What Teachers Need

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Kim Davis earned her B.A. in French and Religious Studies from the University of Alabama in 2003. She went on to get her Masters in French Linguistics and Literature in 2007 and a Masters in Secondary Language Pedagogy in 2010, both from UA. Kim now teaches French and Mythology at Tuscaloosa County High School.

I recently attended the annual conference of a K-12 teacher professional organization. I hoped to gain some urgently needed CEUs (continuing education credits), but I also hoped to confront the serious issues facing public education today through engaging seminars.

I was sadly mistaken.

What I encountered, instead, was the same regurgitated platitudes, cutesy acronyms, multiple power point handouts, and the trendy post-it note(primarily used to flag portions of the text that relate to students or as an “exit slip” for students to list one thing they learned from the lecture). Fortunately, this conference led me to an “a-ha” moment that helped me formulate what I see as a problem in professional development for our K-12 teachers.

For instance, I found one lecture, titled “Understanding Poverty,” as extremely problematic. It was intended to help teachers understand and work with students who come from a situation of poverty. However, I found the presentation to be riddled with assumptions and essential statements about the “nature” of those students and their situations. The lecture material was based on the book A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. This book is widely used in school districts across the nation as a basis for best practices when working with students who come from impoverished backgrounds. It has also spawned a successful professional development program called the aha! Process, Inc.: A Ruby Payne Company.

My problem with the lecture is not that school districts are trying to find solutions for students from these backgrounds, but that everyone seems to be taking at face value the generalized claims being made about these students and their situations. For example, the lecture made the assumption that a culture of poverty exists and that this culture so homogenous that one can make a standardized checklist of common behaviors found in students coming from a so-called culture of poverty. Payne presents it in her book as a checklist of hidden rules that a teachers can use to test themselves to see if they could survive in a culture of poverty. Of course, the culture shock that a teacher from the middle class is, presumably, supposed feel after reading this checklist will—or so it is hoped, I guess–help him or her better empathize with students coming from a different culture.

This checklist was presented as if those hidden rules were part of the essential nature of both the culture of poverty and the people living within it. Payne also explains that there are actually three classes–poverty, middle class, and wealthy—who all have their own essential characteristics or, as she terms it, hidden rules. Furthermore, the language of school and society at large is that of the middle class, and so it is argued that it is essential for teachers to help students learn the hidden rules and language of the middle class so that they can pull themselves out of poverty. Each person in attendance seemed to take this information at face value and so we then all discussed the ways in which we could use Payne’s knowledge of hidden rules and culture of poverty to develop best practices in the classroom to reach a not unsubstantial portion of our population.

What upsets me most about the state of K-12 teacher professional development is that we are not asked in any real way to analyze the categories and definitions we use on a daily basis or to reflect on their implications. I feel that instead of listing off checklists or writing on post-it notes, we should be challenging the assumptions that we make when we define students as living in a culture of poverty. We should debate the implications of categorizing students as coming from such nicely divided strata as poverty, middle class, or wealth. We should challenge what reality we are reproducing and making possible by using such definitions for the students we encounter. Is the work we are doing in these professional development sessions reproducing a world view with which we, as teachers, are comfortable and familiar? Are the implications of a particular classification helpful or harmful to the students we teach? What work is our system of classification doing to reproduce certain worldviews and beliefs about others?

The biggest problem is not that we aren’t asking these questions, but that the majority of people I encounter in the field of K-12 education don’t know that these questions could even be asked. While curriculum specialists ask teachers to incorporate critical thinking into our classrooms, teachers are not being asked to think critically or evaluate the way in which we reproduce the categories and definitions that we use on a daily basis.

I believe that it is imperative that K-12 professional development give teachers the skills and tools to critically evaluate the educational theory and methodology that is given to us. We need to move away from the presentational model of “this is the reality and this is how to implement it in your classroom.” We must instead start to realize that how we use systems of classifications have real world consequences. It is a travesty that we do not.

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