It’s Never Okay: Eradicating the R Word

“I remember as a teenager, walking through a department store and someone behind me yelled ‘Look at that retard!’” said Potter. “It was hurtful. I remember turning around and saying ‘That’s just not ok! What you called me was just not ok.’”

(abilitypath.org)

 

Recently, I was in an upscale restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia when I heard a couple at the table next to me use the R word.  Because I was shocked that such language was being used in an establishment by individuals whom I believed would never use such language (yes, I acknowledge my incorrect belief in the connection of social norms and social status), I listened more closely to decipher their connotations and use of the word. These adults were using the language in the same manner as students in K-12 and collegiate environments. After this experience, I conducted an informal interview,  where I asked participants the following question: “Is it ever okay to use the R word? ” The respondents’ comments ranged from “the word should never be used” to “one can retard the timing of the engine.” All of the participants were educators, and two have earned PhDs in Special Education from a comprehensive research university and were both practicing special educators. However, a young woman with a master’s degree in education posited that the R word is acceptable if it is not used negatively toward another person.

As an educator, I have witnessed the pain the R word has caused so many of my students. The word is overwhelmingly used negatively toward students with special needs.  I am adamantly opposed to the word being used in any context; however, I question how we, as educators, can combat the institutional history and hegemony of the word. Unlike other hate language (such as the N word or the F word), the R word is rooted within a clinical context. I postulate it is more difficult to change the landscape of hate language when the language has been institutionalized within accepted parameters.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2014), the R word (adjective) is defined as, “held back or in check; hindered, impeded; delayed, deferred.” Further, as an adjective the word is “characterized by deceleration or reduction of velocity.” In 1895, the word was used as a “diagnosed with or characterized by learning difficulties or an intellectual disability; spec. having an IQ below 70; designating a person regarded as mentation deficient; slow, dim, feeble-minded.” In physics the word means, “designating a potential or other parameter of an electromagnetic field in which an allowance is made for the infinite propagation speed of the radiation, the potential due to a distant source being expressed in terms of the state of the source at some time in the past.” As a noun, the word means, “the fact of being slowed down or delayed with respect to action, progress, or development; lateness, slowness; a delay or slowing down,” and can be traced back to 1781. Moreover, as a verb, the R word is defined as, “to hold back, delay, or slow (a person or thing) with respect to action, progress, etc.,” and can be traced back to 1490. Further, as a transitive verb, the word means “to put off to a later time; to defer, postpone, delay.” In 1909, the word became more prominently used within education and psychology as a noun meaning, “a person displaying or characterized by developmental delay or learning difficulties, and a child whose educational progress or level of attainment has fallen behind that expected for his or her age.”

In modern society the word is still being used with two major academic disciplines, music and science. In music, the word is a musical notation that signifies a slowing of tempo that will most likely return to its original tempo at any given point in the piece. For example, one may say “I see the retard on the page”, or “Why don’t we try retarding there.” The use of the word in these instances has no connection to intellectual abilities. Conversely, the word is slowly disappearing within the science community;  the word “retardation” is slowly being replaced with “electrophoretic mobility shift assay” and “mobility shift electrophoresis.” However, the replacement is quite slow, in fact, the change has been occurring since the 1990s.

Although, the above discussion of the word revolves around academic discourse, the reality of the usage is quite troubling. Recently, I was walking across campus and documented hearing the word 7 times in a ten minute walk. Within broader society, the word is also quite prevalent. In 2014, Lebron James, a famous basketball player, used the term (www.ESPN.com ). In another instance, a CEO used the word in reference to how much individuals with special needs should be paid (Huffington Post, 2014).  These are only two examples. From a quick Google search, there are numerous other examples discussing someone using the word in public, predominantly in a negative manner.

Although there appears to be different meanings and uses for the word, a majority of the American population use the word in a hateful manner towards individuals with special needs. The word causes anguish. It is problematic when the word is still used in a clinical manner with students. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a veteran special education teacher who used the R word in our discussions when referencing a clinical diagnosis. This teacher has been teaching for 30 years. When she used the word, I was troubled but did not address her language choice. If she had used the N word or the F word (referring to gay and lesbian students), I would  immediately opposed her language choices.   If I, as an academic researcher and teacher educator, felt apprehensive about addressing the language, how can I expect new teachers to address the word when functioning within the agency of schooling?

As an educator, I believe it is imperative to eradicate the R word from all uses within our society. Our students deserve to learn and live in a safe environment, which is free from all hate language. In this capacity, we must begin contemplating how we are preparing our teacher candidates to combat the language choice in a manner that dismantles the institutionalized acceptance of the R word. Further, as advocates for individuals with special needs, we must begin a grassroots effort to change the way other disciplines use this word. We can no longer accept the use of hate language based on a contextual meaning. Because the word is used in music and maintains a different meaning, it still destroys a marginalized population within the broader society. Thus, we must unravel the institutionalized acceptance of the R word.

I am aware that I am asking for an incredible feat. However, it must be done. All students deserve to attend school and not be disenfranchised and harassed because of difference. Our students deserve a place where they can achieve greatness. The language used in schools and classrooms create an atmosphere that can promote or hinder greatness. We can control that language.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Minutes Matter

As I close this academic year and reflect upon my life as an academic, I am proud of my accomplishments this year. I have signed an academic book contract for my fourth book (which will be released this winter), have published in a top tier academic journal, and have implemented an incredible outreach program to address bullying in a local school district (with a colleague). It has truly been an amazing academic year. Yet, as I reflect on this year, I am reminded of my mission in life, to make schools safe for all students regardless of difference. In contemplating my mission, I was reminded of a chapter from Bullying In Schools: A Professional Development for Educators. Thus, in this blog entry, I want to share the words from one teacher, who truly wants to create safe places for her students. Her words remind us of the powerful interactions we, as educators, have with all of our students. As you read her story, please contemplate how you can make your classrooms and schools, or perhaps the larger society, a safe place for everyone.

 

Minutes Matter

Amy Grimes

 

I have been teaching middle school science for thirteen years in a relatively affluent school in Birmingham, Alabama. During my tenure in the classroom, I have seen hundreds of students come and go. Each year the students bring new challenges and new opportunities for growth and development, both theirs and mine. I have learned many lessons from my students throughout the years; however, one student in particular made a truly remarkable impact on my career several years after he left my classroom.

When you teach middle school, it can take years before you really see the total affect you have had on your students. I received a letter from this former student at the end of my sixth year of teaching. This student made very good grades in middle school, but you could tell he struggled socially. I had heard high school had been an even bigger struggle for him; however, I did not know the gravity of his situation until I received his letter. The letter explained how life had been very difficult for him throughout middle school and high school. He talked about not fitting in with his peers due to his own struggles with his sexual orientation. The bullying he experienced eventually became overwhelming. He was failing high school, and he was suffering physically because of the emotional turmoil he was experiencing on a daily basis. His parents reluctantly pulled him out of high school and sent him to a recovery center for struggling teens. He was eventually able to come to terms with his problems, and he actually graduated high school on time. He was writing to me to thank me for the support and the encouragement that he always felt in my classroom. He said he looked forward to my class each and every day because it was the one hour a day that he felt safe and accepted. As I read his words, I literally wept like a child. It was in that moment that I realized the true impact I had on the lives of my students each day. After reading his letter, I vowed to make students my number one priority. I know that may seem like a strange statement to be making having taught six years already; however, it was in that moment that I realized I had spent the majority of my time during those early years focusing on the curriculum and not the social climate in my classroom.

During my first few years of teaching, I primarily focused on creating and implementing rigorous units filled with engaging activities. Developing these units took an enormous amount of time. As I reflect on those early years, I realize that while I may have done a good job of teaching those units and directing those activities, I was not always aware of the social dynamics within my classroom. I learned in my college courses about the importance of creating a safe environment for my all of students, but survival mode does not always leave time for creating such environment. For example, as a science teacher I require my students to participate in a variety of lab activities throughout the year. Many of these activities are completed within cooperative learning groups. As a new teacher, I often let my students choose their own groups. The majority of my students loved being able to work with their friends, and honestly, that meant I did not have to create the groups myself. I thought this was a time saver. I soon learned, however, that this was often creating a negative social environment for some students in my classroom. I did not stop to consider the students who had a difficult time making friends or those who were not comfortable voluntarily joining groups that were already formed. I have seen first-hand how once students stop feeling safe in your classroom, they also stop learning.

I have also seen how cruel students can be to each other. Middle school students do not hesitate to form tightly knit social groups that are virtually impenetrable. This can make life miserable for the shy or socially awkward student in the classroom. I shudder now to think about how some of those students must have felt each time they came to my class and realized there was a group activity planned for the day. I am sure many of those students felt bullied and ostracized by their peers. I am ashamed that even one child might have felt that way in my classroom. Once I gained a little teaching experience and I really started to see how the social dynamic among my students affected the overall classroom environment, I decided to change my approach. Not only did I decide to stop allowing students to choose their own groups, but I also decided to start creating very diverse groups that changed with each lab activity. I now spend a great deal of time during those first few weeks of school talking to my students about the importance of working with everyone in the classroom. Again, after those first few years of teaching, I realized that many of my students did not even know each other’s names even after weeks of sitting together in the classroom. To me, this was unacceptable. I now begin each year by using a couple of days to get to know my students, and I also require them to get to know each other. Instead of starting the year focused on the first science unit, I try to begin the year focused on interpersonal relationships and creating a safe environment for my all of my students.

I am fortunate to work in a school that does offer a relatively safe environment for all students. There is not an overt problem with bullying within my school. However, I have come to realize that it is the quiet remark made from the back of the classroom, or the random hate word scribbled on a piece of paper and dropped on the floor that can be just as damaging as the stereotypical school yard bully.

I truly began understanding this as I worked on a professional development presentation with my administrators several years ago. The presentation was about social events that impacted the classroom during the last twenty years. Two of the main focuses from the presentation were the shooting at Columbine High School and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In preparing the presentation, we watched news footage covering both of these events. One thing struck me as we watched each story being re-told. Each story was broken down into small time frames with particular details being discussed as each minute passed during both of those horrific events. It was then that I realized minutes matter. Every minute that passed held serious, life-changing consequences for so many people around our nation. It made me stop to think about how many minutes passed each year in my classroom, and how many life-changing consequences occurred with or without my knowledge.  It is not enough for me as a teacher to plan lessons and implement them well. I must also consider the learning environment in which I am presenting the curriculum. As I begin each new school year and each day within that school year, I try to be fully present and fully aware of what is happening among my students.

It was reported that the young men responsible for the shooting at Columbine High School were teased and bullied for years. I often wonder how many teachers overheard or noticed the pain those boys were experiencing. I realize teachers are only human, and sometimes things really do happen without our knowledge. However, I also know that many times those quiet, low-key mean moments that students inflict upon one another go unaddressed. Sometimes, as a teacher, you feel as if you do not have time to stop the daily lesson to address something minor; and, sometimes, as a teacher, you feel unprepared to handle certain situations in the classroom. Again, after years of teaching, I understand now that neither excuse is acceptable. I owe it to my students to be proactive in helping them to feel safe and accepted in my classroom and at school. 

I keep a sticky note on my desk that simply reads “minutes matter” to help remind me of the importance of each passing moment I share with my students. The note is on my desk because most of the quiet, classroom bullying occurs when I am working at or near my desk. I try to be actively involved in my classroom, but sometimes students need quiet time to work on their own. The note simply serves as a reminder to me that I should be aware of what my students are doing and not get lost in grading papers or working on tomorrow’s lesson.

In reflecting over the last thirteen years of my teaching career, I have certainly made some mistakes. There are probably quite a few children who are now adults to whom I owe an apology. To those individuals I am truly sorry. Teaching is about learning. I did not realize thirteen years ago how many lessons I would be learning along the way, but I am thankful for each and every student who helped me get to where I am today. I know that there are many, many lessons still to be learned, and I hope through personal reflection I will continue to find better ways to serve my students and my school. It is my sincerest wish that all teachers would take a step back from simply presenting ideas, and really begin to see the students in the classroom. Together we can combat bullying and create truly safe learning environments. After all, it is only then that we can effectively teach our students.

 

 

Amy Grimes teaches science at Oak Mountain Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama. She received her B.S. in Secondary Education from The University of Alabama. Later, she earned a M.Ed. in School Counseling from the University of West Alabama. She plans to remain in the middle school classroom.

 

To purchase a copy of Bullying In Schools: A Professional Development for Educators, please visit: http://www.amazon.com/Bullying-Schools-Professional-Development-ebook/dp/B00AB1Z4IG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370198709&sr=8-1&keywords=Bullying+in+Schools+a+professional+development

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Academic Bullying: Is a Change Necessary?

Recently, a friend (whom I will call Brian) contacted me inquiring advice concerning a situation at his university. As an untenured faculty member, Brian feels as though he has become the target of what he terms as academic bullying. According to him, a tenured faculty member is seeking the ability to police his pedagogy and classroom practices, among other actions. He feels as though every action he does is being scrutinized by the senior faculty member. According to Brian, his evaluations from his department chair are phenomenal, as are his student evaluations about his courses. He is producing scholarship at an excellent level, and has been reassured by others that he is on track to meet the tenure guidelines, in fact exceeding those guidelines. Yet, he still feels the scrutiny of the senior faculty member; he has even had conversations with his department chair.  However, the bullying continues. Brian enjoys every other aspect of his job, but he is now questioning whether he should seek jobs at other universities because he struggles with the toxicity of the program and questions if the next two years required for tenure are worthy of the internal and external struggles he is facing.

Brian was seeking my advice because my scholarly work is premised on creating tolerance in schools as it relates to homophobia and bullying. Although most of my work examines K-12 school environments, I began contemplating the reality of academic bullying.

I postulate that bullying is the repeated targeting of an individual and is premised on the notion of power and how those in power exert such power over individuals who are less powerful. In this case, there is a tenured faculty member, who for some unknown reason, is exerting his or her power onto Brian. As an untenured faculty member, there is little recourse for Brian because the structure of the collegiate atmosphere does not provide a safe avenue for Brian to counteract the bullying practices of this senior faculty member. In many ways, Brian questions if he pushes forward by sharing his concerns with his dean or others, how will his actions impact his tenure process?

In this situation, bullying strips away Brian’s autonomy. He no longer feels that he can teach his classes according to his own philosophical beliefs about teaching. He questions every action in which he engages. In doing so, it removes the safety and trust that Brian once felt. This lack of trust influences his pedagogy and his influence on his students. In many ways, Brian has changed this pedagogical identity. By this I mean, he has restructured who is as an academic to combat any bullying attempts. In many ways, what Brian has done is synonymous to that of a high school student trying to avoid being harassed by a fellow student.

Bullying in the workplace is not a new concept. There are numerous articles discussing the reality of workplace bullying, yet I have always believed the academy was different. The academy is supposed to be a safe place. It should be a place where we can impact the world through our research and teaching. The academy should be an environment where new thoughts and beliefs are supported. It should not be hostile and unsupportive.

Yet, perhaps I am naïve. Perhaps, the academy is the same as corporate America. Perhaps, that is why tenure is so vitally important. Tenure is the reward for surviving the power structure of the academy. However, as I reflect on academic bullying, I recall several friends who never finished their PhDs because of an advisor who bullied, or as some may call it hazed, them. Thus, perhaps, academic bullying is a normal thing in a number of academic institutions. Perhaps, my personal experiences have shielded me from the reality of a number of other graduate students and fellow academics across the country. My personal experiences have shielded me from Brian’s reality.

I assume we will always have bullies. We will always have those in power who find pleasure in exerting their power over someone else. But unlike K-12 bullying situations, what protects the academic like Brian? In the K-12 environment, I can help create tolerant schools through professional development and other avenues. I can help the adults in charge address the challenges of bullying. Conversely, academic bullying is more problematic.

As an academic, I question how the structures and policies of the academy impact the lives of new academics entering into our world. If a new faculty member, as Brian, is producing amazing scholarly work, is acquiring excellent evaluations, how do we keep him or her from seeking new appointments because of academic bullying? If Brian seeks some type of grievance procedure, what message does that send to his peers and administrators? How will such an action impact his tenure process? Can the shield of academic freedom be enough protection?

As Brian struggles with the decisions he is facing, I propose the academy examine academic bullying and the reality of its influence in the lives of our untenured colleagues. Specifically, how should we handle academic bullying? We know it exists. We know that it has incredible impacts on our faculty peers, our school culture and our graduate students. The academy has a tradition of addressing challenges facing our world. It is now time to examine this challenge.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Un”Normalizing Education and Power: The Path to Creating Tolerant Schools

Being a teacher is what so many of my students believe they are “called” to do. They believe that teaching is the most rewarding and amazing job. Many of my students come into my classroom with a zeal and desire to change the world. A few years later, they walk across a stage in front of their faculty, their parents and their friends with the same desire. It is a desire that controls them. They truly want to make a difference in the lives of children.

As an undergraduate student, I had the same zeal. As a high school English teacher, that same desire controlled each lesson of my secondary teaching career. Now, as an academic in a teacher preparation program, the same desire drives my pedagogy and research. I want to make a difference in the lives of my students, so that, they can make a difference in their future students’ lives. Teaching has that power. Teaching can change lives. It can create a better future for our communities.

Although classrooms should be places that engender safety and support, for many students the opposite is true. Schools should be environments where students are protected. Yet,  it is evident that schools have become places where many students are afraid, unsupported, and hurting. As teachers, we must change our classrooms and schools. We must begin reconceptualizing our pedagogical power and its role in creating safe learning environments for all students.

In order to truly create safe schools for all students, I posit that we must use our power to begin “un”normalizing education. By “un”normalizing, I mean a process of breaking free from the structured definitional aspects of socialized normative ideologies. In essence, “un” normalizing involves a demystifying and deconstructing how social normative ideologies perpetuate hatred and intolerance towards difference. It involves a process in schooling that challenges individuals to engage in a critical examination of how their beliefs about others have been socially constructed. 

As I argue in my scholarly work, bullying is premised on the notions of difference. In such a capacity, the community determines what and who are different through the process of social normalization. Every community does this. We learn as children what it means to be masculine, what it means to be able, what it means to be smart, what it means to be pretty, and so forth. As children, we learn what behaviors and appearances are acceptable and which ones are unacceptable. In doing so, we learn to embrace the acceptable ones and reject the unacceptable one. As children, we learn to be intolerant of others because of difference. This intolerance leads to bullying and targeting the “otherness” in our schools and communities.

Because schools are reflections of the community in which they are situated, I argue schools reinforce the social constructions that communities construct. Thus, schooling becomes a process to reinforce the constructed beliefs of the community. Therefore, in order to make schools safe for all students, we must begin “un”normalizing education. We must begin dismantling the social constructions that our broader communities have constructed. In doing so, schooling becomes a process of teaching tolerance and acceptance. We must begin teaching our students the importance of tolerance. We must teach them the power of their language and their behaviors. Students must conceptualize how intolerance impacts others.  

I postulate “un”normalizing education involves the purposeful intent of educators to illuminate to others how social norms impact and perhaps destroy individuals’ lives. This can be done through literature (at all levels), through explicit conversations with students, through engaging in reflective practices (perhaps journal writings), through addressing all bullying behavior and language, and so forth. In doing so, “un”normalizing education involves the recognition of how society labels difference and then a rejection of society’s label.

 “Un”normalizing education is not an easy task. It involves addressing years of social hegemony. It involves grappling with social constructions that have been constructed within an oppositional framework: he is not as smart as others; he is not as masculine as others; he is not “like” others, and so forth. It is difficult. But, it is something that we must do. We must dismantle the oppositional framework; so that, the “otherness” is no longer compared to the “normal.” In doing so, we dismantle the concept of difference, which leads to the creation of a more tolerant school. Although it is difficult, we can do it. We can use the power of teaching to positively impact the lives of our students, our schools and our communities. We can make schools safe for everyone.  

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Bullying and Intolerance: Parents’ Role in Creating Safe Schools

Recently, one of my college students made the following statement, “how can I teach tolerance when so many parents have anti-tolerant beliefs?” After reflecting, I realized her question was incredibly valid. Bullying is a tremendous problem in schools. In fact, national media recently discussed how another student committed suicide because of bullying. It is such a tremendous problem that national anti-bullying campaigns and anti-bullying legislation have become normal occurrences in many states.  

As a college professor, I instruct teachers to teach tolerance as a method to combat bullying in schools. I instruct my students to use children’s books such as The Princess Boy, and others. I encourage secondary teachers to utilize literature with marginalized characters to open classroom discussions about difference.  Although I and my colleagues believe that these avenues (and many more) can be viable ways to teach tolerance and combat bullying, there are numerous examples of educators teaching tolerance, only to have parents complain that those actions are unacceptable. Many parents will object to discussing a book about a little boy wearing a princess dress. Many parents will proclaim that teaching tolerance through a children’s book that discusses same sex parenting or multi-racial families is abhorrent.

I posit that curriculum and teachers are the best avenues to address bullying in schools. Yet, parents must hold some accountability. Parents are the prime architects of their children’s belief systems. Parents reinforce or dismantle what their children learn in school. It becomes problematic when children learn that racism is not a nice way to treat African Americans at school, and when they return home they learn the opposite. Or, when students learn that non-heterosexual students should not be harassed or bullied, and at home parents teach that such individuals deserve the pain that they receive. If a child is taught to be tolerant of others and parents disagree, what message does that send to the child? If a child is taught in school that racism is unacceptable, and at home racism is common, how can we create a  tolerant community?

Therefore, we must begin contemplating the role that parents play in their children’s bullying practices. Please consider the following: If I allow my underage child to drink alcohol with his friends in my home, I may be responsible for any consequences that may arise as a result of driving intoxicated, alcohol poisoning, etc. As a parent, I am under some legal ramifications for the actions of my child. Why does the same principle not apply to bullying in schools? If I teach my child that non-heterosexual students are abominations to God and should be harassed, then should I not be responsible in some way for the emotional pain that my child caused another human being? If I teach my child that all African Americans are horrible people, should I not be accountable for the racist bullying that my child thrusts upon another student?  After all, intolerance is taught to a child; it is not an innate characteristic of the child. Thus, some accountability should be placed on parents.

Every day in this country a child is bullied for being different. Kids are bullied for being non-white, non-heterosexual, non-able, non-intelligent, non-skinny, and the list goes on. Schools are supposed to be safe for all students. Each day parents and guardians leave their children in places where other children devalue them. In many of these cases, teachers are attempting to create safe schools that value difference, yet, their actions are thwarted by parents. Thus, it is imperative that we begin to explore the role parents play in the process of bullying.

It is my hope that bullying will disappear, and all children can attend schools that are safe. All students deserve safe environments in which to learn and grow. For that to happen, schools and parents must teach tolerance together. We must all teach that we don’t have to agree with another’s belief system, but each person has the right to live a bully-free and safe life, in schools and in our community.  

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Resolutions, Resolutions, Resolutions

As the New Year approaches, I must say that I have become reflective on life and have contemplated making New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions are not something that I typical construct. However, this year may be different. In discussing my resolutions, I will not bother you with the details of personal dreams of working out more, or saving more money, or vacationing more. Rather, I would like to focus on my academic journey and my resolutions in that area.

Over this past year, I have published four academic articles and currently have five under review. I have presented at 15 conferences (international, national, regional and state). I have served on several committees, mentored students in academic research and started a new research project. I have even been interviewed on NPR and filmed a documentary. Academically and professionally, I believe that I am at a reputable place. However, as I reflect on this year and my journey, I have concluded that perhaps my resolutions should rest within other areas.

When I was in my PhD program, I had no idea that I was beginning a dissertation that would be so necessary and relevant to today’s educational community.  Over this past year, 24 students committed suicide because of bullying. These students are only the ones that received media attention. I talk to parents often about how their children are being harassed in schools.  I believe it is safe to say that bullying in our schools has become an epidemic. We have created a culture in schools where social power is literally destroying the lives of so many students. Thus, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more accessible to practicing teachers who want to make a difference and eradicate this problem. The articles that I have published and the ones under review are academic and necessary for tenure, but I wonder how many practicing teachers will read them. How many administrators in their busy days will take time to read a theoretical piece about contextual oppositions and how those oppositions dictate our constructions of hate language? I would guess few will. In fact, those articles will probably be akin to Ross’ dissertation from the “Friends” sitcom.

Yet, our students are still hurting. Thus, I resolve to be more active in the everyday actions of schools and engaged in the lives of practicing teachers on the front lines. I resolve to make schools better—not just from an academic lens, but from the everyday lives of teachers who want to make a difference. Personally, I believe that the academy has constructed a place where most scholars do not enter into the “real lives” of the people our research impacts. On so many levels, academics write and publish for other academics. The Ivory Tower, in many cases, has become an academic monastery. We are cloistered away from the “real world.” Thus, I resolve to reenter the crazy world of the classroom. I resolve to partner with teachers and help create a difference in a child’s life.  

Secondly, I resolve to be a better teacher.  By this, I mean to stretch beyond my comfort zone to try a different type of pedagogy. For years, we have been taught that academics should teach in a certain manner and conduct class in an almost proscribed way. Yet, what if the English professor in “Dead Poet’s Society” was correct? What if the world does look differently when viewed from atop the desk? If we never experienced our classrooms from atop that desk, then we would continue to have only one view of our classrooms, and that view would continue to guide our pedagogy. Therefore, I want to re-examine my classroom practices. I want to stand atop my desk and reach outside my pedagogical comfort zone.  

Finally (and because three seems to be the magic resolution number), I resolve to always remember why I became an academic, because that memory should guide my career and my new upcoming year. I became an academic not because I wanted to be a member of the 1% of the population club, nor was it because of the enormously high salary and prestige (insert sarcastic smile). I became an academic because I truly wanted to make a difference in schooling. As a high school English teacher, I became aware that schools are broken. Schools are broken for the students who are not “white enough” or “wealthy enough” or “smart enough” or “straight enough.” Schools are broken for the ones who did not come from the “right family” or from the “right side of the tracks.” As an English teacher, I could make an impact in my classroom. But, I wanted more. I wanted to make a difference in the world of schooling.

In the chaos of the university, it is easy to get “caught up” in the politics of the academy. It is extremely easy to focus all of one’s energy on attaining tenure and appropriate evaluations. It is easy to get angry about accreditation rituals and necessary data needed by the accreditation gods and goddesses. Like every other career, it is easy to lose one’s love and purpose for entering said career. Thus, I resolve to remain focused on why I am an academic. Tenure and the politics of the academy will remain, and work themselves out. Accreditation will always be necessary. But, if I lose my initial desire to change the process of schooling, then I have done nothing but become the lost tragic hero who sold his desire for something far less worthy. I become the angry and bitter person without a vision and a purpose.

For some, resolutions are methods for making tremendous life changes. For others, resolutions are “fads” and a status update for Facebook. Not being a regular New Year’s resolution maker, I wanted to resolve to make attainable and purposeful changes in my academic journey. Perhaps next year, my resolutions will be to win an Oscar, a Nobel Prize, and become Secretary of Education. Unless, O’Bama is reading this now and he wants me to begin ASAP.  Because, I can begin now Mr. President.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Meliora, Meliora, Meliora

With just hours away from the beginning of a new academic year, my mind is reliving the beginning hours of my first academic year at the University of Rochester. It was a cool early August evening. I parked my car and walked onto the Eastman Quad.  The majestic library and its dome illuminated the darkening sky. Dewey Hall, the education building, was on my right. The ivy seemed to engulf the buildings. I had left my high school English classroom in Atlanta and moved to the frigid cold of an upstate New York winter. I sat in the grass and wondered if I had made the correct choice for my PhD program.

As a PhD student there for nine years, I was enamored with the university’s motto. It was something that others chanted occasionally, and it was always inscribed in a stone in some building on campus or an advertisement. “Meliora” is Latin and translates as “ever better.”  It is the motto of a university community whose mission is to create individuals, families and communities whose purpose should be to strive for making the world in which they live better. It is a motto that proclaims a desire to never settle nor become satisfied, because we can always make the world better for someone else.  It is a motto, we should all embrace.

Many years later and on my second academic appointment, the word still permeates my mind. As a professor in a teacher preparatory program, “meliora” should be a constant drum beat within my classroom, my office and my scholarly work. “Meliora” should be my catalyst that guides my desire (as Maxine Greene wrote) to strive to live “in the extraordinary.”

While preparing teachers to enter into the chaos of public education, I realize the need for “meliora” is great. NCLB has destroyed our classrooms. Grading and assessment has created students who no longer care about learning but rather focus on numerical representation, and such a representation perpetuates the hegemony of schooling.  I believe our schools are broken. They are broken for the students who do not come from “wealthy enough” or “white enough” or “straight enough” or “smart enough” families. Schools have become places where “social food chains” control the educational process. Schools need “meliora.”

As I embark on this new academic year, I believe it is my job to help make schools “ever better.”  It is my job to create teachers who will enter into the classroom wanting to change the atmospheres of their schools. I must show students in my courses that “mediocrity” is not enough. I must show them that to expect a child to be average is the same as telling the child that he or she is a failure. It is my job to prepare teachers to make their classrooms and schools better. Such a task is not easy. It is hard to erase the current mentality of schooling and create change. But, we must try.

As the new academic year begins for both K-12 and higher education, it is imperative that we begin to embrace “meliora.” We must begin creating better places for our students to grow, to learn and to experience. We have to create classrooms where the love of Faulkner trumps a numerical grade. We have to create classrooms where the “isms” in life are not welcome- where hate language is no longer acceptable. We must create school communities where we all embrace a new possibility, the possibility of not being the same but being “ever better.”  We must do this because our communities need it. Our schools need it. But, most importantly our students need it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized