Educate to Liberate

A Case Study of Mis-Education

Dr. Q was a twenty-year, veteran educator of Jewish descent who had worked the vast majority of her career in a suburban ‘gifted’ school environment. For reasons deemed only as ‘personal’, she (rather abruptly) separated from service from her previous school district and successfully interviewed for a first-grade teaching position in our inner city, Title I PK-8 institution entrenched in a highly impoverished metropolitan Detroit community. With the initial period of tense salary negotiations aside (needless to say – the limited constraints of what we could offer her paled in comparison to the kind of salary that her level of education and previous suburban employment status commanded); In any case, Dr. Q readily agreed to begin the school year with 22 eager six and seven year old ‘live wires’ and by all accounts, seemed equal to the task at hand.

It was not long into the initial, fall semester before it became apparent that in spite of her documented years of classroom instructional experience and extensive educational credentials, classroom management was an elusive component of her skill set and an otherwise very real concern and looming obstacle to the daily delivery of standards-based instruction in Dr. Q’s wildly untamed 1st grade classroom. It must be noted for the record that this loosely disciplined and unstructured environment was an anomaly at our school (with the exception of the 1-2 classrooms covered by novice teachers in their first 1-3 years of experience and/or those being covered temporarily by substitute teachers). Initially, this realization presented no major concern, as a teacher’s weakness in a required instructional skill set is merely an opportunity for a consummate leader to provide tangible, immediate support. I did/do consider myself an exemplary administrator who is first and foremost an instructional leader and curriculum coach, with whom the buck stops in terms of academic achievement. Thus, I was eager to offer immediate support and Dr. Q was afforded with levels of remediation ranging from my classroom presence as a co-teacher during the most crucial core curricular junctures; to peer mentorship from her grade-level partner, an exemplary first-grade teacher with many years of expertise and a willingness to document and then properly model her own observations for improvement; to a personalized professional development plan which included, among other things, tons of resources to strengthen her knowledge, resources and skillful use of universally high expectations, positive reinforcement, automated classroom procedures and protocols. There was every anticipation that these efforts would in turn strengthen her classroom management expertise (as it had done for so many teachers before) and serve to transform her classroom from a disorderly holding pen, into a safe, vibrant and intellectually engaged learning environment in which children could learn/grow and prosper. The greatest disappointment was that all attention was met with hostility, resentment and even an incredulous persona of “I’ve got this”, despite the fact that Dr. Q’s children would literally be swinging from the rafters under her exclusive watch, on a daily basis. Sigh . . .

Perhaps adding insult to injury, this particular classroom had been historically manned by a young, novice and extremely successful African-American teacher with a slight build and who barely spoke above a whisper yet managed to maintain full, continuous command of her first-grade classroom from day one. This teacher was explicit in her instructions, rewarded positive behaviors frequently, implemented seamless procedures and protocols and essentially ensured that her classroom of eager learners, ran like a well-oiled machine. From an academic perspective, Mrs. T had always used the district provided curriculum, but personalized instruction and embraced a much more hands-on approach to meet the multifaceted needs of each of her vibrant, yet academically diverse students. So unquestionably, the easily remarkable rapport which had been established by the previous first-grade teacher was not even comparable to the wild, untamed environment developing at the hands of Dr. Q. And of all stakeholders, the parents were not the least bit amused by the new teacher seemingly harboring such unorthodox “freedom of expression” classroom views and discipline (or lack thereof), in instructing an entire class of spirited first-graders. Admittedly, the only reason we even needed to interview for the teacher vacancy in the first place was the painful realization that sadly, we had lost our ‘gem’ of an awesome teacher to illness, due to a debilitating, physical illness she had long suffered – ultimately forcing her into frequent absences and life-saving hospitalizations – spanning roughly 35% of the prior school year. In any case, this teacher was quite easily the hardest act to follow as an incoming staff member due to the fact that in spite of her unplanned bouts of illness, extended absences and her weakening physical state – Mrs. T’s students still garnered the highest achievement scores of any elementary teacher on staff. This petite, soft-spoken woman could literally manage a classroom full of spirited seven-year olds with the ease of a twenty-year veteran teacher, while still nurturing the academic strengths and weaknesses of each child’s varying in needs. Certainly, filling a gap of this magnitude was much easier said than done.

Alas, I digress and must attempt to set the stage for what became of Dr. Q’s intentionally creative and loose, yet highly unorthodox classroom environment and her ultimate demise. Early on, and in spite of instructional feedback to offer tangible levels of classroom management support from her colleagues in the PLC structure to an up close one-on-one approach with the lead administrator, it became clear that the discipline issue would seemingly be only one component of the disastrous impact of this case study. A glaring absence of academic rigor and refusal to teach the curriculum as outlined in the strategically designed pacing guide proved to be the ultimate undoing for all the vast, apparent knowledge base of one (whose qualifications might have otherwise equipped her to offer a wealth of high expectations or preferably a dose of her previous gifted curricular resources), to her students. Sadly, the greatest obstacle to Dr. Q’s classroom success, having newly transitioned from the nearly all-white, affluent school district to our all-Black, impoverished district, was her own admittedly lowered expectations regarding the ability of her Black students.

In a manner of exercising White privilege and scarcely affording full consideration to the rigorous standards and curriculum meticulously provided by her competent Black administrators, Dr. Q was convinced that she knew what was best for her classroom and that she could “handle” the little Black children under her watch, so she proceeded to spend the bulk of her days reading toddler level, sight word books on a beautiful, plush carpet she deemed “the beach” and to routinely speak in condescending, harsh tones to children as a result of their predictable, unruly behavior. The students were literally bored beyond belief and any educator can imagine the impact of all of the idle time. Meanwhile Dr. Q chalked up the children’s behavior to a lack of discipline as taught at home or an overwhelming majority of children harboring special needs, without ever considering to interrogate her own abject bias and ineptitude.

As further documentation of her cluelessness, any/all offers for assistance were abruptly declined and heavily frowned upon as nuisances and/or unnecessary gestures of kindness – largely because they emanated from her bevy of all-Black instructional and administrative peers – who she deemed well-intentioned (at least at first), but ultimately concluded were beneath her. Because of her staunch refusals and rebukes for any/all help and a worsening classroom environment and academic achievement forecast, an administratively coordinated joint meeting with the teacher and teacher’s aide was convened to address the concerns about lowered academic expectations and a laissez-faire classroom management style with a directive to implement the following, immediate interventions: a small group instructional strategy to divide the students into heterogeneous, small and flexible groupings for core subject instruction – to be strategically split between the two of them; implementation of a mandated peer observation schedule (especially given that in the past her co-teacher put in the bulk of all of the effort into Dr. Q’s own improvement plan); and finally, Dr. Q was formally made aware that she was subject to a firm progressive disciplinary plan to closely monitor her compliance with the administrative directive to begin to skillfully utilize daily common preparation periods and weekly PLC meetings to forge universal protocols for classroom management w/ her K-2 peer group in collaboration with her agreement to submit to and demonstrate documented evidence of having fulfilled her personalized professional development plan goals, uniquely geared to addressing her multiple areas of professional weakness.

As could have been easily predicted, as the year progressed countless formal and informal teacher observations yielded generally unfavorable results, citing strong knowledge of content area lesson planning (in written form) but reflective of unacceptable form in execution – as all instruction was offensively dumbed down to an infuriatingly slow or basic level instructional pace. Overall, poor instructional practice(s) and a less than tame, unpredictable classroom environment proved unequal to favorable student academic performance and increasing parental feedback. Within short order, the class size abruptly decreased from just 22 to 18 students as the parents of the most bright, high-spirited and otherwise gifted children demonstrated their most vocal form of silent protest to the existing class dynamics; by simply exercising their right to school choice (three children left the district within the first 3 months, while one transferred to the alternate, very high performing first-grade classroom of now 27 students). From an equally revealing and individually accountable data standpoint, while many students typically perform poorly at the start of a school year – there is always an expectation and precedent that slowly, but surely, even the lowest performing, below grade-level proficient students amongst the class would incrementally increase their social and academic performance levels over time. And although first-graders are not yet subject to state-mandated, high stakes assessments – the district administered universal formative assessments to assess proficiency and evaluate areas in need of remediation. In terms of high academic expectations, the same is anticipated for our K-2 students as is the universal expectation for those in grades 3 and above. In any case, all district assessment data reflecting the performance for this particular class demonstrated the reverse of the typical data snapshot of their first-grade peers. Those who languished in Dr. Q’s poorly managed and increasingly low-performing first-grade classroom (I.E. a large percentage of children who originally performed in the 70th and above percentile in the fall had regressed to the 50th percentile by spring testing, rather than increasing as was the common tradition and expectation). In terms of the logic to explain their performance? Dr. Q began lamenting in weekly PLC meetings and public staff meetings of the lack of preparedness which could be attributed to the prior grade level teachers, who had clearly inflated students’ readiness for her grade and/or failed to prepare them for the promotion to the next level. Really?! In the final analysis, the bulk of her previously high-performing, well adjusted primary students soon morphed into insecure, behaviorally challenged and bored scholar students whose proficiency improved less than a year’s growth should typically yield and who otherwise demonstrated alarming evidence of having failed to meet grade-level promotional benchmarks or even regressed altogether. Needless to say, this was an unacceptable and damnable indictment against this sole teacher’s unprofessional and unethical teaching practice. Within months, her job security was at risk and an unsatisfactory teacher evaluation rating loomed as testament to the failure of all efforts to date.

What happened to Dr. Q you might wonder? Well, despite the time, collaborative effort and proven, research-based protocols implemented to strengthen her professional practice, all such investments were for naught in the face of countering a lifetime of implicit bias and racist tropes driving her unconscionable lowered expectations, micro aggressions towards her students and rejection of all professional training improvement efforts. Over time, Dr. Q became even more defiant, and morphed into her authentic self: an angry, arrogant, overeducated and under qualified racist who used each day as another opportunity to model her disdain for her Black students and the inner city environment in which she taught. She was a literal nightmare to deal with, as she demonstrated half-hearted compliance, an overall nasty attitude, sulking and self-righteous indignation – while she secretly plotted, and quietly pursued (an anticipatory) wrongful termination lawsuit against the administrators and Board of Directors of the small, family oriented and all Black school district. Her intentions were rather transparent as she began to obsessively document and/or audiotape everything and became vehemently outspoken that all aforementioned exemplars of support were being regarded as punitive measures of discrimination.

Clearly, in a society which fosters so much implicit and explicit bias, abject racism and general disdain for Blacks (and to a lesser extent, other people of color), one would probably expect a base level of unpreparedness for the exemplary educational standards encountered in our all Black, Title I institution – particularly from one outside the culture who somehow expects to find stereotypical, low-performing staff and students who merely languished in a struggling school environment or perhaps pretended at educating our children against insurmountable odds. On the contrary, save the absence of a modern, state of the art facility and tangible resources which accompany the school funding allotment for suburban schools, there’s no less commitment or talent among the educators, students in the inner city zip codes. And for the record, I guess all assumptions be damned, because we too had hoped that a highly educated professional (with a history of having been brutally and unlawfully persecuted by the scourge of institutionalized racism), would be equally averse to allowing themselves to propagate mis-education among Black students to this extreme. It turns out that we were both wrong. In the real life scenario, certain to rival any Hollywood inspired, Dangerous Minds script, there was a level of rebellious resistance and a degree of abject racism which emerged over time to reveal the true, insidious nature of Dr. Q.

In the administrative followup session (which she dramatically audio-recorded), Dr. Q was presented with extensive documentation of her unfavorable classroom observations, a compilation of incident reports (reflecting injuries and referrals emanating from her small classroom), parental complaints, and most importantly evidence of each of her student’s dramatic academic decline in the course of the academic year. Though she reluctantly acknowledged the presence of several parental complaints as valid and even came around to agree with widespread, existing concerns regarding her increasingly ‘chaotic’ classroom atmosphere – by her own admission, she was never permitted to implement her own ‘best practice’ certain to prove the way in which she could best teach “these Black children” and she hastily retorted that she felt she lacked both disciplinary support from administration and the Dean, psychological support from the school’s social worker and the proper administrative confidence and support from the principal. Really?! Insert any gif of a Black woman’s eye-rolling face when she is less than impressed here. Nevertheless, Dr. Q countered by insisting that her struggles could only be attributed to ‘cultural/ethnic differences’ between her all-Black classroom and she, a middle aged Jewish woman; and that over time, if given the time, opportunity, space and support to administer her program of teaching (which had always worked well for her in the past), a common ground would eventually emerge whereupon academic progress and behavioral compliance would miraculously manifest. In other words, she foolishly believed her professional failings were nonexistent or would somehow work themselves out, or perhaps even that her abject disdain for Black people would have no impactful bearing upon her teacher/student interactions and their resulting performance (for the record, this is a common misconception which must be permanently laid to rest). It is worth noting that roughly 25% of our district’s instructional staff were White and had no such cultural/ethnic obstructions to account for their rousing success as classroom teachers.

Undoubtedly, the general consensus from a purely data based lens, is that this teacher’s inability to regard her students as equal to the curricular challenge as those she encountered at the gifted school – severely debilitated her ability to appropriately engage, teach them. Likewise the inordinate amount of time and energy spent on the re-direction of children’s (predictable) bad behavior severely detracted from an ideal teaching and learning atmosphere in Dr. Q’s classroom. The joint racist fueled/classroom management issue became increasing points of contention as the year progressed and as data (from Scantron, Star Reading/Math and Early Literacy tests and assessments) evidence mounted. Thus, under increasing administrative and exemplary peer performance pressure to raise student achievement and to resolve worsening classroom management issues all at once – Dr. Q resorted to vocally and quite frequently whining incessantly (in both PLC and during weekly faculty meetings), of the general unreliable nature and adverse affects the frequent testing requirements, particularly district-mandated assessments, were having upon “real teaching”. Her contention was to conclude that such tests were grossly unfit for either academic or teacher evaluation purposes and should be regarded as a necessary evil in upper elementary and middle grades, but generally frowned upon or given less weight and credence in the early primary grades. These impromptu ‘speeches’ were met with varying degrees of: agreement, apathy and a general acceptance of the inevitable nuisance of such mandated measurements by the majority of our instructional staff. It is rather commonplace that educators nationwide are universally and increasingly held accountable for similar or even more extensive evidence of academic achievement of their own students. The argument is certainly well intended, but in the case of an educator with a less than stellar performance record, then in many ways the point is moot and the premise for poor performance deemed an exercise in futility.

Alas, the final ‘line in the sand’ was drawn with respect to Dr. Q’s strongly held and increasingly contentious opinion on this issue when she rejected the validity of her year-end teaching evaluation status (a composite score based upon all previous classroom observations & assessment data). Upon receiving a formal copy of her unsatisfactory rating, she contested the validity of her students’ scores on year-end assessments, citing among other things, adverse testing conditions including: time constraints (a common concern on modern computer-adaptive tests), computer literacy (or lack thereof) of the mandated, technology based tests and when/how frequently (once every 6-8 weeks), the tests were administered by the district. She went on to counter that she had devised of her very own, teacher-created measurements of academic achievement, based upon the district-approved Common Core standards and similar to the format of the questions being assessed by the district’s formative assessment earlier in the year and noted that her children had performed much more favorably on this alternative, written and classroom administered test. Alas, when this assessment and the corresponding results were considered but then rejected by administration as an unscientific, unapproved, ‘subjective’ model lacking rigor and insufficient to meet the universal standards of the data driven results of all other K-2 students, Dr. Q abruptly ended her formal ‘exit interview’ with a profanity laced, shouting match to rival other speeches delivered in eloquent fashion and within the hour had tendered a formal letter of resignation.

In the final analysis, the environment for mis-education flourishes in the absence of a shared experience and an equal investment in the innately endowed capabilities and worth of Black students. As a longtime teacher and administrator, I have witnessed forms of disservice from mild areas of weakness, that one chooses to ignore and remain underdeveloped; to more severe cases of arrogance (I’ve got mine, you get yours), apathy (assigns busywork or uninspired, antiquated curriculum content), to outright ineptitude (varying degrees of unpreparedness, substance abuse, verbal/mental abuse or hostility) and each has resulted in the gradual erosion of our inherent right to be educated or liberated, as an African people. Rarely has an authentic case study of a real teacher, school district and administrator’s experience, been more of a cautionary tale of what not to do in future pedagogical practice. Please feel free to share your critical analysis on this case study and be mindful in your responses that the classroom is no place to experiment with one’s own interpretation of beliefs and best practices.