Making it through two years teaching English at a public middle school in Brooklyn hardly qualifies me to define what it means to be a radical or queer educator. However, one lesson I have quickly learned is that for teachers anecdotes can be crucial building blocks of community and direction. Keeping that in mind, I’m sharing my experiences and reflections as a 23-year-old, white, dyke-identified, visibly genderqueer, recent Ivy League graduate oriented towards social justice and educational equality.
What my queer and social justice sensibilities have fostered in me over the past two years, more than anything, is a desire to shift away from traditional pedagogical power dynamics. My school’s student population is overwhelmingly non-white, and over ninety percent of students receive government subsidized lunches. My school is also one of innumerable public schools in the United States in which obedience or “being good” seems to be among the most emphasized traits. These facts are not coincidental, as anyone who has taken a glance at the New York City public education system can glean.
Ultimately, I am happy to have landed at my school. It is considered a better place to be, both as a teacher and as a student, than many schools in Brooklyn. But this fact itself attests to the infuriating discrepancies between white- and upper-class-dominated schools pushing their students to challenge what they learn and underfunded schools in which students who are mostly low-income minorities are applauded for forming straight lines in the hallway. The silent lunches imposed upon students at my school when they are disobedient is one manifestation of the overwhelming segregation – in terms of class, race, and the allocation of government funding – of schools in New York City.
Thinkers like Michel Foucault and Angela Davis have gone into detail explaining how schools can serve as pipelines either towards or away from the prison industrial complex. As it stands, even relatively stable schools like mine end up channeling a shocking number of children of color into the criminal justice system via ACS, juvenile detention facilities, or high schools with abysmal graduation rates. Even well-meaning teachers, deans, and assistant principals end up feeling pressure to “get rid” of “problem students.” Threats from teachers, along the lines of “If you don’t sit silently, you’ll be thrown into In-House” or “If you don’t shape up, I’ll have you out of this school before you know it” are commonly heard by students. It is crucial to also consider the disadvantages faced by LGBTQ students in such a culture of condemning “deviant” behavior.
I want to resist these trends to rule by threats and prison-like punishment, but I’ve recently found myself resorting to some teacher authority trips that mortify me. My hope that an individual teacher can affect change, despite being mired in such a convoluted web of oppression, ebbs and flows. I constantly struggle with so-called classroom management in part because I am unsure what a “safe” classroom looks like. The models I have seen of ideal classrooms show students as robots who are terrified to step out of line, let alone shake things up with a controversial opinion.
This lends me to believe that “safe” isn’t a particularly useful word unless its meaning is clearly delineated. I want to push students, and I want every single one of my students to feel “safe” to intellectually challenge themselves and each other. Clearly, I must not allow some students to ruin other students’ learning opportunities, or to discourage other students from participating in class – but how do I do this? Simply banishing students from my classroom to sit in the hallway is not ultimately effective. Tactics such as this and sending students to In-House Suspension only perpetuate the deeply problematic myth that students who are “bad” (and whom the teacher self-authorizes to designate as such) should be weeded out, isolated, and deemed hopeless. One of the most horrifying thoughts I have ever had as a teacher is “I wish that student would just disappear.”
I have begun to notice recently that many of the classroom management “problems” that occur in my classroom have more to do with my attitude and reaction than with student behavior. If I feel particularly impatient and defensive on any given day, I sometimes make the mistake of taking what a student does or says as a personal attack on myself. In these moments, I have lost sight of the fact that though the way I comport and present myself in my classroom has a profound affect, none of what happens in the classroom is about me. I need to be conscious of my own positioning in my classroom, and the fact that my responsibility as a teacher is to meet my students where they are intellectually, emotionally, and developmentally.
When I was able to address a students’ use of the word “faggot” in the hallway without taking it personally, I discovered that he had no idea what the word actually meant. Due to the popularity of “faggot” as an all-purpose insult, I conducted a language study of “faggot” with my classes. The study confirmed, for the most part, what I had already suspected: Most of my students did not associate “faggot” with homophobia but simply recognized it as the most potent insult society-at-large had provided them. An overwhelming number of my students thought that it was specifically an insult to “fat people” because of the linguistic similarities between “fat” and “fag.” Tracing the history of the word “faggot” provided a window into the way words change over time that my students appreciated and paid a great deal of respect.
Teachers who assert that middle schoolers are “too young” or “too immature” to handle complex discussions of identity are either out of their minds or determined to repress students’ intelligence. This belief is the crux of my attempts at radical and queer pedagogy, which involve more than simply inserting LGBT or minority authors into curricula. Queer pedagogy entails pushing students to think critically about issues of power, identity, race, sexuality, gender, and class, and opening (rather than shutting) discourse. This requires a certain amount of respect for students that is difficult for any teacher to maintain due to the threat of having one’s authority undermined.
Therefore, the question is: Is this even possible to attain while simultaneously preparing my students for the standardized tests that determine so much of their educational future?