Steven Singer's "Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform" is a courageous, stereotype-shattering book which presents the nation's public school teachers with a powerful weapon in their defense
It is courageous because it takes on racism and white supremacy as toxic forces not only in the lives of students and people of color, but in the thinking and action of white educators. Singer challenges white teachers to interrogate and confront their own racism, arguing that they cannot serve their students, and their profession, without undertaking this painful task. He begins with himself, discussing how even white people with the best intentions have privileges relative to their friends, colleagues and even family members of color. He does this in conversational language whose meaning is unmistakable, even though he draws on history and social science research to support his arguments. The directness of his approach may offend some people- telling people "I am a racist and you are too" leaves little room for evasion- but the arguments he provides are not that easy to refute, and present a challenge to those he angers which they may well return to when they calm down.
Because challenging racism is not all that Singer does. He also takes on virtually every policy and initiative which devalues and undermines public schools and public school teachers- from charter schools, to test based accountability, to schools closings and privatization- no matter what political party or ideological stance it uses as cover. Indeed, Singer may actually be harder on Democrats than Republicans, arguing, in his brilliant opening chapter, that Arne Duncan and John King were far more dangerous enemies of public education than Betsy Devos, and that public schools will have no problem surviving an assault from Donald Trump after facing 8 years of hostility from Barack Obama.
And herein lies the stereotype shattering power of Singer's work.
Why? Because the very publication of a brilliant, anti racist book by a teacher working in a public middle school challenges the entire narrative of public school failure promulgated by School Reformers, from Arne Duncan, to Bill Gates, to Eli Broad and Rahm Emmanuel to the leaders of Teach for America. What those individuals have tried to convince the public, and especially political and economic elites, is that the nation's public school teaching staffs are filled with incompetents, people drawn from the weakest student cohorts at the lowest ranked universities. Replacing those teachers with students from top colleges, they have argued, even those with no classroom experience, is a precondition for improving the nation's schools. This insulting view of public schools teachers, perhaps best conveyed in the comments of Arne Duncan and former NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is not only refuted by the arguments in Singer's book, it is challenged by the emergence and growth of the organization Singer represents, The Badass Teachers Association, which is filled with tens of thousands of working public school teachers all over the nation whose dynamism and courage gives the lie to narrative of public school stagnation that Reformers have used as an argument for school privatization.
It also gives the lie to the argument that "bad teachers" in classrooms serving students of color are the primary reason for the persistence of educational and economic inequality in the nation. Singer whose passion for racial justice leaps off every page, is profoundly devoted to the students of color in his classroom, and he challenges his peers to strive for greater Cultural Competence and self-awareness as integral parts of their professional mission. It would be tempting to write off Singer as an outlier or exception except for one stubborn fact- tens of thousands of teachers read his blog posts religiously and are struggling. on a daily basis, to make public schools better serve their students at a time, when wage policies, housing policies and the expansion of the prison industrial complex put them under severe and growing stress.
Steve Singer is a national treasure. His "Gadfly on the Wall"is a clarion call for public school teachers to rise up, not only to defend their schools and communities, but to take the lead in the fight for racial justice.
It is a book whose time has come.