11/16/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

What If the 'Problem' Is Us?

Recently, I gave the keynote address at the annual conference of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education. Everything I said in Minnesota, barring the information that was locale-specific, speaks to our current national education situation and to each of us concerned and/or involved with it. Here is a shortened version of the hour-long indictment I presented of us all. Not everything I describe is pleasant, but it's meant from a place of love and a desire to see students succeed and educators succeed in helping students succeed.

Before we get into the details too much, I want to explain my position as it relates to education work. As a Christian, I approach my work from an ethos of love and possibility, from a deep belief that resurrection is possible and no failure is final, not from judgment, not from condemnation, not from fundamentalism. I identify myself as a Christian not as an effort to sway anyone to believe as I do, but to paraphrase the disciple, Peter, I believe that we should each "sweep around your own front door before you sweep around mine," and as the Apostle Paul wrote, I believe that we must each examine ourselves.

As an academic, I am an education historian who studies the intersection of schools and school systems with educators, not students. The children are rarely the problem. And if the children are the problem, usually, when you get to the root of the problem, there is an adult attached to it. Students do what adults allow them to do. We set the parameters, which can be both a good thing and bad thing. When we get better, our students get better. My passion is for us to get better and do better.

I am also a critical race theorist. I see issues of race as endemic, systemic, and fully embedded in every facet of American life, culture, our social structure, and our institutions. In the tradition of Gloria Ladson-Billings, I believe our schools are tools of social reproduction that purport false notions of meritocracy. Color-blindness is a farce. Color muteness is a lie. I do not believe we are post-racial in this country. Racism still exists; not necessarily our parents' and grandparents' version of overt racism, not the racism of separate water fountains and relegation to the backs of buses, but the racism that Lynn and Parker referred to as "mundane practices and events that are infused with some degree of unconscious racial mal-intent... actions [that are] subtle, automatic, non-verbal exchanges [often] seen as derogatory slights." We live and work in a time of the subtle racism that confines Asians to the model minority myth and then complains to Blacks and Latinos with sentiments that say, "Why can't you be more like them?" We live and work in a time of the subtle racism of the so-called "achievement gap" which subverts the intellectual capacity of Black students, reifies notions of their academic inferiority, and holds up Whiteness as the universal standard of excellence. But still, in spite of this, I have hope. I believe in us. I still have faith that our collective humanity can triumph and defeat this American cancer quietly killing us in our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our government, on Facebook and other areas of social media. I believe in the unity of all people and the necessity of our concern for and connection to one another.

One of the best decisions I ever made was to become a teacher. It's taken more patience and humility than I could have ever imagined, but I wouldn't take nothing for my journey now. So, thank you, educators, for the work you do. Thank you for showing up every day and every year to give your best and to be your best. But in spite of our best efforts, we know that all is not well on the education front across this nation. All isn't well, but it isn't all bad, either. I see our current situation much like Paulo Freire, who wrote, "Education is suffering from narration sickness." The stories we tell about the state of American education tend to be over-simplified, gross exaggerations, and filled with inaccuracies. Whether it was suggested in Wisconsin, insinuated in the public schools of the District of Columbia, or protested in Chicago, unfortunately, our current national narrative suggests that teachers are lazy and uncaring and over-paid. That educators are the sole party responsible for everything wrong with students and schools. In a world where information comes as quickly as you can get to your smart phone but is limited to the 140 characters Twitter allows, it's easy to reduce our education situation to villains and heroes. But I don't believe that. That narrative is wrong and mean-spirited. It is short-sighted and quick-tempered. That narrative is disrespectful, uninformed, and beneath us all.

I believe we all operate with talents, skill, love, passion, and a desire to see all of our students succeed. I believe we all want the best for our children. I have been a teacher long enough to know that anyone who writes lesson plans, reads essays, grades papers, calls parents, corrects behavior, coaches sports, sponsors activities, does lunch duty, morning duty, hall duty, holds detention, coach class, morning meetings, anyone who does these things day after day, week after week, year after year after year, we want to do well for our students. We don't wake up early in the morning devising new and more evil ways to thwart the learning of the children. No educator sits at home or in Starbucks or in libraries developing procedures to ruin students' lives with our subpar teaching. We are more than that. Educators are human and fallible, as are those who deride educators and reduce the current state of education to binary, false compartments of good and evil.

What matters more than this national narrative of contempt for teachers is what we tell ourselves about ourselves, what we believe about ourselves, what we believe about our work and ourselves in the work. In direct opposition to the national narrative, there are those who fight it with the narrative of educators' simultaneous heroism and victimhood. This counter-narrative argues that teachers are being held down and oppressed by public school systems and education reformers who insist on high-stakes testing and merit pay and extended school days and other ideas that detract from good teaching and sound learning. And while some of that argument is true, we have to be careful not to get too invested in the counter-argument to the national narrative. That argument robs educators of our own agency and our own power.

Educators are not victims. We are not innocent. We are not exempt. We are not Teflon. What if, despite our best efforts in our work, what if our experiences, our disappointments, our setbacks, our challenges, what if those things have made us fatigued? What if these things have made us professionally blind? What if we have become doubtful? How might our own ethnocentric views, however we identify racially, our pre-conceived notions of teaching and learning, our expectations for students' behaviors, how might the sum total of who we are and what we bring to the classroom every day be in the way of the success we so desperately want for our students? We, the educators, are, indeed, at least partially complicit in the current state of education. When 35 percent of Black boys and 41 percent of Latino boys in Minnesota don't graduate high school on time, we can admit that something has gone terribly awry. Educators are not the sole culprit, but we are not completely innocent either. This isn't about blame or bashing, but it is about our personal responsibility and our moral imperative as educators to educate all of our students, regardless of their backgrounds, experiences, and proficiencies or our own. It's time for us to examine ourselves to search for the ways we could be preventing the very achievement, success, and wholeness of our students we are striving for and working toward. We must search ourselves beyond our best intentions; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While we are all well-meaning and our efforts matter, it's time that we re-double, reconsider, and re-up on our efforts as educators. We harm our profession and place ourselves in the way of students' well-being and success when we present ourselves as innocent, harmless, untouchable martyrs and don't consider the ways or areas in which we may be responsible for students' success and the lack thereof.

This reflection, this self-examination, this questioning how we could be in our own way is not a one-time thing. And I know that it is uncomfortable, but this is about constantly being uncomfortable. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. This is not about new classroom strategies. We are the strategy. It's time for us to interrogate ourselves and to ask, 'What if the problem is us?" When I say, "us," I mean "us" in the collective sense of the word. Even if we are all completely self-reflective and constantly aware of our own biases and are working actively to operate beyond those biases, how many of us take the time to work through those issues with our most challenging colleagues? Who of us pushes beyond our own walled-off classroom domains to inspire and encourage other faculty members who may not be as self-aware and self-reflective as we are? What if we are only as strong as our weakest link? What then do we do to get ourselves out of the way? What if the problem is us?

As the complexion and mother tongue of our students shift, we must be culturally competent and adapt to the ever-changing demographic we have the privilege to teach. But we must also be morally competent. That means examining ourselves, our ways of thinking, our ways of being, our ways of doing, our responses to the current national narrative and its counter-argument. I do believe we are a significant problem. But we are also our best solution!

Honest self-reflection, self-examination, constant self-improvement is where we start to get out of the way. And this self-study can't be self-serving, not to the detriment of others, but it must be introspective and self-critical. It must be honest. We must question everything about ourselves -- where you're from, what you believe, what you were taught, how you were taught, what you know to be true. American education and its public school systems were built on the notion of social reproduction, but in order to reform our profession and transform schooling, we must push for social justice in our classrooms and schools, even if it means making our schools into something so very unrecognizable to the untrained eye, even if it means we get dethroned in the process. Even if it means I lose. We must push against deliberate sabotage, willful indifference, ineptitude, and hopelessness.

Ask yourself: who is at the center of your craft, your daily practices, your work? If it is you, why? If it is your students, to what extent do you know them, their lives beyond school, the stories they live so they don't feel marginalized and reduced to heroes, holidays, food, music, and sports? How are we incorporating students' histories and worldviews into our own pedagogy on a daily basis? Or are we tacitly communicating that only our experience as the person in charge of the class matters? How often do we examine ourselves to ensure that our pedagogy isn't indifferent and our practices aren't demeaning? How might we be unintentionally relying on Whiteness or our socioeconomic privilege as a weapon to maintain our own superiority or lead?

The problem is us, but it doesn't have to be. Lean into the pain of honest self-examination. But this self-work isn't meant to be walled-off. This introspection should be contagious. Search for opportunities to encourage and inspire your colleagues to look at themselves, their practices and their own beliefs, to search for how they, too, are in the way. And then help them get out of the way. Fighting with them won't do it. The moral imperative of our profession calls to us to put our egos aside, to operate from the ethos of love, possibility, and faith in humanity. Not even the failures of our colleagues are final. Grace matters, even for them. Even for us. As frustrated as we may get with some of our colleagues, each of us should be addressed in ways that are affirming, not condemning. This is not about us! This is about us getting out of our own way. So, we must constantly humble ourselves and move in the best interests of students, families, educators, and communities, while investing those with whom we work. No matter what it looks like, no matter what it feels like we must examine ourselves and encourage our colleagues to do the same. That's the only way for us to get better and to do better. We must be concerned for one another because we are connected to one another. It may be hard to consider the ways in which we are the problem. Even still, lean into that pain. The only way to get out of the way, the only way out of the pain is in.