The May 15 article “Acting Out” in the Oak Park newspaper Wednesday Journal details the negative view that the teachers at Oak Park middle schools have of the climate at their schools. For the past 16 years, I have been an educator, including a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in Chicago and the suburbs. What I have seen from this experience, from research, and from my experience as a parent of a young child is that kids want to learn in community with other people. When adults create communities that truly value and listen to kids, ask students to do challenging work, and help kids see how their own identities are connected to that work, then by-and-large, kids will respond in a positive way. This is true of kids at any age, from their earliest years through high school and beyond. In fact, students motivation can change from situation to situation and classroom to classroom. This means that the individual teacher is the most important factor in the creation of a classroom climate, in collaboration with their students.
I am not sure whether Oak Park middle school teachers really have as negative a view of the climate in their schools as is presented in this article, since we are only seeing one survey of teachers at one point in time, and really we are only seeing an interpretation of the data. But to the extent that teachers do view the climate negatively, I would challenge them to consider how they can change that climate, classroom by classroom, through their own practices.
The Wednesday Journal article also mentions that the vast majority of students who received out-of-school or in-school suspensions at the middle schools are either Black or Latinx. And while this is not stated directly, for me the inclusion of this data in this article implies that there is a connection between how the teachers see the culture of the school and the race of the students whose behavior the teachers see as a problem. I am not in the schools in Oak Park, so I don’t know what teaching practices actually look like, but all too often in our society we do teach in ways that marginalize the experiences and culture of Black and Latinx students. When we don’t engage our students, they don’t feel valued, they don’t see how our teaching is connected to their identity, and sometimes they disengage. And some of those disengaged students, especially if they have trauma in their background, will then behave in ways that teachers feel are disruptive. Again, for the teachers, this comes back to how they create classroom environments that communicate how much we value students, appreciate the brilliance they gain from their cultures, and ask them to connect that brilliance to legitimately challenging work.
That is not an easy thing, and the that is not to say that I blame teachers for any of this. There is simply too much blame going around in our educational system these days. It is not about who is to blame. It is about the responsibility that each of us has for serving each student who walk through the doors of every school. I appreciate teachers for taking on that challenge, and I’m glad that I continue to tackle that challenge with them in my own work.
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