"Pedagogy that begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization." -Paulo Freire.
I want to tread carefully when I talk about this, because it is not meant to implicate anyone as dehumanizing their students. It is surely a critique that I too must internalize and think about very critically and seriously, but it's just something I want to bring light to. I've been re-reading some of my old critical theory faves (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pedagogy of the City both by Paulo Freire, Teaching Community, A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks and We Make the Road By Walking by Paulo Freire and Myles Horton) and I want to keep in mind that while we're all seeking to empower our students through the skills that we can teach them, it is dangerous to approach students from a paternal perspective, where we set ourselves up as the "hero" that "saves" them from (i.e. Dangerous Minds' message) as this perspective is based on a power dynamic that reinforces social, racial and economic classes as they are. This is not revolutionary or emancipatory education.
This topic comes to mind because it is a mistake that lots of educators make, with regard to caring about their students and believing that they wholeheartedly have their students' best interests in mind. Sometimes I think that white educators go into urban schools because they will feel better about themselves at the end of the day, for doing "the good, Christian work" of helping others, but what Freire is saying is that if we adopt that attitude when approaching our students, we are doing nothing to disrupt power structures and free them from oppression. It definitely takes shape when teachers are making the choice as to where they want to work and examining why. Lots of educators go with the "I want to work in urban public schools, those poor kids" train of thought, which seems altruistic at first glance, but is really more selfish and egotistic than the hypothetical-teacher-in-question could ever dream of. What assumptions about the lives and experiences of your students do you make when you approach it this way? How can you effectively engage them? What will you do on a daily basis to ensure that they are getting what they need to walk away from school more prepared for a world that is set-up to deny them their right to a prosperous life? What skills can you teach them to survive in their reality? What is the disconnect between what the state says they need to learn and what they will actually use?
I'm not expressing myself very clearly today because I have a lot of assignments weighing heavily on my brain. But I guess I can tell you now that there are some educators I've known who are not even on the level of misguided attempts at altruism by choosing jobs in the city; I've run into many people who flat out will not work in urban schools, but who "admire" me for my decision to firmly plant my feet in my home and look around me, telling my students that they can do this. Who want to hear the exploitative stories of how rough my school is and of the gang violence and teen pregnancy, because it continues to feed their stereotypes about who my students are and what they are capable of. Yes, they have a lot more to deal with on a daily basis, but I should not be celebrated for choosing to work with them, how racially charged is that when you remove it from context? I feel an obligation to their survival as a fellow human being, and try to open up doors out the ghetto (and even within the ghetto) for them through teaching them how to critically think about themselves in the world, and how to read and write exceptionally well.
It's so damn difficult, especially during standardized tests, to look at the girl who came to school starving, soaked in the rain from walking a mile without an umbrella, and think that she could ever be expected to perform at the same level as a her suburban white counterpart, who came to school with a full belly, had a ride from a loving parent and a lunch made with care. The fact that these inequities still exist and will continue to exist until our society also begins to see value in all people is disheartening, yes, but inspiring in its great challenge.
Anyway, this is in the vein of teachers needing to be advocates for their students, but if we are going to take on the task of teaching, we need to destroy this authoritative context to our work. Yes, we have a curriculum to teach, but what do they already know? It is our job in seeking to be effective teachers that we begin by getting to know who they are and what they know already, and then finding ways to make our curriculum relevant to their lives. But first we need to make their lives relevant to us, see how we are all interconnected and think long & hard about where we choose to work and what factors inform that decision.