Friday, November 14, 2014

Rising Violence in Schools Serving Predominantly Black and Latino Students- by Justin Williams:

Over the last ten years, I have worked as a certified English teacher in a high school in Long Island, New York, a suburb of New York City.  I am in my seventeenth year working in public education.  I have taught various courses in four different school districts on Long Island that range from grades six to twelve.  Children and adolescents, whether they are school shooters or gangbangers, do not become violent without cause.  None of them were born violent.

I tend to connect the rise in school violence in my suburban school district, 95% of which is African American and Hispanic, to the recent economic downturn and education policy insidiously devoted to teacher, principal and school evaluations tied to standardized testing of students.  These students have been exposed to school curriculum, said testing, and “raised” standards (Common Core) conceived by politicians, economists and billionaires, not professional and long-time education practitioners who would know much, much better how to make our public schools the envy of the world (again).  They have also been victimized by inflexible “zero tolerance” policies with mandatory minimum suspension periods, as well as increased in-school surveillance and security measures that prepare chocolate and caramel students much more for the realities of prison than they do a safe existence.

I have noticed great family uprooting provoked by the trickle-down effects of the predatory mortgage-lending thievery that targeted chocolate, caramel and other relatively poor folks, all over America.  This crime against humanity precipitated global economic catastrophe.  American school children were affected too.  My students were affected.

Largely (but not only) because of this dreadful event in our history, violence escalated in my community (I live in the town where I work), inside and outside of our schools, largely made up of the same demographic hoodwinked by bankers and lawyers who knew exactly what they were doing yet, remain unpunished.  So many of these kids do not or cannot live with their parents (realistically homeless) that new categorical terms like “displaced” or “unaccompanied youth” have been recently coined for them in schools. These kids are angry, don't feel protected by any adults, yet we're asking them (forcing them) to do coursework and take tests they cannot and do not wish to do. They need therapy. And skills with which they can function in the workforce.

There have been numerous fights and assaults over the last decade in the secondary settings of my district, steadily escalating in severity.  Adult professionals have been grabbed, groped or assaulted.  A troubled young man, a recent graduate of our high school, shot himself in the head in a backyard next to mine.  I heard the shot clearly.  A kid was stabbed in a cafeteria.  About two-dozen young men have been killed in our community or neighboring community, school districts with no more than seven thousand kids.  I could not find many of these incidents in the local news.  I’m talking about a middle class town where the median income is $70,000.  This is not a stereotypical ghetto.  

Presently and throughout the past two years, a huge influx of Central American kids with harrowing stories to tell of their journeys to New York have and are adding to the socio-emotional quagmire of the schools (students, teachers and administrators are emotionally, morally and ethically drained, strong as we try to be) in my district. Gangs like MS-13 are replenishing their ranks with Hispanic boys adrift in an American ocean of ambivalence aimed squarely in their direction.  Others wish to learn enough English so they can work.  Too many received little education in their native countries.  Few of them are that interested in coming to our schools for anything else, save food.  The Common Core has zero relevance to them.  Z.E.R.O.

If my students find irrelevant the Common Core, as well as for-profit corporations like Pearson who greatly benefit from its ill effects, then Pearson and the Common Core are irrelevant to me.

I don’t need “the state” telling me how and what to teach.  By paying close attention to the dreams, goals and/or likes and dislikes of my students (they always tell you or show you when they know you care), I know precisely what I need to teach, how I need to teach it, and when I ought to do so.  When you can get ten or fifteen re-writes on a research assignment from kids prone to extremely disturbing, violent episodes, not only do you have fodder for great work, but you also have young people who are not thinking about being angry (for the time being).

Every teacher cannot and will not become a master teacher.  Every doctor cannot and will not become a brain surgeon.  Every lawyer cannot and will not become a famous defense attorney.  Every mechanic or welder cannot and will not gain his or her own business.  Every politician cannot and will not become Commander in Chief.

There is no profession, organization or country that thrives because of its talented tenth.  Though often driven by the talented few, average, hard-working people are the engine that makes progress happen.  Most teachers are average, hard-working, women committed to educating the children of others.  You do not need to be a Marie Curie to teach, any more than you need to be Babe Ruth to be a professional baseball player.

The big failure of the current school reform debate is that creating great teachers is talked about much more than the creation of great homes.  But even the very best teachers are unable to perform consistent miracles with our most angry, violent students; no more than a doctor can treat an emotionally volatile patient or a lawyer adequately interview a hostile witness.  In these scenarios, the doctor and lawyer are not typically viewed as the areas to be addressed.

Angry, violent, aggressive students, on average, do not come from stable, healthy homes.  Schools full of violent kids and fearful adults are rare in societies that are generally non-violent.  But blaming professional educators is easy.  Re-energizing and empowering the American family unit is harder.

But not impossible.

Justin holds a B.S. in English education and a M.Ed. in education administration from The Pennsylvania State University, a certificate of advanced studies (C.A.S.) in educational leadership from Hofstra University and he is working on a doctorate degree (Ed.D.) in educational and policy leadership at Hofstra University.