Michelle Obama and Why Teachers Need To Embrace Critique

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

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