Jose Vilson: Recently, there’s been some conversation as to whether or not our schools should be compared to war. Lots of folks, for example, say that teachers are the “people in the trenches.” On the other hand, it’s hard for me to not make the comparison between our contemporary versions of war and our schools. What say you?
Lorena Germán: Using language that makes our schools out to be war zones is a complicated matter. On the one hand, I’m always weary of those terms because it’s often used as coded language to signify schools that are located in communities where people of color predominantly live. Schools in suburbia are rarely discussed in this light. The language places teachers as martyrs (therefore advantaged in our collective conscience), and in these communities, those teachers are overwhelmingly white females. These martyrs are victims of the students (mainly Black and Brown ones) attacking them and each other, producing chaos, or a war. That perspective justifies the need for police officers in schools, zero tolerance policies, violent disciplinary measures, and more.
Also, it’s locating the problem in the wrong place and that is the other side of the coin of this conversation. Looking at our schools as war zones can be used strategically to reveal the war waged on our students of color, their communities, and their teachers. I’m referring to oppressive policies that maintain the historic abuse of white supremacist schooling on our communities of color. These are policies and pedagogical methods that demand students and their families assimilate, instead of celebrate. They demand students be seen as less than human and their parents as problems to be solved. These policies and methods would never be used in other districts where predominantly White students attend.
In the middle of all this, is the reality that our schools are over-policed and the physical environment is very much like a prison or war. There are metal detectors, police officers, dark colors on the walls because of old buildings and lack of funding, students being tackled, tasers, expulsions, walking on the line, eyes down, penalties, detentions, rules upon rules, and more. Our schools therefore, are prisons, they are war zones, but not for the reasons we often discuss.
A question for you: What do you think it takes to change this?
JV: It’s gotta start with the reframing of the statement: “War doesn’t belong in our schools.” We should ask, “Where do I see elements of combat in our schools?”
A part of me feels weird as well, because war has so many different implications. Coming from countries where police literally have tanks strolling through the streets, it’s fascinating to think how many teachers have the privilege of never having to deal with remnants of our seemingly endless wartime at this juncture. Also, I’m finding that too many of the people who aren’t OK with using war-like metaphors in schooling simultaneously refuse to advocate for every school in a given area to be stripped of metal detectors, police roaming the halls, and any number of surveillance measures for our most marginalized youth. By the way, these are conditions they wouldn’t accept for their own children.
Ultimately, I’m starting to see a few different divides with schools: ones that treat our kids like human beings and ones that don’t, and those seem to span our current categories for schooling. What were you thinking?
LG: Pointing out that these are conditions they wouldn’t accept for their own children is crucial! It’s infuriating, too, because it makes the work of bringing about change so much harder. It feels impossible when it’s just a few voices calling out the injustice and the majority isn’t too concerned because the issues are on “other people’s children.” (Shout-outs to Delpit!) I agree that there’s a current trend revealing a stark gap between schools that humanize and schools that dehumanize.
One way to change a lot of this is by shifting narratives. The truth is that a lot of “reform” is concerned about changing classroom practices, or schools, or students. We certainly need to change classroom practices in order to humanize all students. Schools definitely need some re-envisioning. Students are not the problem, so I’ll never localize the issue within them. While we certainly need to improve how we teach and support who we teach, it is necessary to address where and why we teach. I think that looking at and addressing the systems of inequity in our country is where we will find our solutions. Then, thinking about why teachers are standing in front of kids, why teachers are making the choices they’re making, why folks are choosing to dedicate their lives to education will be integral to figuring out how to move forward.
Why do you teach, Jose?
JV: I started to teach because I wanted to open doors for my students, to give them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. Now, I’m finding myself constantly questioning this prospect. If I’m teaching, where am I guiding them? Some of my students have become teachers, police officers, engineers, and other municipal workers. It’s also true that these professions make us agents of the state. If the system works exactly as it’s designed, then we’re accomplices to all of this, despite our best efforts. If the system has enough cracks in it to allow for the promise of greater democracy, participation, and equity, I hope I’m doing my best to make it so for my students.
I teach not simply because I’m one of the only – if not the only – Black teachers they’ll have in their entire PK – 12 career, but also because I like to believe I can show my students paths to humanity and ways of being that aren’t self-destructive. I believe in a world, like you, that would eventually eradicate the idea of “other people’s children.” We got a stake in this. As parents and educators, the responsibility is multiplied.
LG: Whew! I also began because I wanted to open doors for students. In fact, I used to use that exact phrase. I want to believe that I have done more and continue to do more. I believe that I teach in order to free myself, free others, and create paths for a better society. It’s very idealistic, but it’s grounded in truth and working toward change. I free myself by being the type of teacher I never had and repairing the relationship between me and school. I try to create space in my classroom and school so that we can interrogate our systems and work diligently to dismantle oppression. I do believe that education is one of the steps in that process. I believe that my role within education is to enact a curriculum and approach that works toward freedom. I have to believe this. I have a dream, and I can’t let it dry like a raisin in the sun.