Returning again to the Education Next article from last post, there were a number of things that jumped out at me. For instance, this description of parenting styles:
The cultural differences between the newcomers and the old-timers in gentrifying neighborhoods can be easily, though inadequately, summarized: white, upper-middle-class families prefer a progressive and discursive style of interaction with their children, both at home and in school, and lower-income, nonwhite families prefer a traditional or authoritarian style of interaction with their children in these same venues. Annette Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods, delves deeply into these contrasting styles and how they play out over a lifetime. In my research on school choice, one cultural disparity came up repeatedly as a reason for why white parents leave the schools they are trying to integrate. They were put off by near-constant yelling—from principals, teachers, school aides, and nonwhite parents who come to drop off and pick up their kids. The white parents were surprised to discover that not only is the authoritarian end of the schooling spectrum alive, which would be tolerable if not ideal, but also that their gentrifying neighborhood schools exhibit what these parents perceive to be an extreme and outdated education environment, characterized by strict discipline with yelling adults.
Avery (pseudonyms are used for all of my interviewees), a white mom who was clearly resigned to the pervasiveness of this norm at her newly integrating school, explained that she was leaving “primarily because of the discipline issues. I figured the older, the higher up you got, the more effect there would be on him. I didn’t know enough about the upper-grade teachers to automatically be comfortable, because I know there were some yellers in the bunch. And I didn’t want him to get a yeller. It’s a crapshoot every year who you’re going to get.”
Amber was “appalled” by what she “saw in the hallways and in the cafeteria with the way some of the teachers would speak to students.” She remembers many teachers “screaming at the students,” and quickly concluded that “the pre-K was fine, but there was no way she was going to see the kindergarten year of that school.”
Erich used the word “insanity” to express his disdain for the yelling and strictness norm, which he attributed primarily to the administration: “There was just a lot of yelling in the halls, a lot of screaming at the kids. If the kids were acting up they would be punished by not allowing them to go to recess. You need to give them more recess time if they are acting up! Punishing the whole class if one kid is acting up is insanity to me.”
Cindy’s son “hated” school, and she attributed it to a classroom that “was kind of disorganized. There was a lot of yelling and there was no standard of discipline in place.” Clearly trained in diplomatic speak, Cindy expanded on how the yelling drove her out of the school: “I do think it is a little strange when you’re walking down the halls of the school and you hear teachers shouting and screaming ‘shut up’ at the kids. That is not a good thing. Our kids get yelled at enough at home, but to have to go to school and get yelled at too, it is not a good thing. So, I just wanted out of the school at that point.”
Meredith was not just concerned about “the policing of kids” and the impact this was having on her own children, she was especially aggrieved by the way the yelling seemed to target the young black boys in the school. She described a scene in which the black boys were “being treated like prisoners, lined up against the wall, like they’re being incarcerated already!” She was clearly pained recalling this story: “It was so tragic, so, so tragic. You know I was so aware of my own privilege in the situation, knowing I could pull my kids out at any time. And there are some parents for whom this is their chance!”
Lisbeth was equally horrified by the way the school aides’ yelling always seemed to hone in on the black boys, and she told her principal, “They would never dare speak that way to my children. They speak that way to the black boys. So not only is it horrible for everybody, but they’re reinforcing a stereotype that black boys can be spoken to in a way that white boys and white girls are not spoken to.”
A couple of things here. First, it does not seem to occur to any of these parents (although it occurs to the writer; more on this in a bit) that perhaps the authoritarian style might be necessary given the characteristics of the population the school serves.
But second . . . really, none of these people ever yell at their kids? I mean, I attended a variety of public schools in my youth, urban, suburban, and rural. And yelling was a regular feature, particularly, though not exclusively, from the male teachers. I suspect I would be disconcerted to witness yelling at my children’s lily-white little school, but if I did, I would make a point of warning my children, “it better not be you upsetting your teacher like that!”
I’m a yeller. I would characterize it as “speaking forcefully,” but my children call it yelling. I don’t start off yelling. But when the “discursive style of interaction” fails, as it often does, I escalate as necessary. My prejudice is that parents who claim to “never yell” have naturally better behaved children than we do . . . at least so far. But I will also allow that “naturally better behaved” is disproportionately likely to occur among upper middle class Whites than poor Blacks.
In Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit explores the dissimilar styles of communication exhibited by people from different racial and class backgrounds, and how these differences might have a negative impact on learning. For example, Delpit sees a problem when a typical white, middle-class teacher uses a passive communication style with her low-income black students, such as asking them to take their seats instead of telling them to take their seats. She argues that this passive communication style is confusing because of low-income black children’s expectations of how authority figures should act, and this mismatch hinders their academic progress. She asserts that white, liberal educators who value student-centered pedagogy and soft, conversant, negotiated power end up alienating and confusing children who are used to explicit instructions and assertive, strong authority figures, a parenting style more common in the black community. My research suggests that this cultural mismatch also appears to work the other way. The teachers in predominantly poor, minority schools, who are reportedly mostly black and have adopted the more teacher-centered, authoritarian style of instruction that they view as appropriate for their students, are turning off white, upper-middle-class parents who want school climates similar to their own progressive homes, where problems are discussed. The “yelling” described by my interviewees could simply be a misperception of Delpit’s described assertiveness. What they think of as “yelling” might just be a firmness and directness that these parents are not used to, that is not part of their culture. Regardless, it hampers integration, because the white, upper-middle-class parents who send their children to schools in their gentrifying neighborhood do not want them spoken to in that way, whatever its label, and they often reconsider their schooling decision.
Okay, but the fact is that I remember being annoyed, as my own children now claim to be annoyed, when my parents ask them to do things in a manner that falsely indicates to them that they have a choice as to whether they must do the thing or not. I remember distinctly telling my mother, when I was home from boarding school on break, “Look, if I must go to the Wednesday night prayer meeting, then tell me to go to the Wednesday night prayer meeting! Because if you’re asking me to go, then my answer is that the Tuesday night Bible study is enough mid-week religiosity to get me through to Sunday. So don’t lecture me about it anymore!”
And now, my older daughter calls me out on my own lecturing, to often humorous effect.