To Teach the Privileged or the Under-Privileged, That Is the Question”¦

I feel that in many ways, my life is a struggle between my nobler instincts of selflessness and altruism and being a lazy, selfish, bitch. This dilemma manifests itself in many ways: do I give my peanut-butter sandwich that was to be my breakfast to the homeless man who has built a cardboard lean-to next to my subway station? Should I be more proactive in my desire to volunteer as an escort for Planned Parenthood, or should I procrastinate and enjoy not being shot? Should I donate my too-small or unfashionable clothes to Goodwill, or keep them in hopes that I lose weight or that sparkly velvet dresses come back in style? Luckily, I can often find middle ground: If I have an extra dollar in my pocket, I’ll give the man my sandwich and buy myself an orange; I donate money to Planned Parenthood and sign every petition they forward me; and for every new article of clothing I buy, I purge my closet of at least two quasi-ironic message-tees or pairs of capri pants.

We all try to find middle ground in our lives– not everyone can take the hair shirt. And perhaps my equivocating is evidence that I don’t actually care enough to make the world a better place. Does it make me a bad person that I’d rather give money to Planned Parenthood or the Red Cross than to the Humane Society or ASPCA (those damn commercials!)? Or do we all need to choose our battles?

I’ve certainly chosen my battles. I’ve taken to the streets in support of the New York Abortion Access Fund, Planned Parenthood, and NOW. I protested the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001 (I was in 7th grade) and stood on the side of a highway in 2004 with posters in support of John Kerry. And I am counting down the days to, and drafting poster slogans for, the New York City Slut-Walk. For the battles I’ve chosen, the right thing to do is clear. I make my voice heard through both donating time and money and actually shouting at people. But I am torn about how to proceed in my other battle: the institutional racism of public education.

It’s no secret that I’m a white girl from the suburbs. I went to one of the best, and most expensive, colleges in the country and am currently studying at an internationally respected graduate school. I worked in the summer during college, but only by choice. Yes, I went to a public high school, but my school probably produced more Ivy-League and Seven Sisters grads than Dalton or Choate. I was very lucky.

I don’t think I fully realized how lucky I was until I was a senior in high school. I was in a course called “College Social Science Seminar,” the highest level history class offered to seniors and my school’s equivalent to AP Comparative Government, and we were assigned Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol, for summer reading. My understanding of the world I lived in was irrevocably changed. Reading the book while on vacation with my family, I was often moved to tears.

In Savage Inequalities, Kozol details the state of public schools in the late-1980s and early-1990s. He predominantly focused on high-need districts and only mentions privileged schools to highlight the contrast between the resources and facilities at these schools, and particularly to contrast the difference in expenditures per student in these districts. Kozol traveled around the country, visiting public schools in San Antonio, Camden, the South Bronx, Washington D.C., Chicago, and East St. Louis. What he found shattered my notions of equality and privilege. I was horrified to learn that many elementary schools rationed pencils and toilet paper, that sewage ran in the streets outside middle schools in East St. Louis, that schools were forced to hold more than double the nmber of students they had been built for, and that large high schools in the South Bronx relied on truancy and students dropping out for the classes of over 35 students to be manageable. Unsurprisingly, the schools that suffer under these conditions serve student populations that are predominantly of color. (I’ve heard these students referred to as “minorities.” When more than 95% of the students are Black or Hispanic, it is absurd to call them “minorities” or the schools “diverse.”) Kozol wrote of his shame in living in an America that allowed this.

There was one scene that led me to discover a new sensation: the desire to weep and vomit simultaneously. Kozol visited a wealthy public school in a suburb of New York City that shares a name with a certain type of bread. He engaged students there in a discussion of the segregation that they undoubtedly benefited from. Even after hearing of their fellow teens taking computer classes on typewriters or sharing a guidance counselor with 400 other students, the bright and conscientious teens at this school were unmoved. They were unwilling to examine their privilege. Oh, they knew that they were privileged, that they were receiving a better education than the vast majority of the world’s young people. But they honestly didn’t seem to understand this as a real and fixable problem. They were concerned about how their standard of education might drop if schools were desegregated or how it wasn’t fair to them if their school received less funding in favor of larger and more troubled schools. The underlying message was, “I deserve this because I am better.” I don’t know if these students would be able to articulate why they felt they were better, but I would guess it is because they are white and rich.

After finishing Savage Inequalities, I began to examine my own privilege and the institutional racism that I was reaping the rewards of. My high school was only minutes away from Chester, PA, an impoverished and largely African-American city. According to rumors, when my school was being rebuilt in 2001, a proposed wing was scrapped because it would require the school district to be redrawn to include portions of Chester. In my junior year, the Chester school system was close to bankruptcy and the schools might have been shut down. There was a thought to take in some students from a Chester high school. Even many of my liberal friends were against this plan, some arguing that if we did open our doors to these students, we should only take the smartest. This plan of modern-day busing never came to be.

I returned to school in the fall and was ready to discuss the book and its damning portrayal of institutional racism with my class. I was certain that my peers would be more enlightened than those at that New York high school almost two decades ago were. Surely, we could all agree that this de facto segregation was wrong, I hoped. I was wrong. My classmates parroted the same tired lines and ideas the earlier students had: “It wouldn’t be fair to us,” “Yes, segregation is a problem, but why should I feel guilty?” “More money won’t solve these problems,” “Those schools are so bad because of uninvolved parents and “˜other factors,’” and my personal favorite, “Ugh. This book is obviously trying to make us feel guilty.” My peers and friends were making these arguments in the same week that students all over the country would be returning to schools where science labs had no running water and textbooks hadn’t been replaced since the Soviet Union was our biggest foe. Later that day, many of us were to walk to one of our school’s football fields for marching band practice. My senior year, a third of the school was in the marching band and more than half were involved in some musical ensemble (in addition to the marching band, there were three choirs, an orchestra, a wind ensemble, and the symphonic band. Plus two full-scale theatrical productions every year). And yet my classmates thought that money didn’t really matter in public education.

A few weeks ago, in my Intro to Special Education class, my professor made some interesting comments. He recalled something a graduate student said in the first class he ever taught. The student said, in regards to the achievement gap, “They are trying to separate the haves from the have-nots.” My professor recounted his response, “I would hope that these is nothing malicious in the allocation of resources, well-trained teachers, etc.” After he finished telling that story, I pushed him on what he said. I mentioned the despicable state of many urban public schools and the quantifiable disparities in funding. My professor cited federal money given to these schools, as if that absolved the system of racism. I wanted to press the issue, but he told me to write down my questions. I did. The next week I handed in a five-page paper where I pointed out the flaws in his arguments. I also came pretty close to calling him a racist. This was my closing paragraph:

Any Statistics 101 student will tell you that correlation does not equal causation. There are clearly relationships between race and literacy levels, the racial makeup of a student body and the classification of a school as “high-need,” race and the amount of funding a school gets, and the amount of funding a school gets and success rates. What causes these relationships? No one outside of the John Birch society would claim that race causes illiteracy or low-success rates. But if one argues that institutional racism and funding disparities are not the causes of the achievement gap, what else is there?

When I turned in this paper, I fully expected to earn my first F. To my great surprise, he asked me to see him during office hours and told me I had been given an A+ on the assignment (my first as well). We had a long conversation about what I had written. We agreed that exceptional educators and administrators can make a difference even in the most abject of circumstances. We disagreed on almost everything else. He still claimed that federal money equalizes the funding disparities and did not want to believe that institutional racism influences the structure of our public schools. He believed that high-stakes testing worked and lower-income schools do not emphasize test prep any more that high-income districts do. Ultimately, our discussion ended when it came time for us to walk to the class he taught and I took. I still do not know what he believes causes the relationship between race and low-performing schools.

As I am facing my future as a teacher, I must ask myself: in what way can I possibly effect change in our school system? After all, I’m only one person. Can one teacher even make a difference in one school? If I were to teach in a high school in the Bronx, how many students could I reach? Sure, there might be 30 students registered for each of my classes, but how many would show up? How many would make it to the next year? How many children would never even pass through the doors of the high school to begin with? And, most importantly, are these just excuses for wanting to do the easy thing and teach at a nice suburban school (and get paid quite a bit more)?

I have been struggling with this question for some time. My better angels tell me to walk the walk I talk. If I care so much about these issues, ought not I get my hands dirty, so to speak? But there is a selfish part of me that wants to teach at a school where there are enough textbooks for all of my students and where I am encouraged to be creative in my methods. I want to see freshmen I teach eventually graduate and go on to college. I want to teach students to be aware of social issues and privilege and inequality. I want my students to learn to examine their own privilege. And, as I continue to encounter brilliant and compassionate people who are wholly ignorant of these issues, I feel more and more that I should educate them.

Dear readers, what should I do? Should I leap into the heartbreaking business of high-need education and swim against the tide, knowing that I may only be stroking my ego or do I work in a more comfortable environment to make the privileged aware of inequality and feel guilty taking the “easy way out”? Looking now at my classmates who read and disparaged Savage Inequalities, I see several public school teachers, a few CityYear Fellows, interns for children literacy programs, and one who worked for an anti-genocide advocacy group. Would they have followed these altruistic paths if they had not been inspired by educators who taught them to engage the world? I know that I will continue to struggle with  this question for the months to come. And honestly, looking at the job market now, I might not even get the luxury of choosing where I end up.

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Lizy Yagoda

A young writer living in Brooklyn, she likes to make food, eat food, and think about food. Follow @ElizabethYagoda

10 thoughts on “To Teach the Privileged or the Under-Privileged, That Is the Question”¦”

  1. I have taught at a mix of places–a relatively-high-needs community college, a very high need tribal college, two very privileged German schools (in that country), and a mostly white public university. (And various children’s programs tailored to people of different means.) At the college level, I actually often have an easier time with discussions in a room where students don’t presume that they’re all the same–they can look around and see, hey, that guy is older than my dad! hey, that woman is a veteran, that kid doesn’t look like me. There’s a harder battle with what happens outside of the classroom–more work never gets turned in, more family and job circumstances prevent students from fully engaging in the class, generally speaking, in lower-income schools–but in the classroom itself I don’t think you’re necessarily facing anything traumatic. Plus you’d be surrounded by teachers dealing with the same issues you are, so you’d have a support system at whatever school you chose.

    But there’s also nothing wrong with making a career choice (or taking the available opening) that’s not the most progressive thing there is. You can make a lot of difference by training the already privileged students to consider their privilege, to consider race class and gender, to understand the social systems that helped them. You can also help with or help develop programs aimed at groups not represented at your school specifically.

    Also, a thing to consider is that research suggests (I get my info from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which I just read this week) that lower income students make the same gains at higher income students over the course of a school year, in general. They’re just often starting from somewhere different (probably because, Gladwell suggests, they’re read to less as children and they don’t make big educational gains over summers the way higher SES children do–parent involvement in education is very tied to SES).

    TL;DR: you’re not selfish if you take a job that’s not “changing the world,” but working with higher need students is probably not going to be a billion times harder than working with privileged kids, anyway. In my opinion/experience/reading. Ha.

  2. Make sure your practicum and interning classes let you work in a variety of schools, so you can get an idea of what you’d be getting into on the job.

    Also, consider getting your special education license, (ideally, in both mild and intensive interventions) you’ll have your pick of districts and jobs. A math or science degree in addition to your teaching degree will have similar value.

    I worked in both an urban and a suburban school, and I was much, much happier in the urban environment. There are a lot of myths about low-performing schools and poor students in education schools and in the media. It may help to set up a mentorship on your own with an experienced teacher in both environments.

    While you’re teaching and before, become an advocate for public education. The general consensus is shifting from “our public schools are broken” to “our public schools can’t be fixed.”

    1. Since my program is in NYC, I think I’ll likely end up student teaching at an urban/low-income school.

      I’ve actually started considering getting certified in special ed in addition to Social Studies, but to do it at my home institution would be outrageously expensive (something like $3,500/class) to do in addition to my current program. It would be nice, however, to have a marketable subject (not a huge demand for history teachers)

  3. I’d say that if you’re worried about ego-stroking then forget about what you want for a minute and concentrate on what you’re good at: is your major strength teaching people from a similar background to yours about inequality and getting them to open their minds and hearts, or is it teaching people from pretty much the opposite background and pushing them to achieve their full potential? Which one are you better at?

    At the end of the day, this is your job, it’s about your skills and where those can best be put to use. Both objectives are tough to realise, but you’d be doing yourself and your students a disservice if you picked an objective/ career that you weren’t as good at.

      1. I already left the world’s longest comment, but another thing to consider is that even a lot of kids with privileged backgrounds are overcoming a lot when they’re in school. I teach mostly white upper-middle class kids from the West coast, and I’m always surprised by what challenges some of them face. I had a student whose mother died during the term and a student who works three jobs to help his parents who are mid divorce. Sometimes they have invisible difficulties that they’re shy to bring up in a classroom full of people who seem to have it easy. So don’t think you’d be making less of a difference at a suburban school just because the students appear to have it easy.

  4. I’ve thought about this a lot myself. As an undergrad, I worked at a tutoring agency. The kids were mostly great, and I found it enormously satisfying. I’ve been teaching at the University of Auckland for 6 years now, and by and large I love that as well. There is a great deal of financial and cultural diversity at the university (unlike the private tutoring, because someone’s got to have a fair bit of spare cash to pay $45/hour for their 11 year old to improve their Maths – though there was cultural diversity at the agency). There are also many systems in place at uni to support students of Maori and Pacific Island backgrounds, because, unfortunately, these ethnicities are over-represented in lower socio-economic groups in this country. Yet every year, a lot of my Maori and PI students drop out, or simply stop turning up, don’t turn in assignments, and don’t respond to my offers of help via email. It can be enormously disheartening. But it’s more satisfying than anything when you do feel you’ve made a difference noone else has bothered/been able to make before. I ran into one of my former uni students a couple of years ago, and she told me that the time I’d taken to make extensive comments on her written work had made such a difference to her that she finally ‘got’ what to do to improve her writing, she got the point of it. Her impression was that no one had bothered to do that for her before, because they assumed she was dumb. She was getting Cs and now she’s getting As and studying law.

    But as Amanda points out, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Try one, see how you go, and you can always swap to the other. Or try to work within both, as Amanda suggests. Or find a school with socio-economic diversity (does that happen in the US? Surely?) and use the divergent experiences of different students to foster understanding of privilege and greater sympathy. Good luck!

    1. Sadly, very few schools in the US have true economic and racial diversity. There’s some crazy statistic that says that 4/5 African-American kids go to schools that are over 90% students of color (I’ve got to double check that one).
      And, from what I’ve seen, the proportions of students who receive reduced-cost lunches in any school are either less than 10% or over 50%. Which means that, in most cases, poor children are grouped together.

  5. Why either or? Go for both. Teach at the school that will pay you an excellent salary and start a tutoring program of some sort at the other school. Use the high school students to teach underprivileged elementary students. Volunteer at the other high school after hours in their remedial program.

    1. My AP Human Geography class in high school actually did what you’re suggesting–once or twice a week, we went to an elementary school in Chester and tutored 5th graders. It was good that no one really knew what AP Human Geography was actually supposed to be, as it allowed us to do totally unconventional things.

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