For the last seven years, I have worked in a high poverty, school, with a large number of students of color. The two are not mutually exclusive, but not everyone on staff knows that. With over 95% of students on federal assistance, poverty is rampant in my school. And with poverty come all the issues that are correlative to it.
More than once, I have heard teachers and administrators pass judgement on students concerning what they have, and have not. The most surprising (and disturbing) phrase I’ve heard is this: “These students would rather walk out in handcuffs than give up their phones.” The problem is that when I’ve heard this phrase, it is rarely about white kids and their cell phone use. It is a judgement made of students of color.
After several years of seeing this play out, I began to notice something that continues to be worrisome; most instances of discipline concerning cell phone use are over-reactions, knee-jerk consequences concerning students of color and poverty.
“These students would rather walk out in handcuffs than give up their phones.” When I inquired about the intention of this statement, I was told that the line’s intent was to encourage relationship building and patience.
Let’s be honest: this phrase isn’t about cell phones. It’s about judgement and ignorance about how people on the lower socio-economic rungs of the social latter are dealt with. And in Louisville, students of poverty are more often of color. And, as a result, students of color are judged, based on the socio-economic status of what they “should” and “should not” have. I recognize and understand that students of color sometimes are also poor, and that possessions are sometimes all they have. They won’t invite people over to their house, but will buy great shoes to be seen. I know that people of poverty often are on food stamps and have the newest iPhones. And yet, that is not the paradigm I have seen. When we see students of color being disproportionately disciplined for something as minor as cell phone use, and it is answered with enough anger and frustration by the students, that ultimatley leads to physical acting out. When this happens, we have failed them. With the pre-school to prison pipeline, we have evidence that we have not met their needs. We have not taught them how to live in a world that has a white set of rules.
But we can help. I have two ideas. First, let’s change the paradigm. If it is our responsibility to model our school after the demands of society, let’s commit to helping students be better for the society, not just better for test scores. We ask our citizens to not pre-judge. Why is it permissible in the schools?
Second, help me come up with solutions about how to do this. The culture of poverty is so beyond me that I struggle to even articulate my concerns here. What it means to be a person of color is something I cannot ever understand. I want to serve my students of color with empathy, but also pragmatism. I want to serve with compassion, but also fidelity to our society. I struggle because I want to understand, and because I want to send a message to other white teachers like myself, to let them know that NOT knowing is okay, as long as we seek to find the answers. I don’t know the full extent of my students’ experiences, but I am commited to learning more.
I think it starts with the willingness to be uncomfortable, and talk about it anyway.