By Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos taught at The Preuss School for seven years and now works at a public school district in Texas. He’s also a previous contributor to Speak City Heights partner Voice of San Diego. Ramos’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity.
Say you’re a teacher. You’re conducting a lesson in class, talking over the hum of background chatter from your students.
It isn’t too loud, so you press on with the lesson. But then a student says something inappropriate to another student, loudly.
What do you do? If you’re a first-year teacher, you might call them out, only to be met with an eye roll.
Too often, this small act of defiance prompts panic in inexperienced teachers. They see that the student is undermining their authority, so they try to re-establish it by lecturing the student, or sending the student to the principal’s office.
The student may, in frustration, say something rude on the way out or shove a desk or slam the door – that behavior goes into a suspension report because now the teacher feels threatened. And that’s the version of events that gets back to the administration.
This example came from my work this summer overseeing volunteer college students who taught summer school classes to middle-school students. These college students were passionate about public education, but they were also overwhelmed at times and overreacted to minor situations. That led to consequences for their students.
San Diego Unified is right to consider low teacher experience a factor in disproportionate suspension rates for black and Latino students.
But I don’t blame teachers. Everyone, not just teachers, can help address this systemic inequality in our schools.
To explore possible solutions, we have to discuss why black and Latino students are being suspended at disproportionate rates in the first place. I usually see arguments falling into three categories:
Something is inherently wrong with black and Latino students, and that’s why they get suspended so often.
Since the problem lies within these students, there is nothing we can do except continue to apply consequences until they end up in jail and off the streets. That’s unless, of course, they learn to behave – which they can’t, because they are inherently bad people.
This explanation is obviously racist, so I’m not going to entertain it much further. I do wonder, though, to what extent some teachers may subscribe to these low expectations. During San Diego’s immigration protests in 2006, someone who worked for a North County school district said to my face that children of illegal immigrants are stupid and can’t learn. I doubt I was unfortunate enough to run into the one educator in San Diego who feels this way.
The very model of our schools might be the problem.
Maybe low-income students are forgetting what they learned during the school year when they sit at home watching 10 weeks of TV every summer. If so, we should increase the length of the school year to 200 days to minimize summer learning loss. Maybe these students get into trouble because their teachers don’t know their home situations. Kids should have access to counselors and mentors so that teachers can find out why they’re struggling.
Demographic information like socioeconomic status might explain why these kids keep getting into trouble.
If the students getting suspended tend to be poor, then maybe we have an issue with poverty manifesting itself in the classroom. Other agencies can address the problem by implementing policies to reduce the poverty rate. Such policies could include raising the minimum wage, increasing access to affordable housing and health care and expanding early childhood education. Everyone can play a role in these policy solutions by voting for politicians and supporting policies that create real equality of opportunity.
San Diego Unified’s report and the Vergara v. California ruling both indicated that the tendency for experienced teachers to go to wealthier districts results in a structural inequality for low-income students. These students sit through years of new teachers fixing problematic lesson plans and learning the ropes of classroom management. But with more than 40 percent of new teachers leaving the profession altogether after their fifth year, the departure of remaining veteran teachers to wealthier schools means that poorer students don’t benefit from those teachers’ eventual experience.
I can’t speak to why experienced teachers leave a challenging school to teach in a wealthier part of San Diego, or what we can actually do about it.
But I would think that having to compensate for every public policy failure – unemployment, crime, subsidized unhealthy food, a broken immigration system, lack of affordable housing, poverty wages, economic segregation, racism, underserved neighborhoods – would wear a new teacher down.
This commentary originally appeared on Voice of San Diego.