Emily Pendergrass blogged recently about teachers who “stand firm” against the low expectations they hear from other teachers, their administrations, and the larger culture. I admire teachers who can stand firm, and I think their stories can be inspiring, especially when we’re in such a fundamentally inequitable system and society. See, for example, this article on the unemployment rate of African American college grads (thanks to a wonderful colleague for sharing that link).
The same colleague who shared the sobering statistics about the inequities facing black college grads also shared an article on what it takes to be a truly effective educator when facing that kind of inequity. The article describes Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade’s conception of different groups of teachers in education. We’re in a system where many of us are so-called “Wankstas,” or teachers who may have started out with good intentions and high hopes for students, but whose intentions fizzled out due to a lack of support and feelings of hopelessness. As a result, “Wankstas” disengage from students. “Ridas,” on the other hand, are the teachers who “stand firm.”
I was sometimes a “Rida” and sometimes a “Wanksta.” I did a lot of positive harassment, Duncan-Andrade’s phrase for the ongoing positive pressure “Ridas” put on students to engage and achieve. I built deep relationships with a few students, developing their trust, something else Duncan-Andrade cites. I just had coffee with a former student, who cited lunchtimes spent in my and my coteacher’s room as a key reason for his post-high school success. But I was also a “Wanksta” when hopelessness bogged me down and my frustration leaked into interactions with my students, hopelessness about a system which either stood by when various behaviors made the school environment physically or emotionally unsafe, or responded with punitive consequences that made no actual difference in students’ behavior.
We need to stand firm. We need teachers to stand firm. But we need to figure out the support teachers need in order to be able to do so. It’s not a surprise if teachers lose their bearing when their contexts are unsafe, they’re experiencing a large amount of distress, and accountability systems encourage a fixed mindset. We need to create systems and support structures that help teachers build a sense of agency, efficacy, and a growth mindset (in Carol Dweck’s sense) in regard to their own teaching practice.
That’s what I aspire to in my own coaching practice, though I know it’s going to take a lot of self-examination and help to get there. I want to help teachers stand firm without adding to the sense of burden and frustration they already feel.