Caring in the Classroom
This semester I enrolled in an upper-level anthropology course called “Methods and Social Justice”, where we have been conducting ethnographic research among Latino college students. Our goals have been to hear their stories of perseverance and marginalization within the United States, and also give back to the participants by engaging in activism with the community and providing mentorship to community college underclassmen. Like Spanish 232, this course requires us to spend a significant portion of time outside of a traditional classroom in order to engage with the community. Aside from this community participation, we have class meetings where we discuss various ethnographies and theoretical readings regarding border crossings in relation to questions of knowledge production and various ethnographic research methods.
One of my favorite readings in the course thus far has been a chapter from Angela Valenzuela's book Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. In the chapter, “Teacher-Student Relations and the Politics of Caring”, Valenzuela examines the relationships between the administrators and teachers, as well as teachers and students, in a Texas high school where she conducted her research for three years during the early 1990's. The main issues she pursues in this chapter deal with administrators' and teacher's fatalistic and essentialist attitudes toward underachieving students—where in any given year, a quarter of the freshman class is expected to fail—which in turn causes students set low expectations for themselves, opting to “protect themselves from the pain of possibly failing to do well by choosing to do poorly” (70).
Many teachers seem to unknowingly under-serve their students in a school where their classrooms are over-crowded (the school is over-capacity by 400-800 students each year), resources are generally lacking, and there is a cultural rift between mostly Anglo/white faculty and a largely Latino student body. Teachers are then, “both victims of and collaborators with a system that structurally neglects Latino youth,” (70) who consequently set low expectations for their students, undermining and disadvantaging them. While they resent the administration for several policies, they themselves also contribute to an “uncaring” environment by frequently opting, “for efficiency and the “hard line” over a more humanistic approach” in the classroom. Valenzuela argues that teachers and administrators make “blanket judgements about ethnicity and underachievement” (74) rather than addressing more complicated issues that better inform high drop-outs rates and underachievement.
In her years of research, she found that “underachieving” among Latino students was not because students do not value education (as many faculty members assumed), but rather, due to several overlapping factors that led to an “uncaring” environment in which students were met with low expectations and forced to decide between embracing either their cultural identities or their academic success. For example, the school associated certain attire, such as baggy jeans, with gang membership despite the actual low numbers of students associated with gangs. The result was “intense scrutiny by an aggressive, discipline-focused, “zero-tolerance,” administration that tends to approach disciplinary problems in a reactive and punitive fashion.” (79). Because faculty appear uncaring and oblivious to the lives and identities of the students, they are met with misunderstanding and tension from the student body.
In another example of cultural alienation, one talented student was very disengaged with his English class despite a passion for writing poetry and expansive knowledge on Chicano literature. Valenzuela went with him to the principal to propose an after-school Chicano literature class that the student could teach to other interested students. This student was deeply offended when the faculty expressed surprise that a dark-skinned Mexican student could have such talent and ambition, but eventually allowed him to set up an after-school class. It lasted only a few weeks due to lack of funding for books and a lack of interest and attendance.
Taking both of these examples into account, succeeding in this high school means “consenting to the school's project of cultural disparagement and de-identification” (94). The students are in a powerless position, alienated within a structure that that discourages them from cultural engagement, and to some extent even treats identity as criminal association.
While working in the community among elementary school students in Span 232 and among Latino community college students in Anth 499, I often wonder about what solutions are available for such devastating misunderstandings and divides between students and staff in schools such as the one highlighted here. Valenzuela suggests that teachers embrace “authentic caring” towards their students, which means showing them that they have potential to succeed, that they are cared about beyond the classroom, and that they are free to simultaneously embrace their cultural identities and their education. From my work with community college students, I also agree with Valenzuela that cultural misunderstanding among students and staff can be majorly discouraging to Latino students, and that strong adult role models and mentors can have a great impact on student achievement. Furthermore, through my work at Leal, I have come to believe that instituting bilingual education from a young age is another way to encourage Latino and Anglo students to embrace cultural diversity and identity in a more complex and meaningful way. I hope that as time goes on, more schools and teachers will come to understand the incredible impact cultural understanding and diversity has on student's desire and willingness to achieve.