Michelle Obama and Why Teachers Need To Embrace Critique

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose26 Comments

US First Lady Michelle Obama

US First Lady Michelle Obama

Every time someone says something, anything, about teachers, without fail, a naysayer always nags how it’s a conspiracy against teachers as a whole. For instance, a recent commercial about the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum started with a father asking his boy, “You like your teachers this year?” to which the boy replied, “Sure.” Some took that as a coordinated effort by Major League Baseball, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and all their plutocrat friends to diminish the teaching profession.

Really? Isn’t this rather typical banter between parents and their middle school children?

It gets worse when issues of race and class get involved. Take, for instance, this bit by First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, in a commencement address at Dillard University:

So my mother volunteered at my school — helping out every day in the front office, making sure our teachers were doing their jobs, holding their feet to the fire if she thought they were falling short. I’d walk by the office and there she’d be. (Laughter.) I’d leave class to go to the bathroom, there she’d be again, roaming the halls, looking in the classrooms. And of course, as a kid, I have to say, that was a bit mortifying, having your mother at school all the time.

But looking back, I have no doubt that my classmates and I got a better education because she was looking over those teachers’ shoulders. (Applause.) You see, my mom was not a teacher or a principal or a school board member. But when it came to education, she had that hunger. So she believed that our education was very much her business.

Some folks were outraged by the comments, as if she meant that she would want hundreds of parents swarming the schools, checking to see if their kids were learning something instead of trusting the experts, experts now being the teachers. Actually, the speech reveals something deeper than that, an issue that I not only highlight in my book (see: “Negotiating My Own Skin” and “What Happened”), but that Mia McKenzie deftly does in today’s piece “The White Teachers I Wish I Never Had.” She writes:

The thing is, Ms. McMahon should have known better. She didn’t because white teachers then, and most now, aren’t required to have any analysis of systems of white supremacy or anti-Blackness, and their own complicity in both, before they enter classrooms to teach Black children, some of whom will be introduced to those realities by the behavior of these white teachers. Having done little or none of the necessary work required to examine their complicity, what gives these teachers the right to teach our children? How have they earned the privilege of being such an influential figure in a Black child’s life? Why do we grant them access to the minds of our vulnerable youth, who will already have to face so much racism in the world? I’m 38 and I’m still regularly traumatized by my interactions with blatantly racist, and ‘well-meaning’ but still racist white people. The same is true for all of the Black adults I know. So, how can our children possibly be ok? They can’t be. They’re not.

Truth be told, plenty of people of color are frustrated with our education system, regardless of whether we call it charter, public, or private. Often, the very “well-meaning” teachers who stand in front of our children are also agents for the system, and sometimes work as a cog in said system.

In other words, do teachers come into teaching as a passion, a love, a paying forward or as a job, a step in a ladder towards something “greater?”

This also applies to administrators, superintendents, and others up the chain of command. Do they see themselves as perpetuating a system of inequity and covert oppression or as change agents? Does the system swallow their optimism and hope whole or are there leftovers for the next fight?

It’s OK to double down on how great a teacher you are, how you care about the kids, and how you tear up whenever you watch a teacher movie because that teacher is so like you. It’s quite another to take a hard look in the mirror, or better yet, ask the kids whether you’ve served them well. In most cases, kids are your most important mirror because they’re free enough from our niceties to tell us whether they’re learning.

We need to learn how to embrace critique, especially when it concerns our most marginalized students. We do ourselves no favors by insisting on disregarding racism within our schools, in our conferences, and in our institutions.

We can simultaneously acknowledge that, even though the tenor is a bit better, teachers generally get a bad rap, with their unions, summers off, and irregular schedules. Which should make anyone wonder why a male-dominated government would concern itself with coming after a woman-dominated profession. (Actually, don’t.)

As often as I hear teacher-bashing stories, I hear stories of disgruntled (and rightly so!) parents who wish their child’s teacher wouldn’t stand behind a Paul Tough book or a Sir Ken Robinson lecture whenever the parent questions whether the child is learning. I hear of teachers who always complain about parent involvement, but don’t make themselves available when it comes to conversations about pedagogy. I hear of teachers who, especially in predominantly white institutions, throw kids to the back of the classroom and continually ostracize them in both grades and person. I hear of teachers calling kids trash and less than nothing.

But if you’re not willing to even have the race conversation, then maybe your feet ought to feel a little hotter …


photo c/o

Comments 26

  1. Jose, I think this piece is thoughtful and important, and thank you for linking to the post by Mia McKenzie. But, while I find her argument compelling, I’m profoundly dissatisfied with her solution. I agree with the need for Black teachers. But I have two big problems with her suggestion of homeschooling for Black student who cannot have Black teachers: 1) I think public education is important and necessary — I’d rather we fixed the system than opted out of it. And 2) what about kids like mine, who are both Black and White? Can a White teacher not love my beautiful, brilliant little girl? What does it mean to suggest that a White person can’t understand her or nurture her or help empower her to do and be whatever she wants to do and be? I think I understand or at least believe the damage that many (maybe all) White teachers are doing by introducing Black students to institutionalized racism. But is segregation the only answer? Isn’t there hope?

    1. Post

      Gretel, I too think Mia’s solutions for homeschooling, I think, also have deep flaws, especially since there’s a wide variance of educational attainment that happens there. I do believe in public education, as you’re probably well aware. We can fix the system, but it needs to be a bigger concerted effort because, otherwise, the system swallows us and makes us complicit. Secondly, that racial dynamic will still depend on the teachers’ lens. Does the teacher see your daughter as a human fully deserving of a quality education or a curio, a mystery to solve when parent-teacher conference comes around. As someone who’s been part of multiracial organizations like Swirl, I saw plenty of times when, regardless of the racial make-up, if the teacher saw you as Black, Latino, Asian, or whatever that teacher *wasn’t*, then they already made up their mind, regardless of how we insist. I’ll be facing a similar challenge in a few years, too …

      1. I agree with what you say about the teacher’s lens. What was troubling to me about McKenzie’s piece was that I inferred perhaps a bit too much. I think teachers need to consider the kids in their classroom as potentially their own kids. There are White people who have Black, Brown, Latino, or Asian kids. As one of those people, it’s hard for me to read that critique of White teachers without hearing a commentary on the type of mother I’m capable of being to a little girl of color.

        BUT — I hear what you’re saying about being open to criticism. And I respect that maybe all of us need to be challenged as parents and teachers, because that’s what helps us do the best we can even when it makes us uncomfortable.

  2. You, Jose Vilson, can help keep us looking critically.
    We, all of us, should be doing it on our own. A few do. Too few.

    Even the wife of the president, if that president was clearly supporting teachers, could do it.

    But Michelle Obama, she’s the wife of the guy who holds teachers’ feet to the fire through Race to the Top. She’s an unoffical spokesperson for a massive attack on public education.

    Don’t get me wrong. I want to struggle with the issue. It was hard to read what Mia McKenzie wrote. But it is important (thanks for the link). And I want to talk, discuss.

    But I reject critiques from those who are just attacking educators and public education. And, while I’d like to change their minds, that is what the Obamas are doing today.


    1. Post

      Jonathan, I have two critiques of your critique:

      1) There hasn’t been a “progressive” on education since Jimmy Carter. Maybe. His presidency saw the closest we’ve ever been to closing the “achievement gap” in the last 50 years, if I’m not mistaken. Thus, any wife of a president that you would listen to would have had to be married to Jimmy Carter?

      2) Fine. Don’t take it from Michelle, or Mia, or anyone else. Just know that, if the same critiques are coming from what we consider the “left” or the “right” in terms of race in education, perhaps we need to actually pay attention. Unfortunately, as you know well from reading my logs here, our “umbrella” has serious issues with race and if we’re constantly negating those experiences, regardless of who it’s coming from, we let snake-oil salesmen like Dr. Steve Perry keep infiltrating our message with communities of color. Not saying it’s not “wrong” or whatever. Just letting you know what it is.

      Hope this helps.

      1. Let’s leave the presidents out of it. (But Mia’s piece, hard for me to read, was good for me to read, and should push the discussion forward.)

        So where to start? I like this: “Equality of opportunity” is not enough. Our goal should be equality. Let me just leave that out there.

        And on the specifics? If one teacher is out of line, that’s a teacher issue. But if an entire school, or an entire district, or an entire country racially tracks, sets inferior expectations, underfunds, over-disciplines, etc, etc….

        This is not a glib way to dismiss what Mia discusses. There are be instances where THAT teacher has a name. There are instances where much more aware teachers act in ways that have the same effect as THOSE teachers. But in places where every white teacher is THAT teacher, then the teacher is the easy target, and the wrong target.

        And we need to talk about racism, soft racism and not so soft racism, in the classroom. Learning about it is not the same as discussing it, digging into it, into its history, into its effect, into how it is reinforced throughout this society.

        – – — — —– ——– —– — — – –

        We need to join ranks against “education reform,” against the attacks on public education, against teachers. And with our friends and allies, we need to advance the hard discussions – including the questions of what education should look like, what really should be taught, what equality means, and how to combat racism.

        But I am unwilling to have those discussions with those out to destroy public education. I will engage under threat.

    1. Post

      Because there’s a set of Secret Service agents checking the school every morning. Also, you think if something wasn’t going right at Sidwell Friends that Mrs. Obama wouldn’t browbeat the teachers to ask what happened? Just saying, Betty …

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  4. I don’t mind a decent critique. I wasn’t really offended by Michelle Obama’s comments, either. However, I do think that there is this deeply cultural stereotype of teachers: that we’re lazy, that we don’t do anything professionally during the summer, that we are whiners when we ask for things like decent pay. So, with such a pervasive stereotype (often coming from the conservative community) I get why teachers get a little defensive. I’m not saying it’s right, but I get it.

    1. Post

      Yes, of course I acknowledge the teacher-bashing. It’s in the post, too. My point, MAINLY, was that we can’t just dismiss a critique for being a critique. We need to analyze it for real, even if it comes from a source that we don’t necessarily trust. That’s one of my points. People of color have had this issue for centuries, but the difference between me and say, Steve Perry or Barack Obama, is about approach. If you agree with mine, then you’re rolling with me. Otherwise, there are alternative paths, some of them deleterious to the public, as has been highlighted far too often …

      1. I agree that there’s a big difference in approach. There is also a big difference in policy. Barack and Michelle Obama both praise teachers. Neither of them have really bashed teachers. However, Barack applauded the firing of all teachers in a school at Rhode Island and has supported privatization movements. So, the real difference isn’t as much about language or even critique. It’s about policy.

        1. Post

          Policy is a form of approach, right? I also remember a congressional bill that saved a few thousand teacher jobs too, right?

          I’m not looking for a “center” argument. There are plenty of folk who can’t affect policy, but I would never hear a critique from, but it doesn’t mean that the same critique can’t be made from someone whose policy decisions I do agree with.

  5. I was thinking about this a lot yesterday, especially after watching the intense twitter discussion, and trying to think critically about my own role as a white teacher in this process.

    The truth is that we all, no matter who we are (race, religion, sexuality, left, right, etc), possess some unconscious biases. I remember my biracial cousin being shocked that some of my South Bronx students (all of whom were black or Latino) were hardcore emos and alternatives, obsessed with Green Day and System of a Down and the like, lots of black eye makeup, etc. He thought they’d all listen to hip-hop. This is just a small presumption of course, but how many such small presumptions do we all have?

    I taught in the South Bronx for three years and loved my students and my job thoroughly. Besides my teaching duties I ran an after school chorus, the Gay-Straight Alliance, the math club, and Chill (a program from Burton to teach kids to snowboard). I was heartbroken to leave, but I moved to The Netherlands (for love) and began teaching here. Suddenly my classes were populated by white, wealthy students (two things I’d never had before). I had this feeling at first that somehow my work was now less meaningful. I want to try to unpack that thought, because being a teacher is always meaningful, whether the students are privileged or not; a teacher is not a savior or a hero, though we are fed a steady diet of that idea through Hollywood. Did I have a hero complex?

    My last class from the Bronx is now graduating and 20 some odd of them graduated with a dual high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree from community college. I am so happy and proud of them. My first class from The Netherlands is also now graduating and I have to admit to myself that while I feel happy and proud of them too, it is to somewhat a lesser degree.

    Is that because I expected that these students of means will all make it through? And does that mean that I didn’t expect my Bronx students to? Do I secretly suffer from a touch of what George Bush so eloquently called “the soft bigotry of low expectations?” Or am I acknowledging reality, that a number of my students didn’t make it through, that the students who did overcame great odds (or is that even paternalistic to think?)? Or maybe it’s something more innocuous — maybe I feel more connection to my old students simply because we’re all NYers, whereas the Dutch are culturally quite different? Maybe I feel more connection because I had more interaction with them both through class time (here I teach them only twice a week for three terms) and extracurriculars so I feel I know them better? Or maybe I feel differently because I still see my Dutch students at school every day and until my old colleague sent me a photo of my students graduating from community college, I hadn’t seen my old students for years and I simply miss home?

    The point is, I don’t know exactly why I feel the things I do, but they’re worth examining. I think as reflective educators, we need to keep a watchful eye out for this sort of thing and your and Mia’s piece help us to do so.

  6. Mr. Vilson:
    What kind of changes would you make? I’m curious because I have relatives who are. or were, NYC school teachers. And they despised Bloomberg, and the whole charter school movement. Especially how those schools get to use public school buildings for free, among other things. They also, rightly, saw it as a way to undermine the teachers union. And I can’t speak of anywhere else but here in PA charter schools aren’t as tightly overseen as public schools are.

    1. Post

      Mainly, I’m seeking for folks to truly get a better sense of racism and how it plays itself in all environments. There’s always the ego: being reflective of one’s own practices and behaviors and how that affects what we do. From there, we get to unpack certain layers. Reflection and information (like reading Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s work or Lisa Delpit’s) are critical in this teaching thing!

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  10. I like seeing this piece. I am in NC and just witnessed a very dedicated Hispanic principal get run off because she dared to suggest that the old guard in the school (all white) might need to work harder to understand a minority student’sperspective. The teachers got offended, claimed they have always been color blind (never mind the achievement gap that the students coming from this school demonstrate in high school), wrote negative critique of her and superintendent got rid of her.
    I liked her. I was sad. I spoke only positively about her, but what’s done is done.
    I suppose when integration happened in the south, we did not really make sure the teaching force was equipped. I think it goes back that far, at least in the south.

    Buying your book today. I like your blog.

  11. I really do believe that if we stop giving time, words and resources to the problem but rather to the solution, is when true change will occur. You are asking me to have the “race conversation” assuming by talking about it somehow it will get better. The opposite is true. I’ll have a conversation with you, but it won’t be about a problem – we’ve been talking about the problem for 50 years. No, I am looking forward to finally creating some momentum towards the SOLUTION. THAT’S what i want to spend our time, words and resources perpetuating. I will never understand what it means to be black, please stop asking me to. You will never understand what it means to be white or even a white teacher in front of all black students, I will never ask you to understand that. “Understanding” one another is not required. RESPECTING one another and treating one another with dignity, kindness and good manners is all that is needed. Let’s talk about how to achieve that. Let’s talk about our shared goals and values in the classroom. Let’s talk about the solution. Because we manifest that which we think and speak about, racism, or any unwanted thing in life, will end when we stop talking about it. Let’s leave our problems where they belong: in the past. And i’m going to say something powerful here: our “feelings” don’t matter. “Feelings” change and come later. Feelings are an inside job. I am not in charge of you feel and i do not put you in charge of how I feel so that is the one ground rule that must happen. We must let each other of any “hook” and give one another the benefit of the doubt. So, let’s get right to the work of winning, shall we? Whatever conversation we have, let’s make sure it’s about winning because if we’re not talking about winning, then losing becomes an option. I ask my 9th graders to memorize and recite this speech to the class during the first month of school. Enjoy:

    If you think you are beaten, you are;
    If you think you dare not, you don’t.
    If you’d like to win, but you think you can’t,
    It is almost a cinch that you won’t.
    If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost;
    For out of the world we find
    Success begins with a fellow’s will
    It’s all in the state of mind.
    If you think you’re outclassed, you are;
    You’ve got to think high to rise.
    You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
    You can ever win the prize.
    Life’s battles don’t always go
    To the stronger or faster man;
    But sooner or later the man who wins
    Is the one who thinks he can!

    1. Post

      With all due respect, we’ve had 50 years of not talking about it but around it. We bring it up, but comments like this only deflect it. Actually talking about it means that there is a respect on all sides of the conversation, and I rarely see that. Only recently have I seen some real headway with breaking down institutional racism. So you’re right in that it’s not about “feelings,” but feelings are but a symptom of our continued racial imbalance. For instance, I feel like I have a higher probability of getting shot by a police officer. That’s attached to the statistics that prove that my skin color is a determinant for this prediction. The cop’s “feelings” might be that (s)he had no intention of killing someone, but in that split second where they have the gun to my face, the stats prove that my skin color will make that cop likelier to shoot me. That’s institutional.

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