29 July 2012

Affirmative Action in Education: Game Changers

A few years ago at a Disability Studies in Education Conference at Michigan State University we got into a fascinating discussion over dinner: Should schools/colleges of education use "Affirmative Action" ("Reverse Discrimination") to ensure that at every level - Bachelors/Undergraduate teacher training, Masters, PhD - there was far better representation of students with disabilities?

The argument for? Since most students do not actually do well in school, since most students with disabilities do not do well in school, we need more teachers, administrators, and teacher educators who understand - on a fundamental level - that education must change.

There was little argument against, this was not a group which would think that an effort like this would really be doing anything more than reversing all the existing discrimination against those who have struggled in school, but people were concerned that few, if any, schools/colleges of education - at least in North America - would do anything but terrible things to those incoming "disabled" students.

But despite all the obstacles, I have begun to detect something - a small but significant cohort of young, mostly male, teachers who are changing practice in schools in important ways. They typically had bad experiences as students themselves, often right through university. They struggled with attention issues, reading issues, math issues, writing issues. They were typically born from the late 1970s through the late 1980s and benefited as the first students with disabilities to have real human rights protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended). And they went through the bulk of their education before the No Child Left Behind legislation began to destroy opportunity in American public education.

Today they range from, say, 35 down to their early twenties, and I have been watching them.

Middle School Jazz Camp, Albemarle County, Virginia
Watching them as they change - in dramatic ways - classrooms, schools, and the culture of education. Now, I'm not saying - obviously - that these are the only teachers doing these things. Often, these "boys" are adapting what they saw from the best of their teachers who "came of age" long before NCLB or even the "Reagan-Bush-1 Conservatism," but they are forming a powerful new cohort often in opposition to the "mainstream" teaching staff trained for an era of testing and classroom management.

I see these guys in elementary schools, in middle schools, in high schools, in every content area - a new band of teachers who demonstrate...

1. Instructional Tolerance and a belief that childhood and adolescence are good things.
These guys don't "sweat the small stuff." They know, from years of struggling in school, that no one in any classroom was always paying attention, or was always on task, or was always behaving. So stuff like taking breaks by staring at the window, or looking at Facebook, or walking around, or just spacing out, are fine. So is the use of different tools by different students. So are different time frames for different students. So are flexible deadlines and flexible assignments. Learning matters, the rest really does not.
2. A very different kind of classroom observation skill, perhaps the result of watching from back corners, these teachers are unusually good at spotting who is getting uncomfortable, and who is struggling.
This group of teachers understands how to watch for students becoming uncomfortable. They know it well because - that was them. Uncomfortable students stop learning, surely can't process at higher levels, so solving that is essential. These teachers also seem "much better than average" at recognizing when things aren't working for a student, and are most willing to try different paths.
3. A multi-level practice of teaching with large group, small group, and individual interactions occurring almost simultaneously.
Multitasking is basic to these men. They tend, most of them, toward the ADHD spectrum, and they see all the things in a room, thus they are able to observe and intervene, watch interactions at many different levels, and understand the borderline between the chaos of a great learning space and the chaos of dysfunction. As "Borderliners" themselves, this boundary line is far clearer than it is to those who sat near the front and attended to the teachers' directions.
4. A focus on student comfort and psychological safety is perhaps the most important thing in how this cohort teaches.
Once you've been uncomfortable, this become crucial. So these teachers have the classrooms where kids are "safe," where they go when they need to escape. You'll find kids there even when they don't have class. You'll find kids sitting on the floor, on windowsills, gathered together or being alone. Wearing hats, wearing hoods, playing games, doing nothing. There is an understanding - a native, pure understanding - that no one can do higher level learning - being intellectually uncomfortable - without being physically and psychologically comfortable. The concept is from Maslow, but these guys know it from their own experience.
Choices, opportunities, passions which engage instead of force conformity
are the hallmark of these teachers' spaces.
5. An understanding of the need for the passion which connects students to school is basic to these guys.
Why would a student come to school each day? Don't say, "we made it a law." Why would each student come to school each day? If football, or the play, or music, or the chance to talk about poetry with a certain teacher, or the social scene at lunch or recess is the top emotional reason which gets a child out of bed in the morning and two your door, you cannot let that ever become secondary to anything else, because if that disappears, the reason to attend - or at least in our compulsory system, engage - vanishes. These new teachers know that. You will see them bringing games, music production, new sports, new clubs, and new conversations to the schools as they seek to meet kids at their passions.

I have worked with many great teachers, from all kinds of backgrounds, and I have worked with many great new teachers, from many backgrounds - and yet, what I see in schools suggests that there is incredible value in recruiting - at every level of education - a group of people with diverse school experiences.

As long as schools are primarily taught and run by, and future teachers are prepared by, those for whom school has been "easy," or who have succeeded in school-as-we-know-it, schools will be, primarily, for that one-third of the population. To allow all to succeed, our faculties - all of our faculties - must begin to feel a lot more like our students.

- Ira Socol

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