Paying Back Privilege

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     -by Krista Taylor

What is privilege? 

There exist in America two very separate worlds that rarely intertwine – the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. The difference between the two is privilege.

Privilege is the presence of a safety net. The distance between incidents of bad luck and ensuing devastation. Those with privilege can withstand problems, often without long-term consequences, because they can pay for the necessary health care; have the resources and education to find another job; have access to generational support to keep the bills paid when finances are tight; and can seek out services to help sustain through addiction, mental illness, or disability.

In America, anyone can ultimately become successful, but for some the pathway to achieving this success is smoother than it is for others.

I was a child of privilege. My pathway to success was made smoother by a number of factors outside of my control.

To start with, I am white. The fact that this makes things easier is something that we are often uncomfortable discussing, but this privilege of birth is one whose power I suspect I could only truly understand were it to be taken away. Suffice it to say that we live in a society where skin color continues to matter.   Privilege, however, extends far beyond the gene pool.

My mother had good pre-natal healthcare, and therefore I was born without deficiencies or complications. I lived in a household full of books where I was regularly read to, and where I witnessed people reading often. I didn’t worry about having enough food, and my parents did not have to make difficult choices about the cost of food in relation to its nutritional value. I lived in a safe neighborhood where I had the freedom to independently explore the world for hours on end. My parents worked regular schedules, so I was consistently supervised outside of school hours.

Education was always treated in my household as something of critical importance. I was enrolled in high-performing schools, and therefore, I was surrounded by peers who had the same perspective about academic achievement that I did. Additionally, my family has college-graduates going back for multiple generations. Therefore, not only was there a powerful expectation that a college degree was a given for me, my parents had a clear understanding of how to make this happen.

Each of these things made my life a little easier, my success a little more guaranteed.

None of these benefits are things that I made happen. They are all things that occurred irrespective of my effort – that is privilege.

I was never truly hungry or malnourished.

I never worried about where I was going to sleep at night.

I was never unable to go outside because of safety concerns.

I never had changing, or absent, caregivers.

I never questioned the value of education.

I am privileged.

I know this because every day I work with students who do not have this same experience. Their road is a little harder; their success not as certain.

I believe that with my privilege comes the responsibility to work to even the playing field for others.

Those of us with privilege must seek opportunities to make the journey easier, to grease the wheels, to change the outcome. Acting on these opportunities will bring us one step closer to equality, one step closer to a nation where no one is born with the cards stacked against them, one step closer to the ideals upon which America was founded.

Eight months ago, as a result of being named the Hawkins Educator of the Year, I had a check for $10,000 placed in my hands. It is because of this philosophy of “paying back privilege” that I did not hesitate in handing the money over to the Gamble Montessori Foundation to support students in paying for some of the costs of our program.

It is profound to have the opportunity to potentially “change the outcome” for a child. If I can successfully do that for even just one, it will have been enough.

It is my opportunity to pay back privilege. I can’t imagine what greater gift I could give.

Krista Taylor

An Invitation

-by Jack M. Jose

The impetus for “angels and superheroes” comes from the unscripted words Krista spoke when she was selected as the 2015 Lawrence C. Hawkins Educator of the Year for Cincinnati Public Schools. She has since repeated these words in speeches to various groups who ask her to recount why she gave her $10,000 award to the Gamble Montessori Foundation and the students it supports. Krista acknowledged, most honestly, “this is why I simply can’t be educator of the year. That title implies singularity, and there is nothing about this work that I do alone. Nor could I ever do it alone. We are all teachers of the year.” She does what millions of other educators do every day. Like them – like you – she works in multiple ways to make sure her students learn and grow in a nurturing environment.

Society  sometimes stops to recognize teachers’ accomplishments with awards and platitudes, such as calling us angels and superheroes, or giving us apples. But quite honestly, most people, having only been in school as students, have little understanding of the amount of work it takes to teach in an era of high stakes testing while maintaining a focus on the many needs of individual students. It is frustratingly hard work, often for incremental gains, which may only be realized weeks, months, or even years later.

Teaching is as much an art  as it is a science. When done well, it can appear almost indistinguishable from magic, but it is most definitely NOT magic. Every professional development we attend, every book and article we read, every question we ask serves to increase our skill and our stamina. Soon the most accomplished teachers make it look almost like sleight of hand. But pull back the curtain and you will see a hard working professional, putting in far more hours than the 35 a week that students are in the building (for when does the grading, the lesson planning, the meetings and the phone calls happen? Certainly not while students are in the classroom! “And the paperwork! You forgot all the paperwork!” Krista reminds me.)

So no. We are not angels.  Or superheroes.  We are real educators working hard every day to improve the outcome for our students.

This site is meant to be a resource for teachers anywhere who are seeking to further develop a school, or even just a single classroom.

Why us? The success of Gamble Montessori – according to some measures – has afforded us some attention. Krista’s award provided even more. But it is from the position of having gained fleeting notoriety and recognition for doing the same thing as so many other people that we hope to shine a light on those who are doing the exact same things. Why us? Because we are you. And right now we have the spotlight.

Why this format? We hope that this site serves as a benefit to teachers who are seeking tools and practices to enhance their instruction — or even just a place to find optimism and hope in this tremendously challenging profession.

It’s an awful lot to write down all at once. That would be some book! Incrementally we hope to break the work into manageable chunks, the same way we do with curriculum for our students every day. It gives us – administrators and teachers – a place to digest, to ponder, to correspond and collaborate.

This is an invitation. Please read the entries, respond to them. Share them. Ask questions. Try things out.

Jack M. Jose

Krista Taylor

What We Do Here

-by Jack M. Jose

“Here” is Gamble Montessori High School.

Early in the 2013-2014 school year, my walkie-talkie crackled to life with an urgent call to a classroom. In the hall I passed a girl, new to our school, who was yelling threats and trying to break free from the grip of our security assistant. I could not immediately tell who she was threatening.

One of the adults who had been present in the hall when the incident started, Roberto A., started to tell me the story by expressing his amazement. “Jack, I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life.” He related that the new student was convinced that someone was looking at her “wrong”. Offended, she stood up and started shouting at Michalia, a student who had been at Gamble since 7th grade. The shouting is what prompted him to enter the room and to call for me on the walkie. Michalia stood up and shouted back “I don’t have any beef with you.” As Roberto moved closer, the new student punched Michalia, who took one step back and said, “Somebody better get her. Somebody needs to tell her that’s not what we do here.”

“That’s not what we do here.” This is a most remarkable response to being punched. Many people would say that being hit would excuse Michalia if she chose to fight. I know that once upon a time, Michalia would have fought for less. I know that she felt immense social pressure to solve the problem by fighting, and that each year a small number of students make the other choice when in a similar situation. I also know that many times, parents defend and even encourage this response. That’s why her decision was hard.

Michalia resisted all of this, and accepted – trusted – that the adults in the school would act on her behalf and she did not need to fight. In doing this she was also showing tremendous grace toward her antagonist.

“Somebody better get her. Somebody needs to tell her that’s not what we do here.”

Even in the heat of the moment, Michalia remained cognizant of what we do – and what we don’t do – at Gamble. We have worked very intentionally to create an environment where Michalia, and many students like her, could make that choice. While we can’t explain her thinking exactly, we can explain the work that helped make it possible. We have spent a lot of time training teachers and staff and creating systems to allow students to be heard, to feel safe, to vent their frustrations, and to find appropriate ways to deal with conflict. I know that we made her decision easier because an adult immediately intervened. But it is these other interventions that helped build her trust. We have …

Created policies and procedures

Trained staff

  • provided outlines and staff PD for the Faber/Mazlish book How to Talk so Kids Will Learn
  • trained our staff in mediation three times and retaught the mediation referral process annually
  • provided an outline to mediation and How to Talk… in the staff manual

Taught the expectations to students

  • provided an annual orientation meeting covering the rules about physical and emotional misbehavior and the mediation process
  • overtly taught the difference between bullying and more common types of peer-to-peer misbehavior
  • taught students the legal definition of “self defense” in Ohio, so they know the difference between that and fighting.

This is hard work. We have had difficult conversations in our school about consequences for students who fight, and the relative value of removing them from school. We have not eliminated fighting. But we have created a culture in which students know they can request a mediation, and where they can be heard by their teachers, and where, on many occasions, students make a choice other than to fight.

When I pulled Michalia out into the hall to get her version of the story, she was understandably agitated. After answering my questions, she asked me, “Am I going to be suspended?”

“Why do you ask that?”

“Well, I raised my voice, and that was really loud. And we almost fought.” She paused. “I really wanted to hit her.”

I folded my arms. “I bet you did. No, I am not going to suspend you. In fact, I want to tell you how impressed I am. That was … well, that was pretty brave. Now,” I started to walk away. “You need to get back in there – you’ve missed enough instruction for one day.”

Jack M. Jose