The Role of Teachers in Our Public Schools

Recently, there was an article posted on Good Education about a 13yr old who wrote an essay comparing Frederick Douglas’ narrative on slavery to our current education system. For those who have not seen the article, click the link below:

Before I discuss some of the key issues that come from the piece, here’s an interesting excerpt that clearly summarizes what happened:

In her essay, which was written for a contest, Williams reflected on what Douglass heard his slave master, Mr. Auld, telling his wife after catching her teaching Douglass how to read. “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him,” Auld says. “It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.”

Williams wrote that overcrowded, poorly managed classrooms prevent real learning from happening and thus produces the same results as Mr. Auld’s outright ban. She wrote that her white teachers—the vast majority of Rochester students are black and Hispanic, but very few teachers are people of color—are in a “position of power to dictate what I can, cannot, and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mismanagement of the classroom.”

Instead of truly teaching, most teachers simply “pass out pamphlets and packets” and then expect students to complete them independently, Williams wrote. But this approach fails, she concluded, because “most of my peers cannot read and or comprehend the material that has been provided.” As a result, she continued, not much has changed since the time of Douglass, “just different people, different era” and “the same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.” Williams called for her fellow students to “start making these white teachers accountable for instructing you” and challenged teachers to do their jobs. “What merit is there,” she asked, if teachers have knowledge and are “not willing to share because of the color of my skin?”

From this article, there are two sides that are present for this particular argument. The first group would be to applaud the young girl for critically thinking about the role of teachers in an educational system, while also being cognizant of the historical narratives she has learned in school. Many may believe that her ability to draw parallels between Douglas and the current education system highlights some of the failures of our educators. On the other hand, the student’s essay places blame on one party and leaves two other parties out of the picture. This last sentence picks up on the concerns of the second group. The second side would say that parents and children also have a stake in the success of education. Instead of focusing so much on what teachers are or are not doing, instead critics of this article would say that parents are responsible for what goes on within the home. If children are not studying in the home and parents are not creating environments where this can effectively take place, then blame should be shifted elsewhere.With all of this in mind, we have to question who is right and what are the next steps.

While I partially agree with the student, we have to realize that education does not start and end within the classroom. Our textbooks are biased, our educators are ill-prepared, and our schools are overcrowded. All parties involved are suffering and deserve help from outside resources. The purpose of writing this is not to provide a solution to the education crisis. Instead, I want to urge individuals to critically review the problems associated with our education system and encourage people to critically assess this piece and the remarks made by the authors. One remark in particular (remarks about the merits of white educators in Black and/or Latino schools) really was frustrating to me for a few reasons.

The few white teachers I had in high school were always available to help academically and they were great role models. Additionally, to be a white educator in a nearly minority school is surely not easy. However, the fact that these teachers do stick around and attempt to create successful learning environments is something that is completely ignored in the article and rather frustrating for me. While I understand the merits of having teachers of color, it is not fair to group all other educators into a narrow category that demonizes their performance in the classroom. There is certainly more that can be said about the article, but I’ll stop here.

What were your thoughts? What were your initial reactions to the piece? Before leaving, listen to this Frank Ocean track which speaks to some of themes present in this article. Oh, and as always… Leave a comment in the box below.

One response to “The Role of Teachers in Our Public Schools

  1. As a white person who was brought up in majority-white schools, I don’t think I am qualified to comment, but I love the debate that this student’s essay has brought about…. I wish there were more students who cared so much about their own education.

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