MAGAZINE FEATURE

Witness

What happens when the role of guest and substitute teachers is complicated through witnessing racism, sexism, prejudice or other mistreatment?
Illustration by R. Gregory Christie

All names in this story have been changed.

A young boy stands alone in the hallway, arms crossed over his face in the shape of an X. He fidgets and leans against the cream-colored brick wall.

This is Treyvon, a 5th-grader at a public elementary school in a major American city, a boy who writes about the darkness whispering to the light in my creative writing classes, a boy inspired by the poetics of the ecosystem.

Recognizing him as I leave school for the day, I stop to ask, "Why are you standing here, Treyvon?"

He peers at me through the space made by his elbow and forearm, then flops his arms to his side, letting them hang limp, loose. "She just doesn't listen to me," he says. "She doesn't hear my side of the story."

Treyvon is talking about Ms. Sanchez, his 5th-grade teacher and my teaching partner. She is one of three 5th-grade teachers with whom I collaborate on a creative writing project related to their study of the ecosystem. I've worked with their classrooms for six weeks and have come to know the students through the honesty of their poems and stories.

I've also learned about the teaching styles of three very different 5th-grade teachers, Ms. Sanchez being, by far, the strictest. I've learned to navigate her concerns, and we've become adept at making compromises as artist and teacher, finding common ground between poetic rambling and "testable" knowledge.

When it comes to discipline, however, it's a different story. During my six weeks in Ms. Sanchez's class, I've noticed that Treyvon has been routinely ridiculed, punished or singled out for his behavior. As a Teaching Artist, I'm there only once a week, so I don't know what Treyvon is like when I'm not around. When I am there, however, Treyvon is gentle and respectful; in no way has his behavior warranted the kind of ridicule dished out by Ms. Sanchez.

I've watched Ms. Sanchez abruptly give up on Treyvon because he doesn't answer quickly enough for her. She throws her arms up in the air, exasperated, and mumbles a discouraging remark about him in front of the class.

Treyvon is African American, and I wonder if racism — unspoken, perhaps even unconscious — affects Ms. Sanchez's relationship with him.

And now Treyvon stands in the hallway, his lower lip quivering: "She tells me I need special ed, that I don't know nothing. She tells me I'm bad, but there are other bad boys in that class. Why she just gotta pick on me?"

I speak up: "You might be right, Treyvon, that she picks on you. You should tell your parents. Or tell another teacher here. If you want, I might be able to say something to someone. You just let me know..."

As I speak, I suddenly become aware of my place, my role in this school. Am I getting in the way of his punishment? If Ms. Sanchez sees me here, will she be upset?

Just then, as if beckoned, Ms. Sanchez taps on the glass window of her door and peers out at us, grinning. She points to Treyvon and then starts to wrap an imaginary rope around her neck, tugging sharply to make her head drop limp to her shoulder, sticking her tongue out like she's playing dead. Then she lifts her head and grins, pointing to Treyvon with a menacing face, eyebrows narrowing on her forehead. Throwing me a short wave, and still grinning, Ms. Sanchez disappears back into the classroom.

A chill passes through me.

History comes rushing in — a legacy of lynching, persecution, oppression, threats. How could Ms. Sanchez make that gesture toward Treyvon? Does she have any idea what that implies or conjures beyond the specificity of this moment, of this hallway and this 5th-grade boy standing impatiently in it?

I look over at Treyvon, whose head hangs low. "See?" he asks me. "She hates me."

"She doesn't hate you, Treyvon," I say, but I'm not so sure about that.

I put a hand on Treyvon's shoulder and tell him to hang in there. "See you next Tuesday," I promise.

 

Lingering questions

Teaching Tolerance illustration with a African American student in hands over his eyes while watched by a concerned teacher

I leave the school disturbed and confused about what I should say or how I might confront Ms. Sanchez. I am a guest at the school through a complex partnership involving educators, grantors, principals, art education managers, executive directors and students.

The success of my work as a Teaching Artist hinges on warm, communicative relationships with all of these people. To confront Ms. Sanchez is to risk sounding accusatory, judgmental or critical. After all, I'm there only once a week; who am I to judge what goes on in a single moment between teacher and student?

But other questions persist.

When I witness demoralizing, degrading and potentially damaging behavior, how do I respond as one who educates as opposed to one who reprimands? How do I speak out as a voice of justice as opposed to one of admonishment? I don't care how "bad" Treyvon behaved in class, nothing he could have done warranted the behavior I witnessed from Ms. Sanchez.

What's disturbing to me is that she so readily made that gesture without thinking about it. I wonder whether she would she have done the same thing to a Caucasian or Latino student. Perhaps. But the fact that it was done toward Treyvon, one of only two African Americans in her class, made the whole thing suspect.

So why didn't I say anything right away? I thought about this incessantly in the days following the incident. I spoke with fellow Teaching Artists and others. Everyone shook their heads in disbelief, eager to engage in heartfelt conversations regarding race, ethnicity and their own tales of social injustice witnessed during their work as Teaching Artists in public schools.

We all seemed at a loss as to how to handle these situations. Most assured me that what stopped them from confronting the teacher or the principal in these cases was the knowledge that little or nothing would be done to follow through with the concern at hand; there really is no protocol in place for witnessing these moments of indiscretion between teacher and student.

From Witness to Change Agent

Amanda Lichtenstein reviewed her situation with several of her Teaching Artists colleagues, including Joel Wanek, photographer/musician; Maia Morgan, interdisciplinary artist; Jamie Topper, musician/sculptor; and Tricia Hersey, poet.

 

Together, they developed action steps for such moments:

  • Trust your instincts. If you witness moments of social injustice within a public school, believe it and allow yourself to process it.

     

  • Develop a plan of action. If you feel comfortable, talk with your colleague immediately. If not, communicate the experience to a peer, supervisor, school liaison or friend within the field. Find a mediator if necessary, or invite a third party into the classroom for observation.

     

  • View yourself as an agent of change. Address social injustice in the schools with openness and clarity. You are not an agitator, you're an educator. Teach awareness. Teach respect. Teach love.

     

How we choose to go about being a change agent also matters. Approaching colleagues with feedback is a delicate dance. Consider these first steps:

  • Ask probing questions. Start with, "I was curious about what you thought regarding...." Or, "I was wondering what you felt when you did/said...." Provide space for the other person to realize that what he or she has done is inappropriate.

     

  • Embrace "and." When confronting someone, how you say something is as important as what you are saying. Instead of "I understand, but ..." say "That's true for you, and I think..." "And" allows both speakers to feel heard and provides a way to articulate opposing views without negating others' perceptions

     

Speaking up, speaking out

The Teaching Artist as witness plays a unique role in classroom culture in that we often have the vantage point of distance. We experience the culture of any given classroom as a guest — at best, a respected artist, at worst, a handy babysitter. In any case, we adhere to rules and rhythms previously established by the classroom teacher, where more often than not, a sense of community is determined by how persistently a teacher pushes for it.

Perhaps we're not all in it for the same reasons. Perhaps we don't all share the same vision for children in public schools — to think critically and creatively about who and what we are as human beings. Or maybe teachers start with optimism and awareness before spiraling toward burnout. I'm sure, too, that Teaching Artists enter classrooms rooted in their own assumptions and prejudices regarding race, class and social justice.

We have very little language in place to confront the kind of gesture made by Ms. Sanchez. Or at least I didn't have the words that day. I didn't possess the words or the courage I needed to address the situation, to speak up and say, Excuse me, — what you just did is unacceptable. Instead, my own fears and worries rushed in — about overreacting to what would have been an event that disappeared without a witness had I not been passing through the hallway that day.

When I say speak up — and out — I mean not just to address racism and verbal abuse in the classroom but also to admonish the sheer violence inherent in gestures such as the one made by Ms. Sanchez that day in the hallway. Whether it was race related or not, the brutality of her gesture was enough to send a debilitating message to Treyvon — one that says he's expendable and extinguishable, one that's so nestled in an old-school paradigm of power that it surfaces spontaneously without a doubletake.

In Ms. Sanchez's defense, I honestly think she would explain her gesture as playful and provocative, in no way serious enough to have a lasting impact.

But when I saw Treyvon's face in the hallway, his body standing limp and defeated, arms crossed at his chest, I saw nothing playful. What I saw was a very demoralized little boy.

In the end, I don't know how much I helped him. I immediately discussed what I had witnessed with other Teaching Artists and professional colleagues. I met with Treyvon later to see how he was feeling. But I never confronted the teacher nor mentioned it to her principal. Instead, I felt embarrassed that I couldn't find the courage to articulate my concern. That courage, I realize now, comes only when speaking up is considered an act of love and not of derision.

 

'To transform the world'

Often, it's easier to ignore or forget what we witness as Teaching Artists in the schools for fear of making waves, losing work, jeopardizing partnerships or being seen as agitators.

It's also difficult to raise these issues because there is already so much negative press about America's public schools and we want to be the voice of what's working.

It's true: We witness the genius and tenderness of public education rendered every day by devoted and creative teachers within urban classrooms.

But it's also true that most of us encounter injustice in our work as Teaching Artists, simply because of the nature in which we float from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood, experiencing every kind of person, every kind of classroom.

So when we speak up and out about that which calls our humanity into question, it's to continue that push for justice and openness in our nation's classrooms.

In the words of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, "to exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. To speak a true word is to transform the world."

Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, a poet and educator, is currently a master's candidate in the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Teaching Tolerance collage of images

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