AP for Who? cont.
What follows is my account of becoming and being an AP (Advanced Placement) English teacher in the American public high school system. African-American teachers, both male, and female, are slowly being driven out of the profession. Experienced African-American AP teachers are so rare in the Western United States that I have only met one, in over a decade of teaching, speaking, attending conferences, and generally traveling widely in spheres of public educators. I cannot purport to speak to everyone’s experience, all I can do is stand in the truth of mine. This is a four-part series.
“Will the real AP English teachers please stand up?”
When I left Whitopia to teach in an urban school, it really wasn’t for one clear reason. There had been several instances when I felt silenced, publicly humiliated, and targeted as a woman, black woman, and human being by both staff, and students. But, these were also the teachers who covered my classes, without hesitation, for a week when my son was in the hospital. These were the students who went out of their way to tell me how much having a teacher (who represented a perspective they did not usually encounter) meant to them. These were the people who put up with a lot of my growing pains as I left my late 20s and all that that entails behind. When I did make up my mind to leave, it was in some ways, a really tough decision. I left for a lot of reasons, most of which have to do with my own growth, change and development as a person and educator; some of which have to do with other people whom I can see in retrospect as catalysts for my change. Though I left that place with mixed emotions after several really unhappy years at the end, I now look at it as a place that taught me so much and I am grateful for the experience. Yes, some people put me through fire with their duplicity, harsh judgement, and scrutiny. Others, through their love, loyalty, and support, proved that no matter where I went or how much time stretched between seeing one another, we would always be lifelong friends. They know who they are and they clapped that last day in the cafeteria when I left because they sincerely rooted for my success. I started teaching in suburban Denver when I was 27 years old. I left when I was 34. That is a fairly long time to live in and feel daily tension between denial and full expression of self — to feel the push and pull between love and acceptance and sometimes subtle, sometimes outright, rejection.
To teach in an urban school as a black educator is absolutely a homecoming experience. There is a lot of familiarity. From the way people greet one another on a daily basis (with a word on the outfit, a kiss on the cheek, an endearing nickname), to the way we reward one another with praise and love for our achievements large and small, freely and often. It is, pun absolutely intended, a different world, and an environment that I hope to be in for the rest of my life. Now that I am teaching in an urban school among students who identify with me as I do with them, I can never give that up. Years ago, an Asian friend, colleague, and scholar of mine told me she felt a sense of responsibility to the Asian community, and to contribute her talents to its betterment. I now know what she means. However, it is not the sense of responsibility that will keep me coming back year after year. It is the genuine love I give and receive, the camaraderie, and enduring sense that we are in this together that holds me here. I have never, in my professional career, felt as valued and supported as I do now.
I cannot speak to what it is like to be a white educator and work in an urban school with a predominantly black, brown, and immigrant population of students. I have an idea of that is like, because I know the experience of teaching students who don’t look like me, or share my same cultural background; but I cannot really know and I would never presume to claim expertise about someone else’s experience. What I can say is this: suburban schools and their predominantly white teaching staff, codes of conduct, and standards for behavior are widely accepted as the standard of excellence to which every urban school should strive to attain. This is a mistake. We will never be them. They will never be us. In an ideal world, there would be no “they” or “us”. However, school segregation is a tremendous and increasingly more problematic issue in American public, private and charter education. It is yet another problem no one seems to think important enough to solve with real, tangible, sustainable solutions. It has been widely reported that school segregation is worse now than it was in the 1960s and 70s. I know this to be true. I live it, daily.
AP programming looks very different in urban schools than it does in suburban districts. Often, because of heavy staff turnover and random teacher placement, there will be a first-year teacher who has no experience whatsoever (or certification, let alone a degree in English) teaching the AP courses. Students, who have had tremendous instability with regard to teachers and programming, end up with numerous and gaping holes in their bag of skills. One year, they may have had three teachers and a rotating host of substitutes. Another year they may have had a teacher who is extremely passionate about the idea of education, but lacks basic knowledge of its practical application, or how to move students along a continuum of skills in a logical manner. Due to our massive and worsening teacher shortage, this is not in any way unusual. I cannot count on anyone consistently coming into my class knowing anything. Hence the (necessary yet burdensome) diagnostic test everyone must give at the beginning of the year. The AP exam is norm-referenced, so imagine the challenge table-readers must face when they read essays written by students who experienced AP in an suburban school and compare them with those who did not.
When I came to the Far Northeast region of Denver, I was warned I needed to be prepared to live in the “grey”. What that really means is, “get prepared to live with instability, unrest, and almost constant scrambling to put out fires”. It’s definitely an environment that keeps a woman on her toes. I’ll admit that I entered into the position with idealism. There was nothing that could really prepare me for the stark differences I was to encounter between where I came from and where I was headed. I was assigned to co-teach 50 tenth graders in a mouse-infested lecture hall with broken seats — first period. Nobody had thought to give my co-teaching partner and I a room big enough to house 50 students, so the first day(s) were spent sending administration wandering around the campus trying to find a place where we could hold class.
My middle of the day section was 20 or so honors English 10 students who were labeled as, “the smart kids”. Due to our small program size, tracking was unavoidable. It was no secret to anyone, especially the students who were not in this group, that these “chosen ones” were going to have a different experience than that of their peers. In order for me to have the honors section, it followed that another teacher was going to get “stuck” with a grouping of students who were of “mixed-ability”. That is a euphemism we in education often use when manipulating schedules and lives of students who are not in the top 5% of their class. I’m going to call it out, because the inequity that happens when students are tracked deserves to be named; this can and does often create a “school within the school” phenomenon. In the most extreme cases, one “school” is for the white students, who get to have their classes upstairs, while the other “school” contains everyone else holding it down in the literal basement. I am not joking, or exaggerating. In our school, the honors group was a cohort of around 25 students, but in larger schools, a very similar thing often happens, the only difference being the larger sized cohort.
These conditions inevitably result in sensitivity on the part of students and staff marginalized by these practices. They are rightly suspicious of signs of classist or elitist separation that can and do create wider social injustice and instability. They become resentful of the lack of “behavior issues” in the honors classes. These methods of segregation that educators and administrators arrange are usually brushed off as being “unavoidable”, “unintentional”, or a case of, “the lesser of two evils”. I have heard it said many times that, “Tracking is over. It doesn’t exist.” Trust me, it does. It persists because in teaching, like any other field, people protect their own interests (and sometimes, those of their students). It also exists because we hold on to some traditional elements of education, such as a strict bell-schedule, and grouping students by age. These are just two elements that make it harder than it needs to be for schools to customize schedules and learning. Many people question the subtle biases that inform these arrangements. Few people have answers or solutions. I have only ever heard one administrator claim he liked figuring out the master schedule. He was known for an incident where he peed into the fire pit at a staff party.
School counselors, administration, department chairs have to answer some tough questions when figuring out schedules. Do we give students the targeted support and differentiated instruction they deserve at the cost of other students? Do we throw class schedules up in the air and let the cards fall where they may? Do we heed parent and student requests? If so, whose? How many? I will not get into the differences between urban and suburban schools with regard to the way students are scheduled for classes here, but let’s just say that a lot, too much, depends on luck, and perhaps fate in the former.
It was as a result of the random and tumultuous scheduling process that I wound up with a class of 10 level 1 and 2 ESL students (there are 6 levels leading toward English language proficiency) for my final class of the day that first year in the Far Northeast. This is still the class, of the many I have taught over the course of my career, that I am the proudest of. After the revolving door of students undergoing schedule changes stopped a few weeks into the year, the students who fell into that class were those people expected the least of. Perhaps that is why, in my view, they worked the hardest and grew the most. I had students from Gabon, Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico in that class. I did not have a single white student. They laughed at my Portunhol (Spanish flavored Portuguese or Portuguese flavored Spanish) (I speak both, fluently). We laughed together at the ridiculousness of the English language. We created personal jokes around Spanglish terms we all learned to use together. In short, we had a blast while down the hall, the AP Lit teacher, a second year teacher and Teach for America trainee did her thing.
At that time, our school had only been open for a few years. Someone decided that AP English Literature and AP English Language would be offered in alternating years. Someone else decided to promise AP English Literature to folks as a reward for employment. Yet another person decided to have the Social Studies teacher teach AP English Language because there was nobody else. None of these people talked to or had an awareness of the conversations the others were having. I had initially been offered a position at the school when the AP English Language teacher left in the middle of the night and disappeared. Again, I am not making this up, or exaggerating. She simply left in the middle of the year after putting her computer in her desk and leaving a note that she would not be returning the next day. That level of disregard for children, their education, and frankly, one’s job, runs rampant in the urban schools I have come into contact with. I did not accept the position at that time because I could not leave my school mid-year, no matter how unhappy I was. I am not a quitter. Sometimes, that is problematic for me.
It will sound cruel, but it has become a running (and tragic) exercise each year to spot which of the teachers who start with us at the beginning do not look like they will make it to the finish line. They say, “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but sometimes, in teaching, you really can. There are things like “stance”, “teacher voice”, and “presence” that you can’t fake, and that teachers either have or develop over time. The presence, or absence of these traits is obvious, and students pick up on them within the first class. If you do not have them, you will not last. Period. Students at my school, who have seen and been examined by so many, are experts at detecting whether someone has staying power, or not. It’s worth mentioning that in the three years I have worked in urban education (I am aware that my experience is neither lengthy, nor varied), I have never known a teacher of color who has left or been asked to leave before the end of the year. Many people will tell you teachers who couldn’t hack it failed due to severe “behavior” or “classroom management” issues. These are just polite ways of speaking around the truth: they don’t know how to relate to students who don’t look like them, and they won’t put in the work to learn how to. If one is “lucky” enough to get a position teaching an AP class in an urban environment, there will most certainly be open enrollment which means that the class is open to anyone who wants to take it, as it should be. There will most certainly be some sort of tracking which will make your class the target of a lot of attention, both negative and positive. The expectations for what students, and you, will do, will be tremendously high. The public scrutiny given to your data and scores will be humbling, and intimidating. You will be expected to work miracles, or fail miserably. Expect to do a little of both.
In the recent history of our school, the vast majority of students enrolled in AP classes have not passed AP exams in any subject. By now, some of the reasons for this should be clear. Granted, many places offer classes but do not require the test. There is a “rebate” of sorts that districts get for having students enrolled in AP, whether they take (and pass) the test is another issue. There are many ways to have the appearance of offering an inclusive “AP for All” environment without actually doing so. When the opportunity to choose who was going to teach what came up at the end of that first year, I was under the impression that scores did not really matter and that students were in the class, “for the experience”. I was wrong. The end of year shuffle that determines who will teach what the following year is an exercise in comedy and restraint. People scheme, fake one another out, and manipulate like no other to get new schedules, to keep old ones, and to get positions vacated by retirees. It’s a fascinating situation to look at from the outside. From the inside, depending on your personality and position, it can be pretty brutal.
When it was my turn, that day after a year of teaching in circumstances I considered to be, “less than optimal”, I felt justified in jockeying and leveraging my experience and education degrees to get the coveted position of AP English teacher. Nobody else had knowledge of the AP English Language course. I had a decade of teaching experience behind me. I suppose what happened was also a consequence of my status at the bottom of the totem pole for so long in suburbia. I felt like it was finally time to reap some rewards from all of that time spent without any kind of privilege or positive recognition. If nothing else, I knew I had experience in my favor. In urban education, experience often equals status, because so few people manage to stay in the game for more than 2–3 years. I’ve found that experience can count for a lot, primarily because so much of learning to teach depends on trying and failing, then learning from those experiences. In the ill-advised but logistically necessary rotation that year, it was the year for AP Lang, so I was up on deck. The current AP English Literature teacher graciously told me that she, “was not the owner of AP”, but the look on her face told me she didn’t want to lose her prestigious position and “exalted AP English teacher” status. I still took it from her. Oh the games we play with ourselves and one another. Teaching is often a dog eat dog world. “Sink, or swim, baby,” is what a colleague I used to know often said. How I used to laugh at that. It’s funny how hollow that phrase sounds now that I see what damage the true systemic inequities are causing for our children and our nation.
So, I got it. I was Queen Bee, and THE ONLY AP ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHER. I’ll be honest. My ego swelled a little bit. I feel it will free me to be completely honest and say that that first year of AP Lang was a disaster of epic proportions.