AP for Who?

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.

Part I

What is an “AP English” teacher?

My journey to becoming an AP (Advanced Placement) English teacher is really not long, or complicated. It began in the usual way, with my taking AP English in 1996 and 1997. I was an English Honors student, so taking AP English came naturally for me. As is the case with many current AP English teachers, I represented one of a small number of students who had always loved challenging literature and/or writing courses, and for whom AP English (Language or Literature) courses are the capstones in a illustrious portfolio of As in English. It is something of a tradition — and often a personal goal — for all competitive English class takers to see how high they can score on the AP English exam(s). For those who may not know, College Board (the big business that profits from the development, marketing, and administration of the AP program) estimates students can shave as much as $19,000 off the cost of a Bachelor’s degree by taking AP courses. With the cost of a college degree on the rise, and more and more adults drowning in student loan debt, it’s easy to see the program’s appeal, especially to those for whom the cost of attending college is cost prohibitive.

Fast-forward to 2007. I am a high school English teacher, and have been one for two years. In our terms, I’m still a “newbie”, “probational status teacher”, “Freshman”, you get the picture. I’ve never been an elementary school teacher (except for one day subbing for 2nd grade which left me nostalgic and traumatized in equal measure). I have taught middle school, but only for one year (I’ll admit that I was not strong enough to do more). So basically, I’ve got one year of experience teaching high school. I was hired by a principal who told me in no uncertain terms that I was hired because the school, “needed diversity.” React to that as you see fit, but I appreciated her honesty and was glad to be in a place where I perceived that I was going to be welcomed. It’s worth mentioning here that my previous school had been run by a tyrannical despot who was barred in 2009 from ever participating in anything education related because she aggressively and persistently harassed and abused staff, students, and parents for years. I suppose one day she framed the wrong person’s child for drug possession, as she was known to do, and they took her to court. She sued the district, unsuccessfully, and that was that.

In my new environment, I was the only black female teacher for miles at a mid-size high school in a suburb of Denver. This is not unusual at all in America, as both the teaching force and educational administration is dominated by white people in general, and white females to be specific. This is an important detail I include not, as one might predict, to highlight my feelings of alienation and isolation, but because it’s important to note that across America, our teaching force does not reflect the faces of black, brown, and immigrant students sitting in the chairs. This is a fact that escapes no one, yet nobody has a solution that is real, practical, or sustainable. There are numerous articles about black teachers leaving the profession in record numbers even though lots of data exists that both black and white students reap benefits from having non-white teachers.

As with many incongruous elements of American life, we see the problems but hide from the struggle involved in working together to find solutions. It’s a weird element in a society built on the premise that, “we’re all in this together.” Though I didn’t feel ostracized in my new place of employment, I was, and still would be, the token black teacher in almost every single meeting, conference, or training session. Several people went out of their way to be welcoming, assured me that they wanted to hire me from the first moment they saw me, offered to babysit my children. In short, there was a real feeling of inclusivity and family even though I was new to the state, area, district, and school. Even so, it didn’t take long for me to notice that there was an obvious hierarchy that existed within the school. There is one in every school in America. The “old guard” at this school were the veteran teachers who had come to the school by personal invitation to open and design the school with the principal with whom they had a previously established years (perhaps decades) long relationship. These teachers were given preferential treatment in ways large and small, and they knew it. The “outer circle” were those who definitely did not operate within the principal’s circle of trust. They were not given preferential treatment, but they weren’t ostracized either. Essentially, this was the golden circle, and where one wanted to be. I went in and out of this circle during my tenure there. On the fringes were the outcasts, those on the “Sh*t” list, those in danger of being fired at any moment — for any reason. In order for such hierarchies to exist, everyone must play along, pretending they do not receive benefits (if at the top) or humbly and quietly accept punishments (shunning) while at the bottom.

It doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to figure out who the AP teachers are. Logic tells us that these are the ones who should get to teach AP because they are the most experienced, and the highest level students deserve the “best” teachers, right? Experience has taught me that in this suburban school, the privilege of teaching AP, and even the honors classes that fed into AP, had everything to do with status, “self-advocacy”, trust/trustworthiness (whether real or imagined), and tradition. It has much less to do with creative, innovative, brilliant teaching and sustaining environments conducive to diversity and inclusion. Many AP teachers are notorious for thinking that holding the position means that they are the smartest of the smart kids and the best of the good teachers. Often, this is true, because the class is not easy to teach. It is extremely public, for one thing. Syllabi are audited and regularly rejected to ensure accuracy and rigor. Yearly scores are published online for all in the education community to see. The course requires a high level of specified content knowledge comparable to that held by a college professor since the class is supposed to be the equal of those offered at colleges and universities across the nation. Even so, there are two schools of thought regarding AP English. Some think that in order to ensure an academic environment comparable to that of a college English class, anyone who cannot perform at that level should not take the course. There is an unbelievable amount of talking around this issue so as not to seem exclusionary and elitist, but the facts are that gatekeeping (hand-selecting students who can and cannot take the class) was a common and accepted practice in the AP community for decades. As such, many “old-guard” AP teachers do what we in education do best — stick with tradition. They use teacher recommendation forms, informal conversations, and student data (on the numerous tests we must give all year long) to justify their decisions to allow or deny students entrance to the classes. Schools will fiercely protect and monitor who gets to teach them. With money and one’s professional reputation on the line, it isn’t difficult to understand why the system would create a situation where teachers feel they have to safeguard the sanctity of the course by micro-managing who gets to enroll. Folks will say it’s all about the kids and making sure they get the best experience possible. I have no doubt that they actually believe that.

The second school of thought regarding AP English is that “AP is for All”; that is, anyone who wants to take it. More and more districts have moved in this direction as it became obvious that black, brown, and immigrant children were not taking, or passing the course in numbers equivalent to their white counterparts and as such were not receiving the same advantages when applying to or attending college. The College Board has an equity and inclusivity statement which, these days, isn’t all that uncommon. Anyone working within the organization will tell you that though pre 19th century prose regularly appears on the exams, gatekeeping no longer exists. It’s an easy solution to segregation within education to say that you’ve changed policy, so it’s over, and everyone has the same opportunity to succeed. Recent conversation about the deficit thinking involved in researching the “30 million word gap” has challenged educators to shift their thinking with regard to black, brown, and immigrant children. More and more children in urban schools are being given access to AP courses that look completely different from those that have traditionally been offered. Nevertheless, change, and progress, can be slow. In order to become an AP reader (those who read and score the written part of the exam) you have to be an experienced AP teacher. In urban schools with a high number of students from diverse linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds, such teachers are rare. That means the people ultimately making the call on whether a student passes the exam are people who in all likelihood do not know the reality of the conditions in which the student learned. They have rubrics, and there is a complicated process by which papers are scored that is geared to eliminate bias. These dedicated people are, I’m sure, giving everything they’ve got. However, it is not unusual at all for a first-year teacher fresh out of Teach for America with no degree in English to be asked to teach an AP course in addition to three others. It is precisely in this way that AP English programs can maintain the appearance of equity without actually providing any. The learning environments are not equitable. The resources provided are not equitable. The starting point at which students enter into the class is not equitable.

I suppose it was primarily the status awarded these AP teachers, that first lead me to want to become one. I don’t want to say that I was seduced into something as tacky and adolescent as wanting to be one of the “cool kids”, but if I’m honest, that is exactly what I spent my time working toward while bouncing in and out of the golden circle at that suburban school in Whitopia. I don’t think it’s rare for English teachers across America to buy into the superficial aura of superiority that accompanies the title of “AP English teacher”. To get even more specific, the title of AP English Language teacher is even more coveted. Often, these Queen Bees are the heads of the English department and, interestingly enough, unofficial second-in-command after folks in administration. If there is more than one, they often share power or predictably fall into a pecking order of sorts. This is usually the case at larger schools where it’s not possible to have one teacher teach all the AP English classes. These teachers can wield a tremendous amount of power. If they bring in scores that get district, state, or national recognition, their egos can swell astronomically. This usually transfers over into preferential treatment when the master schedule is created, placement as department chair (which gives them power over everyone else’s schedules as well as the content and flavor of weekly meetings), and sometimes even additional monetary compensation as they are placed on building and district leadership teams. You can imagine the popularity (and often) respect, they command.

To be fair, many of these teachers have worked ridiculous hours grading, fine-tuning lesson plans, designing curriculum and what we call “vertical articulation” (the sequence of skills throughout grade levels). They were usually A students themselves, and so often naturally have an innate skill for manipulation of the English language and affinity for spotting “GT”/Gifted and Talented kids that others overlook. Many of them are prolific readers and a few are published writers. They spend their summers attending expensive APSI (AP summer institutes) often without pay and paid for with money from their own pockets. [College Board does offer scholarships, but there is a fairly complicated process involved to prove that one needs financial support.] They are often the ones who have the thankless job of running extra-curricular programs that will support and feed honors programs for the obvious reason that strong honors programs produce better AP programs which culminate in better scores for everyone. I feel qualified to speak on this — learn that phrase to own it if you haven’t already — because I am now one of these people. It pains me to admit it, but I did exactly what shouldn’t be done in order to get here.

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