Push our Leaders So Teachers Don’t Push Our Students

Let me start by saying, I am in no way defending the actions of an Iroquois High School teacher who allegedly broke district protocol by grabbing a freshman student by the jacket collar, slamming him to the ground after he pushed her and another student. The video of the unfortunate incident went viral, garnering over 100,000 views in one day.

Let me further clarify that my non-defense of the teacher does not mean I am excusing the actions of the student, either. However, given the disproportionate number of students of color who are disciplined and suspended from public schools across the country, I do believe there are reasons to believe he deserved a different outcome than to become another statistic in the pipeline to prison. He is still a child, after all.

I believe the teacher’s actions are, in part, a manifestation of the symptoms of an overly critical system that doesn’t provide adequate support and training, breaks or tools for teachers of our most at-risk youth. Despite how many times teachers have told their bosses, their union leaders, legislators and voters — no one seems to be listening. In case you’ve not been paying attention, teachers have organized eight sickouts in the past two years over these very issues.

I believe the student’s actions are, in part, a manifestation of the symptoms of a set-up-to-fail system that doesn’t adequately provide properly resourced schools, supports and interventions, culturally competent curriculum, training and school climate, trauma-informed care, smaller class sizes, restorative practices, art, music, access to healthy food and healthcare in and out of school, breaks for relationship building and mindfulness training, etc. so students can thrive.

Iroquois is a restorative practices school. This methodology is intended to redirect student behavior by restoring relationships. According to a record obtained from the school district through the state open records law, the teacher had completed two days of restorative practices training at the beginning of this school year. Unfortunately, many schools still lack school-wide buy-in and systems to support the overall goal of restorative practices, resulting in a breakdown in the process as we witnessed in this video. The teacher is the adult in the room and should never stop modeling appropriate behavior for her students at all times. Teachers have been running interference for years, trying to protect struggling and suffering students from predatory and abusive practices orchestrated by outsiders who seek to undermine public schools for their own privatization gain. They’ve been marching, protesting and organizing sickouts to try to get our attention because many of them are at a breaking point. We must listen and empower them to push back on those who put them in this situation in the first place.

Instead of debating the fault of the teacher vs. the student, my hope is that this viral video can be a wake-up call to bring attention to the stark disparities that exist between schools in our district. Iroquois ranks in the bottom 20% across the board in metrics measuring diversity, poverty, parental involvement, test scores, school rankings, micromanagement and power.

Here are some facts about Iroquois: 79% of its students are nonwhite, the second-highest percentage for a high school; 83% qualify for free or reduced lunches, the most of any high school; it had the lowest K-PREP scores in the district; the state labeled it a “failing school”; and its site-based decision-making council has lost its power.

These statistics have an exponential, compounding effect. In a district of choice, the “failing school” label, compounded with no local decision-making capacity as a result of the neutering of its site-based decision-making councils, means engaged parents and parents of high-scoring students will choose to send their children to another school, further exacerbating the disparities and leaving these schools without advocates as sitting ducks, possibly on purpose. There’s no evidence that having a school resource officer, or SRO, in the building would have prevented this situation.

High saturation levels of poverty and lack of parental involvement become insurmountable in our lowest-performing schools. Teachers in many of these schools are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, helpless and hopeless. And then on top of that, they’re micromanaged and blamed for the failures of their students for conditions outside of their control.

I get it!

Our students are acting out because their basic needs have gone unaddressed while everyone wrongly goes about how to improve test scores. Instead of letting things deteriorate to the point where teachers are pushing our students, we need to push back on our leaders — at all levels!

How effectively has the teachers union listened to voices of teachers of color? How effectively has the PTA listened to the voices of parents of color?

Not well, I can tell you.

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As a parent, activist and organizer, I’ve been at the table when authentic decisions were made by members of these organizations, only to see them co-opted by their leaders. I watched these same leaders derail coalitions and stonewall decisions when difficult topics around racial equity required attention and advocacy. Push back!

We can only expect to see an increase in these types of incidents as Gov. Matt Bevin and state Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis take actions to perpetuate the teacher shortage, lowering of teachers’ credentialing standards, reduce teacher pay and benefits, cut professional development, all the while increasing expectations and workloads.

Push back!

We have to stop blaming the symptoms and start focusing on the cure:

If it’s because there aren’t enough adults in the building to provide the teacher with the tools to deescalate the situation according to protocol, demand more adults in the building! More mental health counselors, librarians, art, music, intervention specialists and teachers and security. Push back!

If it’s because of draconian oversight mechanisms, funding cuts, unfunded mandates, push back!

If it’s because of too much time and resources spent on jumping through hoops to avoid repercussions caused by low test scores, push back!

If it’s because of cuts to professional development, textbooks, programs, push back!

Until everyone collectively pushes back on leaders and decision-makers sitting comfortably in their ivory tower offices and their appointed and elected positions, students and teachers will continue to suffer, and more of our schools will face insurmountable odds. Eventually, predatory charter schools will become welcome, and our public school system will be completely decimated.

We must push back for our students!

Otherwise, Lewis and Bevin will frame incidents their out-of-touch policies cause as more justification for state takeover of JCPS, uninformed folks will clamor for a return of their SROs and our most vulnerable students and their families will continue to suffer.

Gay Adelmann is the co-founder of Dear JCPS (dearjcps.com), a stakeholder advocacy group demanding accountability and transparency and Save Our Schools Kentucky (SaveOurSchoolsKY.org). She can be reached at moderator@dearjcps.com.

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