Home > Uncategorized > Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Advice to Principals: Push Back Against the Headwinds!

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Advice to Principals: Push Back Against the Headwinds!

One of the best books I read this year was Between the World and Me, which was an extended letter he wrote to his son, Samori, about what it is like to grown up black in America. As a 69-year old White American I feel that I have empathy for Blacks, but Coates’ book made me appreciate just how different the world looked to me during my formative years in an integrated college town in PA compared to his experiences in Baltimore, MD.

Earlier this week the Chalkbeat blogger Alex Zimmerman wrote a post describing Coates’ interactions with a group of roughly 30 current and aspiring Principals. In recounting his conversations with them, Mr. Zimmerman captured the same blunt honesty that characterizes Coates’ essays and his book. In expiring to the group why he sends his son to private school, Coates reflected on his personal experience in public schools.

“I guess I feel like the school system sort of failed me, he said. “School was not a physically safe place … violence was a thing you were always coping with.”

Coates lso drove home the powerful negative impact the grading system has on children, implicitly urging the gathering to focus on ways to provide intellectual stimulation to the students.

“People and educators often deeply underestimate that it actually hurts to fail,” he explained. “The world is so much more open than any report card or any test score.”

But Coates did display an understanding of the challenges teachers and administrators face, and analogized the scapegoating of teachers to the scapegoating he experienced as a black man:

But Coates noted the headwinds teachers face — the consequences of homelessness, poverty and the criminal justice system — and argued that teachers, like black people, are often easy scapegoats for larger institutional failures.

So how to resist that demonization? Coates urged educators to “push back” against the idea that it’s solely their responsibility to solve longstanding social problems, and encouraged them to team up with other activists to fight for change.

“Drawing on the history of African-Americans in this country, you really have to be willing to struggle on behalf of things that are not resolvable in your lifetime,” he said. “The fact that you’re fighting for kids who have not yet been born doesn’t make the struggle irrelevant … The problems weren’t created in one generation.”

As I am certain Mr. Coates appreciates, from a public teacher’s perspective the headwinds just got stronger with the election of Mr. Trump, with his Cabinet appointments, and with a Congress that is likely to use his election to promote their agenda that favors pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps grit over any kind of early intervention and support. I have long advocated that school districts work with local social service departments, local health departments, and local police departments to provide children attending school with the safety net they need to succeed in school. Now I think that administrators, teachers, and school boards are going to have to work in tandem with every public agency that provides services to children to push back against the direction our country is headed for each one of our services– even the police department– is likely to face the forces of deregulated privatization in the coming four years.

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