Discrimination at the college level

I am so angry I could spit, or fight. In fact, my eyebrow was raised practically the whole afternoon class and the smile on my face was really because my teeth were clenched and I was trying to keep from punching the librarian in the face. And then kicking her in the face when she was down on the ground. Because her treatment of my students was so overly-the-top rude that I cannot let it go and will be speaking to my supervisor about it on Monday.

My students were working on a collaborative assignment facilitated in a computer lab at the college library. When the librarian came in, she was tense already, which is something I’m unacustomed to. Normally all of the staff I’ve met on campus are quite friendly and don’t openly seem to treat my students with disdain. I have to remind myself that the stigma of being a “high school dropout,” or an “at risk youth,” is something these students fight daily. While often annoyed, I am fiercely protective of my students. They are beautiful individuals and should not be shamed or bullied because of some arbitrary rules.

So, the students had been broken up into their groups and were beginning to work on their assignments. One of my students got a phone call, and stood up, saying “hey dad I’m in class, I’m going to have to call you back.” We’ve all been there, right? The awkward phone call where you just have to get off real quick but if you don’t answer you know you’ll be in trouble, or the person will be worried, etc. The librarian FREAKED THE FUCK OUT though. Now, keep in mind, we were not in the middle of the library. We were in a private computer lab. Nor was she presenting. They were working independently. And she didn’t acknowledge that he had turned away from the group (in order to keep it quiet) and had said “dad I need to call you back.” She raised her voice and got in his face saying, “you need to get off the phone. NOW.” and then she repeated herself when he said, “it’s my dad. he’s dying of cancer and he’s in the hospital. I’m telling him I’ll call him back.” She clearly did not listen (or thought he was spinning a story?) and said again, almost shouting, “I SAID GET OFF THE PHONE.”

Incredibly rude.

What’s worse, is this student is on the Autism Spectrum. He has many accommodations, is freaking brilliant and works SO HARD to fit in socially and do “the right thing.” He is super polite and I know that he would never take a call if it weren’t an emergency. By this point (which all happened within 30 seconds), I was up and standing next to him. And she said to me, “they are not allowed cell phones in the library.” And I replied, since he had left the classroom after she directed him to, “he has autism. his dad is dying of cancer. I am aware of the cell phone rule, but he has accommodations that are allowed to him.”

I wanted to punch her. I’m surprised I kept my cool enough, because I was livid. I don’t care if there’s a cell phone rule or not, shouting at someone is NOT the way to handle it. Correcting a student’s behavior has a time and place, and I just know that if he wasn’t seen as an “at risk” student, he would NOT have been yelled at like that. No way. If he was 50, or 25, and talking quietly on his phone? Nope, nobody would yell at him.

And I also wonder.

Was it because he was black? Or because he’s 6’4?

Because I can’t imagine her yelling, in the same fashion, at one of my less intimidating physically white students. Or maybe she would, but even if my student wasn’t black, or on the autism spectrum, or have a dad dying from cancer. But it was rude. And I think it needs to be addressed.

As we walked out of the library, after the presentation, I took him aside and said:

“Hey dude, I just wanted to apologize for how she talked to you. I think it was inappropriate for her to address you that way, and I informed her that you were telling the truth. I sometimes think faculty here profile CEO students and how you were treated was not okay. Just know that I was angry about the situation, and angry on your behalf, because it really wasn’t okay.”

His response? Ever so sweet he said, “thank you Ms. Monk-Monk. I appreciate that. Have a good weekend.”

And he tipped his hat and lumbered off into the rain, all the while lugging his gigantic over sized backpack.

Bearing Witness to Student’s Lived Experience

In the past few weeks I have realized something: my job as an instructor/adviser is just as hard as it was as a crisis counselor. Though the schedule is much easier, the fact that I am simply in a position to bear witness to lives, rather than be the person to actively help seek the resources and see immediate change, is where the exhaustion is coming in. I know that I was built for this work, but lately there are several students who have been heavy on my heart. So heavy that I downloaded Anne Lamott’s new book Stitches and am flipping through it, because she talks about the utter fuckedupness of the world and how we stand and face all the cruelty in situations that often don’t have any ‘meaning’ (she cites the Newton shooting, for example.) Her words give me comfort.

So I’m nestled in my pajamas, at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday, drinking red wine and watching Jake & The Neverland Pirates with Potamus and musing about the fate of my students. And I’m sad, and angry (at parents and schools that have failed my students) and excited and proud, but also this feeling that is deeper than all of that, something about awe and heartache mixed with immense fear and hope. It’s hard to express adequately, ya know?

This week I had a student tell me that in their photography class they were instructed to take “street shots” and so they were in a piss-filled alley taking photos of graffiti. And they struck up a conversation with a homeless man, who spilled his life story, and after an hour the photographer moved on to a different location…getting two blocks away before they heard screams. And when they turned back into the alley, the homeless man had been stabbed to death by someone on drugs. A man who had previously lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and had chosen the homeless lifestyle, donating all of his posessions to charity, in order to “start over.” If heaven exists then maybe he’s met by his daughter and wife, but only minutes before my 17 year old student had been chatting with him, taking his photo. And then he was dead, just like that. And my student witnessed it.

How do you make sense of that? How do I hold the space for that story, for the emotions that go with it, without trying to solve it or make it all magically better?

What about the student who told me they missed class last week because they were arrested and with 1 week until their 18th birthday are most likely going to be charged as an adult and sent to prison? This student who I found on the news was selling close to 300 “molly” and crystal meth pills at a local rave. My student fessed up to their actions, but still? And school is the best option for them right now, but my heart is heavy because prison is the real deal and all the hard work to get on the right track were blown in a night.

How do I hold that?

And the students who have been writing about their drug addictions and the process of getting clean. Or their experience being in lockdown psych wards for psychotic breaks. Or the 11 concussions and expulsion from high school because they didn’t pass their class but no teacher gave any accommodations for the sports related injuries. My students are struggling with SO MANY things. And they come every day, and write about SMART goals, and learn study habits, and sometimes they do it when they haven’t eaten for a day or two, or don’t know where they’re going to live.

I admire their tenacity. Their ability to rise above the challenges that no kid should have to face…homelessness, drug addictions, abuse, mental illness, physical illness, natural disasters, etc. I bear witness and have to sit with their stories and know that maybe that is enough. When I can’t do anything but smile at them, and tell them hello, and hear their lives in a way that many educators haven’t done in the past. Is it enough? I have no idea. But I hope that it makes some small difference…

Roles & Boundaries in Higher Education

As an educator, I have to remember that I am not a counselor, even though much of my class is built around soft-skills and information that I would explore and work on in a counseling relationship. But, I am an instructor, and it is imporant for me to know the difference, as well as to create and stick with an educational boundary that isn’t quite like the boundary I’d set with a group therapy session.

Of course I knew that my counseling informed my instruction, but it wasn’t until I was processing a student-student conflict that happened last week in class (of which I had felt I handled it badly and was in triage mode the rest of the class period, as well as ruminating all weekend) that as an educator I actually handled myself very well. But, as a counselor, I was holding myself to this supremely high expectation that is not reasonable given my circumstances.

And, in my role of adviser, I am noticing my boundaries loosening quite substantially in the year that I’ve been there. I’m beginning to feel ‘invested’ in these student’s lives, so when one is crying in my office because of crippling anxiety, or proudly sharing their name change to their biological family heritage, I’m finding myself caring, which isn’t to say that I didn’t care before, but I had built a strong mental boundary to eliminate lying in bed at 3am wondering how they are doing or what might help them be more successful. I know the student relationships are what feeds me, but there is the phrase ‘death by chocolate’ for a reason. And the crippling sadness and despair found in many of my student’s is having an effect.

So how do I find the balance? Less counseling in the classroom, in terms of what I expect of myself emotionally, and more counseling in the advising office, in terms of how I deal with boundary issues. But I’m not entirely sure how to do that…

Thoughts? How do you navigate boundaries and self-care and the various roles you have in your life?

Teaching Feels Different this go-round

I successfully finished my first week as a second year teacher. Technically I’ve taught this course 6 times already, so I shouldn’t be nervous, but there’s always the first day jitters when I meet my fresh crop of students and realize “oh God, I’m going to have to get to know them.” And then I meet them and they are such delightful people in their teenage dysfunction, that I can’t help but smile and then turn around and kvetch with my co-instructor.

This year feels much more relaxed. I haven’t been ‘raging against the machine,’ and have accepted the fact that I am getting paid X amount of dollars on my advising days to be available to advise students. Which translates to getting paid X amount of dollars to sit in my office facebooking. And that I might not make huge structural program changes, but I can get involved in professional development and meet some more faculty on campus that can contribute to my overall development as a teacher. It’s exciting.

One professional development that I’ve gotten involved in is on Coursera, which is a MOOC (massive online open community) where I’m taking a course on being a teacher. And by taking a course I mean I’ve logged in a few times and gotten some good ideas, but haven’t actually done much of the work at all. I’m trying to let my perfectionistic student attitude go and just get some info that’s helpful to teaching my students.

I love standing in front of my class feeling relaxed and like I have enough time to go through my materials, while also getting to know students or going with the flow in class. Current event discussion in my afternoon class went a good 15 minutes, rather than 5. Yay! Meant less time for lecture and that we’ll come back to this material on Tuesday, but so be it, that’s going with the flow! If the students are engaged with the material, they are learning. If they are just sitting through a lesson so I can get a lesson in, then that is boring and lame!

I’m tired at the end of the week, but I am also excited and feel even more invested in teaching this course this time. I am actually having to hold myself back from checking my email on my day off, or grading the papers that I could grade on Monday. That energy is so unusual for me!

 

On being labelled “Nice” by my students

This is what a "nice" teacher looks like...

This is what a “nice” teacher looks like…

I have a sharp tongue and a flippant attitude most of the time. A student pops off in class and I give them shit right back, which works well with this population of students. They enjoy sarcasm, jokes, irreverancy. My crisis-counseling and work with other “at-risk” students has prepared me well for the ‘hard knocks’ aspect of teaching these students, and my undergraduate and graduate schooling has taught me well about how to teach the curriculuum in a way that they’ll understand. I often stand in front of my class and feel like a total badass. I’m teaching the students that others are afraid of…we have instructurs here on campus that hear the name of our program and shudder. I mean, there’s some truth in it (one student had been locked in the state penetentiary for 5 years…he’s only 20…I don’t even want to know what got him there), but I am not afraid to get to know them, to teach them life skills and see them grow into the students I know they can be.

So yesterday, and actually a few times in the last few weeks, I’ve been thrown for a loop…my psyche rocked by, what I think they mean as a compliment, as they say: “but you’re so nice.”

Nice.

Apparently a large portion of my students think that I’m a nice teacher.

That rocks my world because I was schooled in the “don’t smile until Christmas” form of teaching that is highlighted in the article Some Terrible Advice I got in College that was freshly pressed this week. But seriously, I was given many of those same lessons, so I find myself shocked when my iron fist is really a smile and my students are actually doing their work (reasonably).

So…why do I balk at this description of me? Is it because of what I was taught about being a tough teacher? Is it because I’m a strong woman and being labelled “nice” makes me think of being weak. Or is it because the running commentary in my head that rarely makes it past my lips is…not-so-nice? Or is it because I often feel frustrated and grumpy in my “real life” and think to myself, “if you only knew, kid, if you only knew”?

Maybe I’m harder on myself than others are on me. Or maybe I’ve internalized this idea that I’m not very nice from my childhood, where I was often punished for whining and wanting things my way (yes, I was a bossypants). Maybe it’s like the time I told someone I was “built like a man,” (because I’m 6’1) and she replied “um, you don’t look like  man at all, you’re pretty and have curves).” So if there’s a body dismorphic disorder equivalent, would it be personality dysmorphic disorder, where one doesn’t have a good understanding of their own personality and how people view them?

Also, do I want to be a nice teacher? Can I be nice AND tough?

How have you dealt with student labels or feedback that doesn’t fit your self-concept?

State of the Union. State of my Mind.

I snapped this picture on MLK Day 2013 in downtown Seattle.

There’s a film of weariness hanging over me that I cannot seem to scrub off. I’m not sure if it’s the long nights with a teething toddler, or the daily reminder that my students are on the wrong side of the education tracks. Always working to gain ground. Never really getting ahead. Never really breaking through the walls. Sure that’s an overstatement, as I just learned of a sweet girl in my Fall quarter who made honor roll, but I also take her privileged homeschool life into account, and think: can all of my students make it? Can 50% of them make it? And what does making it really look like?

I flicked through the radio stations last night and heard snippets of breaking-news-gunfire from the cop-killer standoff and our president’s State of the Union address. I marvelled at how my student’s existence is more like that gunfight scene than the flowery words spouting from the president’s mouth. Perhaps I’m becoming cynical, now that I’m 30 and a mom and have been working with youth and families at-risk for a few years now, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of defeatedness after listening to the brief ideas the president said. Something about a college scorecard and something about making the world a better place, which sounds nice, but doesn’t really cut it, in my opinion.

This idea of a college scorecard, so that parents can know the “bang for their buck” is good, in theory, but what does it really mean in practicality? What does it mean for my first generation students whose parents are looking for a “bang for their buck,” they’re looking for their student to get a job and move out because there are more mouths to feed. These students are on their own, 16, 17, 18, high school dropouts trying to reach the moon and stars and their dreamed-for AA degree. Most won’t make it. Not because we don’t do everything we can to advocate for them, to teach them how to navigate college, and pick majors, but because this-present-moment-life gets in their way, from jobs and babies and losing babies and breaking up and losing jobs, and LIFE gets in their way. But also, their past gets in their way. Choices they’ve made. Choices that have been made on their behalf. Choices that others have made that have affected them.

Mostly I am sad at how these student’s previous educational experience did not prepare them to be here at college. My public school kids were shuffled through like cattle, focusing on standardized tests and not really learning much about themselves, and my homeschooled kids lack an ability to socially interact with people who aren’t exactly like them, and haven’t been exposed to things that they might not agree with, they shut down when even the slightest ‘offensive’ material is presented (like, perhaps, having to decide whether they agree/disagree with innocuous statements like ‘be the change you wish to see in the world,’ or ‘love at first sight.’)

Boof and I go round and round about my own educational experience, having graduated debt-free from college and then having to take out thousands of dollars in loans for my Master’s. I go round and round with my friend Russ about his Sociology class and their lack of preparedness or ability to critically think. I feel like my students are stuck in a votex of propoganda where the message they get is “go to college, it will help you get a good job,” but many lack the ability to succeed in college and who’s to say that a college degree, at least a non-specific one like a general AA or a liberal arts BA will really get you a job. Because the liberal arts BA seems to be the equivilant of the old highschool diploma. Educational inflation.

I chose English because in high school I took classes like English, History, Math and PE. I knew I didn’t like Math, Science was hard, and English seemed interesting. I went to college and figured, “well, I guess I could be a writer, if a miracle happened, or I could teach English.” I mean, I thought I had thought a lot about it, but I really hadn’t. I figured that teaching was at least a job that was connected to a major. I couldn’t fathom all my friends who were Religous Studies majors and then ended up working as admin assistants, not doing anything remotely similar to their degree. What would it have looked like, though, if career and tech classes had been mandatory in HS? What would I have chosen to do if I had been forced into on-the-job training as a dental assistant or dabbled in culinary arts or radiology tech? Instead of the message ‘everyone needs to go to college,’ what if the message was, from a young-age, here are jobs or careers, try them, explore, learn about yourself, do what you’re good at, know that a job won’t bring all the fulfillment that you want so you’ll need hobbies, and go to college if you need to for the career you want, but don’t just go to college because you don’t know what to do and people are telling you to.

I don’t know if the post-secondary system can ever be fixed. I feel like I get my students too late to make a lot of difference. I wish that the upbringing in the K-12 system would equip them for higher education, and I wish that education was affordable and relevant to today’s market. I wish businesses really looked at whether someone would be a good fit for a job, regardless of whether they have a BA or an AA degree. I wish I had more hope than I currently do that it will all settle out and make my student’s lives shiny and good. These people I teach are delightful, with lovely and hard stories, and they deserve to not be failed by an archaic system.

I have a son. He will graduate from high school in 2029. What will the state of the union be then? The state of education?