National Coming Out Day: Dos and Don’ts

The hardest part about my deepest, darkest secret when I was in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade was that I had no “out” role models. There were faculty members who I suspected were gay or lesbian (and confirmed a decade later), but they kept it all a secret. I was getting the message loud and clear that if you were gay, or any other kind of different, you better blend in, and you better keep quiet.

When I became a teacher I vowed never to send that message to my students. In my first four years of teaching in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, I came out on the very first day of school, in the very first five minutes of every class of 8th and 9th graders. That decision always resulted in one or two parent complaints, but I was always rewarded with exceptional support and respect from my students. I believe and cherish the fact that the relationships I built and memories I have with these students are a result of my candor. 

When I moved to Texas, I was slapped with the reality that the progress we’ve made in some parts of the country, does not exist in others. I was petrified of working in this blue state as an “out” teacher. What used to be a non-issue, and a non-negotiable value of mine to be an “out and proud” teacher for my students was challenged even before students arrived. 

I asked my principal how I should respond if students ask about my sexuality. Reflecting on this now, this was my first mistake. Today, I hope I would have the courage to say to him, “I am going to come out to students on the first day of school, this is a non-negotiable value of mine, are you prepared to support me or should I find another job?”  

My principal told me to tell students, “it’s none of your business”.  Naturally, I thought this was a disasterous way to try and build relationships with students, so I sidestepped, but didn’t resist completely, his suggestion. Instead, I placed a discreet picture behind my desk which included my partner and I in the center, and the rest of my family surrounding us. I told students who the people in the image were, my mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, cousins, aunt, but I never identified my partner. The craziest thing happened. The students never asked. It was like some unwritten rule that they all knew to abide by; “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  

From the moment my principal told me not to come out to students, I was heartbroken. I had to go back into the closet after almost a decade of being comfortable in my own skin. Worse, it was painful to imagine the damage I was doing to any adolescents in my classes who were secretly questioning their sexuality and trying to figure out how to exist in a heteronormative world.

By mid- year, a student came out to me in her journal. I came out right back: “me too”, I wrote.  She was so happy, she couldn’t believe that she finally had a teacher who could be who they were, comfortably. Although, I didn’t see it the same way. Even though students essentially figured out my deceit through omission, it still was a topic that was not openly discussed in my classroom. I perpetuated the myth that gay people must live in secret and assimilate to straights. This is a decision that has haunted me ever since that first encounter with my principal. 

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“You’re white.”: On being Portuguese and having to explain your ‘otherness’

First off, I identify myself as a Portuguese-American, and like any human being, I have a set of experiences that makes me unique to all other beings.  Therefore, I do not claim to be an authority on the Portuguese people, on Portuguese immigrants to the United States, or on anything really for that matter.  This is merely a reflection on being called “white” and not liking how it made me feel.

Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter.  I’ve had a few conversations with family members about our ethnicity, race, and whatever other socially constructed labels society so desperately tries to impose upon people of particular origins or perceived similarities.  While we don’t agree on everything, we pretty much come to a consensus that we’re not “white”.

Because, being “white” comes with its own set of privileges, doesn’t it?  So, if I’m “white”, like that colleague of mine so matter-of-factly stated the other night, then why were my parents forced to assimilate to American culture when they arrived in the U.S.?  Why were they ridiculed by their classmates for having “non-white” names?  Why did my predominantly first-gen high school operate on a “just go to any college” mentality versus  a “go to an Ivy” mentality?  I know one thing is for certain, the way I interpret my experience certainly does not make me comfortable classifying it as “white”.

Now, let me state that I do agree with one aspect of my colleague’s comments.  I may, to some, be perceived as “white”.  This has undoubtedly afforded me privileges that I am unaware of.  In other words, I may not be profiled or experience discrimination because of a perception that I am “white”.  On the other hand, however, I’ve experienced the opposite as well; an assumption that I am Latino.  Which, I’m sure has led to people making opposite assumptions.

This first started when I moved to South Texas.  People began correcting my last name to “Duarté” (emphasis on the e), which would be the Spanish pronunciation of my name.  While my name has Spanish origins, I got tired of explaining to people that I am of Portuguese descent, and we don’t pronounce the “é” so dramatically, therefore my name sounds more like “Du-art”.  I gave in, and I need to stop doing that.

At the end of the day, Portuguese is an ethnic-minority in the United States.  Therefore, while we may have been able to easily assimilate to American culture due to a presumption that we are “white”, we are not always afforded that privilege.  I’m not saying I want it, either, but what I would like is for people to stop erasing my cultural identity by trying to apply a label to “what” I am.  I’m Portuguese, and I’m damn proud of it.

Take your curriculum, and throw it in the garbage (sácalo)!

And your pacing guides, and your required reading lists….

I firmly believe that if I were to enter the classroom again, I’d be fired before October.

But, hear me out…

“The child who is explained to will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving: to understanding, that is to say, to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to.” (Rancière, 1991, p. 8)

I have the privilege of taking a summer course with a professor who embraces intellectual emancipation.  We’re reading, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, by Rancière which reminds us that we are all born with intellectual power, but that power is stultified, or rendered stupid, because teachers become master explicators.  The above quote shows what happens when students are explained to.  They begin to doubt themselves, they don’t realize the true power of their intellect, and they become stultified.  How sad.

I have also had the privilege of meeting a 20 year old who despises reading.  He said he’s never picked up or read a book on his own, and he shared his frustration with me that he never understood why he was reading things that didn’t mean anything to him in school, like Romeo and Juliet.  He also told me that he loves The Freedom Writers movie, and wishes his school experience was more like that.

I brought him a copy of The Freedom Writer’s diary on Monday, and something that shouldn’t surprise us happened, he opened the book and began reading it on his own.

Imagine if we gave students the ability to realize their intellectual power?  Imagine if we threw our curriculum away and listened to what students wanted to learn?  Imagine if we allowed curiosity to take our students to intellectual heights instead of filling their heads with knowledge that one person decided was important enough to be a multiple choice question on a test?  That would be intellectual emancipation at its finest.

Some teachers are already doing this.  But if they’re like I was in the classroom, they’re doing it subtly while still meeting the demands of their “superiors”.  My question for all teachers is, “why do we continue to do things we don’t think are right for kids?”

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Band-aids

Here’s something that really grinds. my. gears:

As a disillusioned, passionate, and infuriated former teacher I am interested in studying teacher turnover.  Teachers and leaders kept telling me, “It’ll get easier as you go along, by year five you’ll be planning lessons in your sleep.”  I’m not trying to crush anyone’s dreams, but that’s just simply not true.  Every day is a battle.  A battle against school reform, a battle against oppressive systems that make your students angry, a battle against curriculum maps and what you’re ‘supposed’ to be teaching on the day that kids come to school crying because another black male was shot by a white police officer.  It doesn’t get easier.  All I was thinking at the beginning of year five was, “How the hell am I supposed to do this job for the rest of my life.  I’m exhausted.  This isn’t sustainable.  I can’t be a saint forever.”

So here’s where my problem with this little video comes in.  Up until about 1:30, the video is completely accurate, citing the affects of 30-40% turnover of teachers in their first five years on students and schools.  The authors state that job satisfaction is at an all time low, unreasonable demands from high-stakes testing and accountability put stress on teachers, lack of inclusive leadership leaves them hopeless.  I agree.  All of it.  But then, enter: HOPE.  The hope these authors present is mindfulness programs, mentoring, stress relief for teachers.  This is nothing short of a band-aid.  Teachers are stressed because of things that leaders and policymakers are doing to them – so let’s teach them how to do yoga?!  Here’s a thought, why don’t we begin evaluating some of the very policies and leadership strategies that are burning out teachers and change them – with teacher input!  Its ironic that we teach kids to treat others the way they would like to be treated, but then we completely leave teachers out of decisions that affect them every day.  I’m sure teachers everywhere would appreciate the lifting of weight off their shoulders more than yet another professional development session on how they should relax when they get an “unsatisfactory” rating on their next 20-minute classroom observation.

Why I’ve been silent

I know my last post was March 2015. This is not an excuse; it’s an explanation, and a poignant lesson on speaking out, especially in these dark times we find ourselves in. Now, I may have gotten busy after my trip to the Freedom Writer’s symposium in Washington D.C., which was nothing short of amazing, by the way; I was finishing up my master’s work, a principal internship, and moving halfway across the country to join the love of my life who relocated for work while I chose to stay in the Northeast completing my degree. These are all excuses to stop writing, for a short period at least, but it’s not why I stayed silent until now, and I’ve never stopped thinking about starting this blog up again. Now here’s the explanation I promised and you deserve. You see, I felt somewhat like a hypocrite. I had accepted a position as an 8th grade humanities teacher at a no excuses charter school, and I spent the past year working there, much to my own disappointment. The truth of the matter is, I needed a job, and I believe in giving kids opportunities to go to college, which they promised we would do. They were the first offer, and I was excited to get back into the classroom. I mean, how bad could it be?

Mostly, I felt like a hypocrite because I never believed in charter schools and I certainly don’t believe that they are any way to close the achievement gap, although many of them certainly claim they are doing just that. They don’t close the achievement gap because they don’t serve all kids. No, I’m not referring to the popular argument that they hand-pick their students and kick out kids that don’t “fit” their no excuses policies and procedures, I mean they don’t serve all American children. Education is supposed to be free and public. When we build charter schools, we take students and funds away from the traditional public schools, we give parents options, but parents often believe that sending their kids to a charter is the only way to give them an opportunity to go to college, and they’re devastated when they don’t win the lottery. Charter schools don’t fix the traditional public schools that are failing to give kids opportunities; they don’t serve the population, therefore contributing to even more inequality within the American educational system. I felt horrible for the students who weren’t being promised an opportunity to go to college in the schools I passed on my way into the charter school every morning (it ironically, probably purposefully, had been built across the street of a public school district’s central offices). So given this, I didn’t feel like I should be writing about closing the achievement gap while I was contributing to widening the gap. Additionally, I was scared to discuss anything in the school openly, as writing negatively about charter schools while paying my bills with money I earned from one, in a state where collective bargaining is illegal, probably wasn’t a good idea. Here’s how the story ends; I could never have prepared for how oppressive the regime in that organization was, and I quickly found myself depressed, disillusioned, and fighting for a way out.

I am happy to report that I have since been liberated from the shackles placed on me. While working there, I completed my first year in a doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies. This year, I was awarded a fellowship and am continuing my research and coursework as a full-time student. I couldn’t be happier. I don’t plan to get into the cornucopia (hey, it’s November) of anecdotes I have about my sobering experiences working for a charter school and being a doc student in this particular post, but say stunned for lots to come. I’m sorry I stayed silent for this long, but I’m also grateful for the experience I got at the charter school, which I believe will allow me to further expose some of the inequities in our system and advocate for revolutionary change. I look forward to sharing with you again, and thank you in advance for your support of this little project.

Help me take my blog to Washington!

Back in November, I received a comment from JC Moore that said,

Your voice will be heard as you continue to scream about our failing public education. What you are doing is important in every aspect, so don’t give it up. When the right time comes, we should all scream together to wake up and shake up this nation once again. We, educators and teachers need to march to Washington DC

“E Pluribus Unum”

I am thrilled to report that I plan to attend the 2015 Freedom Writer Teacher’s Empowerment Symposium this May in Washington D.C!!  Over 400 teachers, myself included, have attended the Freedom Writer’s Institute in Long Beach, CA with Erin Gruwell and this year we will be having our annual Symposium in Washington.  Please help me take my blog with me and raise awareness about the issues facing teachers and students in low-income communities.

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It’s NOT an economics issue, it’s a human rights issue!

Last week, I published a piece on Brown v. Board of Education’s implications for administrators.  When discussing this in my graduate class, I explained how Brown v. Board of Education’s stance that, “Such an opportunity [education], where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” means that we as educators have the obligation to provide quality education to all students who attend our public schools.  Although most schools have been desegregated, poorly performing public schools are still failing to provide quality education to all students.  I must say, I was not prepared for such an unethical rebuttal from one of my classmates.

“Well, it’s an economics issue, schools are funded based on property taxes, and so naturally, poorly performing schools are underfunded as a result of the environment they are in.  If students don’t want to go to those schools they have the right to choice out.”

I really had to bite my tongue at this point, as many people in the class were agreeing about the issue being due to economics.  First of all, we cannot sit back and blame the issue on poverty.  Yes, the way that schools are funded is inequitable, but that doesn’t mean that they should be poorly performing.

As for school choice, let’s just imagine this very common  scenario: A fifth grader is doing well at his elementary school, the middle school he will be assigned to as a result of the neighborhood he lives in is under-performing.  He is an only child in a single-parent household where his mother is working long, 12-hour days split between two part-time jobs just to pay the rent.  She barely speaks English, hasn’t heard about school choice, nor is she able to understand the school’s performance report-card that was sent home at the beginning of the year.

Not every child can or will choice out of poorly performing schools.  It would be impossible to choice-place thousands of children, most are ill-informed even about the possibility of school choice, and by giving kids the option to choice out, we are not addressing the fundamental educational inequity that Brown v. Board sought to address.

The implications I mentioned above for administrators are timely.  Congress has just passed the Student Success Act, which places emphasis on state and local districts to turnaround poorly performing schools.

The Student Success Act dramatically reduces the federal role in education by returning authority for measuring student performance and turning around low-performing schools to states and local officials.

Similar to the sentiments of my classmate above, the Bill provides a substantial investment into the growth of national charter school networks and emphasizes parent’s rights to school choice.  Basically, the Federal Government is throwing their arms up when it comes to their involvement in turning around poorly performing schools and hoping that more charter schools and increase school choice will put pressure on state and local officials to improve the schools.

Therefore, it is crucial now, more than ever, that we educators are prepared to fight this good fight.  We have the responsibility to improve our schools.  It is up to teachers and school and district leadership to do what we can to make educational opportunity available to all on equal terms. Finally, I can’t help but think, that if you feel educational inequity is an economics issue, you’re in the wrong business.