.” But like many other Pence teachers, she is continually in a position of responding – in interpersonal interactions and with her own inner dialogue – to Pence’s organizational ethics: “It’s a scary thing to have to do self-reflection on [race]…but I can honestly say to this day even it’s still an issue. It’s beyond just having a culture disconnect with the non-white teachers with the African American students. But it’s also me, as an African American teacher, with my non-African American students…It’s still a culture disconnect, and it’s a different thing, people are just different, culturally. But it’s not a bad thing, but it’s like I recognize it, and that’s the only way I can admit it and say it out loud and fix it. But if you’re not going to admit and say it out loud that’s where the problems are lingering, like ‘It’s not me. It’s not me. No, no, no, I love all my students. I don’t see color.’ Those comments are coming up [in professional development sessions]. So that is very frustrating"(Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

For Charlotte, the story of Pence’s issues with “racial proficiency” comes into play as she makes meaning of her professional self in the context of the school. As Perinbanayagam (2000) notes, “class, race, caste, and gender, etc. are inescapably meanings derived from various discourses and assembled variously…and richly articulated in the mind and memories of the self” (p. 46). In Charlotte’s case, the social/structural element of race interplays with organizational responses and language use at Pence in which she, as an employee, is continually immersed. The actions Charlotte takes are informed by her own history, memory, and experience, and these shape her professional identity in this context. She had a hand in planning the August 2014 induction for new teachers, where one of the topics covered is how to build a racially proficient community at Pence. And during the summer of she also helped to create the mission and structure of the new Racial Equity Task Force. One stated mission of this task force is to increase racial proficiency among staff and faculty, with the goal of achieving racial equity in students’ behavioral outcomes.

Teacher Ann has been at Pence (on and off) for ten years total, first as a long-term substitute for all grades, then as a teaching assistant, and now as a 6-8 grade classroom teacher. Her subject is Spanish and she teaches students in the Lower Track. She sees her role as helping her students “make connections between themselves and others, make connections between their culture and others while also learning the language.” We talked about the culture of Pence, the history of the two-track system, and her perspective on that as a teacher and as an African American woman. She explained that for her there is a problematic intersection between the ethics of teaching and the culture of open discussion around race that the school is attempting to promote. In her view, the biggest ethical issue is teacher/student confidentiality, because “I think , teachers just talk or just feel like you need to share and we don’t always think about whether it’s appropriate to share, even with a colleague” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

Pence uses a community-focused responsive teaching approach. This “responsive classroom curriculum” was developed by the non-profit Northeast Foundation for Children and this teaching model is implemented at Pence in grades K-4. The model promotes respectful interpersonal interactions and the fostering of students’ emotion management. Proponents of this model strive to reiterate positivity across the school culture in order to build and sustain a stable school-wide community. This is reiterated in Pence’s middle school grades by another approach, the Developmental Designs curriculum, which also forefronts social-emotional skills building and adherence to classroom and school rules and cultural norms.

Ann strives to integrate Developmental Designs concepts into her own teaching practice, specifically encouraging students to be self-aware and that when they encounter an issue they should “work it out themselves…that’s what it’s all about. So they’re evaluating, they’re analyzing, they’re discussing, they’re being empathetic, they’re putting themselves in the place of someone else, they’re collaborating…to expose students to expressing their ideas without being really judgmental” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014). As for the teachers, Ann’s view is that the ongoing push to get staff to engage in this same kind of critical thinking and self-expression around the issue of race through the directed professional development sessions is linked to a perception about teacher-student relationships: "I think [the Pence administration] started [the professional development sessions on race] because teachers were requesting it...I think that teachers said 'we need someone to come in, like we need some outside to come give us some guidance and some thought questions, facilitate some discussions.' So like how useful its been, I don't know. I think the teachers were complaining to the administration that we need to talk about things. And to relate better to the students"(Teachers Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

But this effort is constrained, in Ann’s opinion, by two organizational realities, two long-term tensions, within the Pence culture. These tensions impact how and how much teachers at Pence talk about and share understandings on a range of issues, including race. The first is the exclusion that teachers who only work with one track experience and how this exclusion shapes perspectives on students, parents, and other teachers. That exclusion also shapes Ann’s view of Pence community values and how she talks about her work at a school with a two-track curriculum. She explains that “I’m one of only two teachers [who teach 6-8 grade students] who never works with the [Fluency Track] students…So because it’s a different dynamic between the two programs, between the students and the [Fluency] and the students in the [Language Instruction] program, it’s different because I never see the [Fluency] students. So the only reason I know most of them now is because I’ve been at Pence so long, so I’ve had them all when I was a sub. I remember when they were in second grade. But four years from now I won’t know the [Fluency] students, because I never worked with them…So like it’s very different – there’s different parental involvement, there’s different part of knowledge the kids are coming in with, like different backgrounds amongst the students in the two programs”(Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

As sociologists Brubaker and Cooper (2000) note, this kind of reification is a social process and “it is central to the process of ‘ethnicity,’ ‘race,’ ‘nation,’ and other putative identities” which can “crystallize, at certain moments, as a powerful, compelling reality” (Brubaker, p. 5). This socio-organizational reality of Pence impacts the story of Ann’s past, present, and future, and thus her story of the school culture as well. And her perspective on the two-track system was shared by the majority of the teachers I spoke with.

The second organizational issue Ann describes, and which in her view directly impacts her role and experience at the school, is that Pence was founded on another form of exclusion. “I think that the founders of the school were upper middle class,” she explains, “and like, a lot of the first families were upper middle class, that they weren’t as concerned about salary, because they had comfortable salaries,” she tells me and “I feel that for them it wasn’t as much as a priority as making sure that they had like this dual-language program, and, you know, they had the global citizen curriculum. I think for them, well, you know, yeah, their teachers when they started, making $36,000 or $38,000, like that’s okay, because like ‘the school is awesome’…I’ve had several conversations with teachers here who have had to borrow money from their parents or move in with their parents. Or one teacher who was eating peanut butter sandwiches and apples every day, because that was, like, her protein. She couldn’t afford to buy meat. So she would eat lentils and make a dish or something out of the lentils. That’s crazy…As a Pence teacher, we just don’t get paid enough…[it’s] one of the main factors with our turnover, more than anything else” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

This concern was also expressed by several of the other Pence teachers I spoke with. Ann explained to me that she persists at Pence despite these issues by thinking about, speaking about, and acting on solutions. She has acted on the pressing issue of compensation by becoming a member of a newly formed teacher task force on teacher pay and turnover, which the new CEO just agreed to meet with on a regular basis.

As Akkerman and Meijer (2010) noted in their research of teacher identity development, teachers continually engage in processes (external and internal, active and reflective) and through these find their own identity positions. This activity results in the acquisition of insights and information that in turn help form professional identity. Ann’s action on an issue that matters to her is evidence of this, and gives her a sense of empowerment because being on the compensation task force gives her an opportunity to speak to the CEO. But unlike their colleagues in traditional public schools, teachers in charter schools generally have no group affiliation (like a union) or broader educational bureaucracy in place that frames the basic ethics of education, supports the development of their professional identities simply as educators, or provides protection for them when they take action. And any actions do they take are done at the risk of unemployment.

Pence teachers are positioned, as are all teachers in charters, to have to negotiate around (or navigate priorities based on) business ethics, organizational processes, and policies and practices for which they have no training and about which they have no leverage. Ann explained that on policy issues, Pence teachers generally lack both voice and choice, which was yet another point she raised that was echoed by many other Pence teachers. Regarding the decision the CEO and Board eventually made to shorten spring break and to add President’s Day as a work day (due to the winter weather closures), for example, Ann asked “Did we have a choice? No, there was no discussion about it…some decisions we know do come from the Board, or from the admin, so we’re told there isn’t really room for discussion, so it’s like teachers, we might feel like we didn’t have a choice. Why didn’t we vote? Why couldn’t we extend a day in June? The choice was made for us” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

In a similar vein, regarding compensation at Pence, Ann describes that the pay scales and incremental increases for teachers and counselors is a matter of public record, while the pay scale for administrators is not. “I have no idea how they [the administration at Pence] figure base pay,” she tells me, “it could be a like a handshake in a backroom.” As Ann’s experiences with the compensation task force and around the professional development sessions on race convey, Pence teachers push for equity from below (for themselves and for students) and are continually made responsible, as employees, for changing on behalf of the organization.

From Teacher Kevin’s perspective, Pence’s ongoing professional development on race, led by “a couple of professors from [a local university] who are allegedly experts, it’s okay. I mean, I think we, in some ways, some of us are resentful about it. Why focus on race when there’s so many other things that you need to have conversations about” (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014). Kevin came to teaching after a long career outside of education and has been at the school for eleven years. His self-definition is “teacher/coach/dad” and he sees that his role at Pence changes depending on who is looking. “I teach math, but my job is way bigger than that” he explains, “My job is to try to teach them how to be responsible, mature young adults…helping prepare them for the world…I think [my role] is defined by different people differently. I’m a math teacher. I hope and I think that I’m a molder of young adults. I think that’s how I see myself, and I think generally that’s probably how other people see me, and hopefully that’s how people see most of us here” (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014).

Regarding his pedagogical practices at Pence versus other schools (he taught previously at what he called “hellholes in North Philly”), Kevin tells me “I can’t imagine that I would be any different in no matter what setting I was in. You go in and you teach [students] things that you think are important, some of them are aligned to the standards, some of them are aligned to your personal philosophy of life” (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014). And regarding the impact of the ongoing professional development sessions on race, Kevin notes the psychological and emotional aspects of the process, and its limitations. "I guess some of the conversations that have come up" in the sessions on race "are interesting because, some of the things [the session facilitators] say to me, its like 'that's ridiculously obvious. Why does that even need to be mentioned?' But then other folks from different backgrounds, and didn't understand the impact race has on African Americans in particular. They grew up in white, suburban neighborhoods and barely knew any African Americans their whole lives" he explains. "So I think given that experience it's pretty impossible to know how an African American feels day in and day out, dealing with the things they have to deal with. I mean, we had, during one of those sessions, we had a circle, and everybody had to share about something, and when it got to be my turn I kind of broke down talking about my life. I had a pretty tough childhood. And I grew up in the projects, and I could go on forever, but I was poor...but ultimately not black, so I can't know what it feels to be black" (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014).

For Kevin, teaching is not a process of self-discovery.“When I started working here” he explains, “I was already who I am…you know, hopefully we all evolve, but I don’t think my social or political views have changed much in the last 30 years” he tells me. He did not (and Pence administration would not have allowed him to) sit out the professional development sessions on race, for example, and he explored his own memories and experiences while taking part in those sessions. That he makes sense of that engaged narrative process through an individualist, slightly detached, stable/static lens is an aspect of his professional identity (teacher/coach/dad) as well. This is one example of how “signs of identity, with their logical structures” are “put into practice in everyday life to organize the world in which an individual has to live. The signs become elements of the acts, the meaning and significance of which may change as they proceed…to claim an identity by an act is also to claim a place in an evolving narrative”(Perinbanayagam, p. 105).

Although he tells me that his identity is fully formed, Kevin is, like all the other teachers at Pence, part of an evolving story within the school about race and how teachers must become more skilled at identifying racism and its impacts. The organizational narrative about how to address these impacts places the resolution squarely on the shoulders of teachers, each of whom is required, as employees, to engage in a personal reflective process about what is actually a structural issue.

Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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