Teachable Moments Not Just for Kids

By Susan Naimark

Illustrator: Chris Mullen

Illustration: Chris Mullen

Teachable moments around racism was the topic of a summer 2008 Rethinking Schools editorial. While relevant curriculum is critical, we don’t need to wait for new social studies textbooks to be adopted to identify such teachable moments. A simple look around our schools is an equally compelling starting point.

I recently began writing about my experiences as a white middle-class parent whose white children went through the Boston Public Schools. In my sons’ elementary school, the parent organization was over half white?in a school where 85 percent of the students were children of color. This imbalanced parent involvement was too often interpreted as “those other parents just don’t care about their kids’ education.” As I got to know some of the parents who did not come to our meetings, I heard a different story. And as I met parents from other schools through my citywide parent organizing work, I found these stories to be recurring themes. Stories about working two and three jobs, not having reliable transportation, not speaking English adequately to feel comfortable communicating with school staff. While these barriers to participation are not unique to parents of color, I also learned how many parents of color had their own hostile childhood schooling experiences holding them back.

When I talked with parents who faced these obstacles, they expressed as much concern about their children’s education as the parents who came to our parent meetings. The confluence of racism and poverty created a host of obstacles to their involvement in our school.

That was 15 years ago.

As I began to share my writing about these experiences, I learned that little has changed. If anything, this racial disconnect between parent involvement and student enrollment has become more acute since racial quotas in student assignment were thrown out over the past decade. In Boston, middle-class, white families are organizing themselves to identify and enroll en masse in public schools they believe have the potential to meet their needs. As a result, there are now many more schools whose parent organizations are predominantly white, even as the student population remains overwhelmingly children of color.

If we value parent involvement, what’s wrong with this?

Many of these parents are advocates for school improvement. They’re often well connected and savvy fundraisers. They bring new energy to often dormant parent groups.

But there’s an unsettling side effect to this involvement. And herein lie the teachable moments.

One such school became the target of a group of white, middle-class families a few years ago. While the school still predominantly serves students of color, the white student population has slowly and steadily increased. Two years ago, the parent organization, comprised mostly of white parents, held a fundraising event that raised $10,000 for the school. By all accounts of those present it was a lovely event. The parents and principals of other schools began to compare notes, and this generated peer pressure to see who could raise the most money through such parent-run fundraisers.

The problem was that the cost of a ticket to this particular event was much more than most parents in the school could afford. Was it a success? The answer is still being debated.

The dispute emerged when a low-income parent of color spoke up at a parent meeting. She reported that the event was too costly for her and not something she would feel comfortable bringing friends to. And this was not the first time a parent-run event had felt exclusionary. The ensuing debate opened up a Pandora’s box. Several of the white parents who organized the event felt unappreciated for all the hard work they put in. A few of the original organizers dug in their heels, threatening to hold the event without the support of school leadership. Others advocated to transform it into a different kind of event, welcoming to the entire school community. Some volunteers simply dropped out, tired of the arguing that dragged on through the better part of a school year. Meanwhile, the impasse resulted in the cancellation of that year’s big fundraiser.

If the adults in this school community could stay with the conflict, it could be transformed into a teachable moment. A racially mixed group of parents began working with the principal to do just this. They asked the parent organization to step back and talk about shared values and goals. They are cautiously hopeful that these conversations have laid the foundation for making decisions about fundraisers and other activities, and provided a moral compass for evaluating their efforts. They also began to facilitate conversations about diversity, which they hope will illuminate some of the dynamics of race and privilege.

“Enough process,” several of the white parents responded to these efforts. “We have work to do.”

But isn’t this the work?

Our public schools are among the few places where we have the opportunity to engage people of different races, ethnicities, economic circumstances, and life experiences. These schools are rich learning environments, not just for children, but for parents, teachers, and other adults who make up the school community. By avoiding such discussions, we model for our children how not to talk about race and racism.

I’ve heard many people of color say that racism is not what it used to be. A Jamaican parent organizer once showed me how it works. As we sat in a meeting one day, she said, “It’s like this.” She covered her red and silver Coke can on the table in front of her with a white paper napkin.

“All covered up nice and pretty, so we don’t have to see it or talk about it.”

The white parents who put in long hours to organize school fundraisers would hardly consider their actions racist. They have created wonderful new events and raised sorely needed funds for their children’s schools. But the problem with their efforts has nothing to do with personal prejudice. It’s about how their actions perpetuate a system that advantages them at the expense of others. If you remove the covering, what’s underneath? One set of actions among many that alienate other parents from feeling that the school is theirs, too. In a school system where black and Latino students fail at twice the rate of white and Asian students, such parents’ sense of ownership is not a luxury. It is critical to student achievement.

When my kids were in elementary school, we took some baby steps towards educating ourselves through conflicts such as this and changing school practices. When I became co-chair of the parent organization, I had long conversations with the black co-chair about the racial dynamics of the school. By this time, I had become fed up with silent complicity in what appeared to be a highly inequitable situation. Such selective activities as the school chorus, student newspaper, and student council were comprised of predominantly white kids, year after year. The “best” teachers had high percentages of white students in their classes while the less popular teachers had all children of color. We wanted to know why.

We brought up our observations at parent meetings. At first, conversations were awkward and halting. Nobody knew what to say. We gradually learned that we could name the inequities out loud and the sky didn’t fall in on us. The parent organization decided to launch its own research on how school privileges were distributed to students. A few parents, white and black, agreed to survey teachers about how they selected children for volunteer school activities. The teachers interviewed insisted that they used “objective” criteria or “fair” practices based on good behavior, grades, and an active interest. A few got defensive that we were even questioning them. One day during our research, the black co-chair of the parent organization found a sticky note on the teachers’ room wall stating that the parents were taking over the school. These were predominantly black teachers, and they didn’t want to talk about race any more than many of the parents.

Despite the resistance, a pattern emerged. Many of the white parents were comfortable aggressively advocating for their children. Their children, in turn, internalized a set of expectations concerning what they deserved. And we all carry our own image of what potential in a child looks like, acts like, and dresses like. Such potential is elusive in the quiet girl dressed in hand-me-downs who stays up too late at night watching her baby brother while her mother is at work, or in the rowdy boy who imitates his big brother gangbanger.

The extracurricular activities in question were a strong selling point of the school. In most cases, they happened only because of the volunteer time and commitment of the teachers involved. The principal dragged her feet when we suggested she challenge their practices, unwilling to risk losing their goodwill. She had a strong team of teachers to support and keep happy, and we had run into a dead end.

We then turned our attention to classroom assignments. Every year, a few parents of my sons’ white friends called me in June.

“Whose class is Ben going to be in next year?” they wanted to know.

My husband and I had selected for our sons a loosely organized Spanish-language program that moved up through the grades. Its teachers were not the most sought-after in the school, but we found them warm and caring. This decision allowed us to circumvent the annual scramble for popular teachers, whose classrooms were consistently majority white.

When the parent organization started to investigate, we discovered that some parents routinely lobbied the principal in June for their preferred teacher for the following school year. Many of the white parents wanted their children to be in classrooms with their friends, who were more often than not the other white kids. This resulted in a large group of white students moving from year to year through the school in a herd, so to speak.

We invited the principal to a parent meeting to discuss how students were assigned to classrooms. The discussion that unfolded exposed the practice of advocating for favored teachers, widespread among white parents. Almost every parent of color in the room dropped their jaw or shook their head when they heard it explained; they had no idea that lobbying for specific teachers was an option. I was stunned at the complete racial divide this exposed.

By putting this practice on the table, we arrived at a new way of assigning students to classrooms. The new procedure encouraged parents to send a note to the principal at the end of the school year describing the type of teacher and learning environment they believed would be best for their children. The school staff then made assignments to ensure the best possible matches for all students. This put pressure on the active parents and the parent organization to be sure all teachers were of a quality we would want for our own children. Parents could no longer guarantee what teachers their children would get.

One white parent threatened to transfer her children out of the school if she could no longer hand-pick teachers every year. She didn’t follow through on the threat, but I appreciated her honesty. There were undoubtedly other parents who had every intention of continuing to lobby the principal but weren’t willing to say it out loud.

This experience was one of my first lessons in the “entitlement gap”?the vast difference in understanding about what we are entitled to in our interactions with the school system. When we white, middle-class parents understand how our sense of entitlement excludes others, we begin to find our own teachable moments about racism. We then can speak up, find allies, and take specific actions to “spread the wealth.”

Susan Naimark was active in School Parent Councils in her children’s schools for nearly two decades. She was a founding member of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, and served for two terms on the Boston School Committee, the school board for the City of Boston.