A few days ago, I posted some reflections about the book Teach Like a Champion on Instagram. My post reflected years of dissecting and re-evaluating my experience with using the techniques. To be clear, I was once a teacher who held this book in high regard, but in the words of the late Dr. Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I’m doing the self-work of thinking through what informs my pedagogy, and this author and these practices are not it. One repeated idea that came from people interested in learning more was a call for “alternate options.” Here’s my response.
I am a Teach For America (TFA) alum. I have worked with and for them, and I believe the basis of their mission is flawed, but this post isn’t about my TFA story. It’s about the belief that anyone can be “trained” and have a place in our schools. We don’t have to exploit communities in service of getting people to understand the depth of inequity. People don’t need to take a detour from their life goals through under-resourced communities to understand this; they can read a book. This is about the policies and procedures sold to schools, and important considerations to engage with about your educational practice. But first, my reflections.
My most deep-seated issue with the book is the lack of recognition of the profoundly flawed and inequitable systems that have created generational disparities along lines of difference, in particular, systems that have oppressed Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC). By ignoring systemic racism, the author bypasses history and presents techniques that are seeped in racist ideas about these communities.
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. – Desmond Tutu
The absence of acknowledging the injustices that many students face, especially in the school district that employes the author, is telling. Yes, there is mention of building relationships in the second iteration of the book. That said, the crux of anti-bias and anti-racist education involves self-reflection, relationships, and collective action. These concepts are either glossed over or not present. Education is a liberation tool that can challenge inequity. This book presents it as a means of maintaining power and forced compliance that will “put students on a path to college.”
At face value, the desire for college readiness feels just and supportive in expanding options and opportunities for kids. However, at what cost? The book Teach Like a Champion centers on the observations of an author with minimum teaching experience in many schools that are built on the one-way street of “No Excuses” philosophy. This street doesn’t have a lane for critical thinking and critique of the school experience by students and families. Instead, it places students on a highway designed by white architects who have mapped out a racist blueprint for “success.”
The phrase “No Excuses” generally refers to charter schools in under-resourced communities that have high results. These schools also share common characteristics that include an extended school day, adherence to middle-class values and norms, emphasis on standardized testing and data analysis, a rote and prescribed process for teacher development, and a highly structured disciplinary system (Thernstorm & Thernstrom, 2004). The majority of big network charter schools (e.g., KIPP, Uncommon, Achievement First, Success Academy) were founded by white leaders with the primary desire to increase test scores and expand their networks in similar communities (White, 2015). This philosophy tends to strip students of their identities, devalue their opinions, force submission to authority, and limit self-expression (Golan, 2015). These are the unintended consequences of the model. This school experience represents the “educational survival complex” that acknowledges the historical and ongoing suffering of students of color in school systems were they “… are left learning to merely survive, learning how schools mimic the world they live in (Love, 2019).”
To add insult to injury, the college graduation rates of these schools are not near the national average. One could argue, but their rates are higher than students with the same demographics in traditional public schools. Ok. Another could argue, why the singular focus on college? How does this connect to student dreams and passions? This is my critique. The use of the white middle-class life path was never designed to include BIPOC. Why not acknowledge this and empower students to deconstruct the system and forge new pathways?
I’ve written a lot more than I expected for an introduction, and I still have a ton of thoughts bubbling around that will spill out on this here blog soon. One idea is how capitalism might drive the spread of these techniques. That’s not my point here, I want to expound on my thoughts about “alternatives” to Teach Like a Champion.
Educate like an Anti-Racist
I hear the cry from teachers (many early in their careers) yearning for something to “replace” Teach Like a Champion. I am wondering about implicit undertones in the air of this cry. What do people really want? An easy button? What are they afraid of? Our kids? To be clear, there is no book, lesson plan, or framework that can be cut and paste for all BIPOC communities. We are not monolithic. The work involves actively getting to know your context, engaging in self-reflection, building coalitions, and decentering whiteness. Somewhere down the line, society tricked us into believing the teaching profession is microwave friendly. It’s not. You can’t take a lukewarm person put them through a quick teacher boot camp and expect them to come out on fire for the profession. It doesn’t work like that. This problem is exacerbated by bringing in techniques from Teach Like a Champion because of the need to “expedite” growth and learning. In too many cases, this looks like teachers entering communities as outsiders and imposing their will and power over students (because they are coached to) without a deep understanding of the community social contract.
The anti-racist educator knows that teaching is about co-creating, building, learning, planning, reflecting, and interrogating with your community.
The anti-racist educator knows that this work is not prepackaged.
The anti-racist educator embraces the self-work, relationship-work, and collective-action work required to engage and empower their classrooms.
The anti-racist educator views their classroom with an intersectional lens.
The anti-racist educator uplifts historically marginalized voices.
The anti-racist educator decenters their personal feelings, listens and learns from the community, and understands that “freedom is a constant struggle,” but radical change is possible (Davis & Barat, 2015).
The anti-racist educator is grounded in policies that center fairness, feedback from students and families, and ongoing self-evaluation.
The anti-racist educator understands the power of every interaction with kids and families.
The anti-racist educator knows the importance of sound pedagogy.
There are more thoughts about anti-racist education here in this post.
When you understand the roots of the tree, you understand the fruits of the tree. – Brittany Packnett Cunningham
What Informs Your Education Philosophy?
And so I turn back to Teach Like a Champion and wonder, what is it rooted in? What informs the philosophy of the techniques included? What’s meant by a champion? The pictures posted are taken directly from the book. These are the author’s words. Note: I do not own a copy of the book *anymore*, and I found a free online version here. Evaluate it for yourself against your philosophy of education because there are my personal opinions.
People asked for suggestions, and mine are simple:
Determine your philosophy of education. What do you believe about the purpose of education? Who informs your pedagogy? What research-proven practices do you believe are essential? Why?
Engage in self-identity work.
Understand the community you will be teaching in. This doesn’t mean you engage in cultural tourism. Listen to people from the community. Learn about the assets.
Connect with educators in the building who are experiencing success. Don’t try to be them, learn with and from them. During your planning period, sit in their classrooms. Ask questions and buy them coffee or tea for the time (wink, wink).
Keep learning and unlearning. There are so many books and workshops out there to guide you.
Reflect on what’s working and what’s not. Keep a record of this so that you can self-evaluate.
Ask for help!
Remember, teaching is hard work. Our children are humans (not robots), and meeting the needs of 30-120 learners in a year (depending on your grade) is work!
**If you made it this far, and you’re thinking, that’s it? Or but what if…? Remember, this profession is not a microwave. Commit to learning from your successes and shortcomings. Invest the time, seek out feedback, film your lessons, and keep learning and applying.
I’m sharing books. If you are thinking, I need to read all of that?? Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t give you the work. What’s most important is what informs your practice. Who are you listening to, and why? From there, we can begin to build-out our partial vision for our practice. It’s partial because we hold space for input from our students and families. AND, it’s okay to grow and change with your practice. In fact, I believe it’s necessary. Who you are listening to and learning from might change. You can read all the books and get nothing out of them, or you can read one, and it can change your teaching. It’s personal and once again takes time!
If you made it this far… All Love. See you soon-ish!
Davis, A. Y., & Barat, F. (2016). Freedom is a constant struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the
foundations of a movement. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Golann J. W. (2015). The Paradox of Success at a No-Excuses School. Sociology of education, 88(2),
Love, B.L. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of
educational freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Thernstrom Abigail M, Thernstrom Stephan. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New
York: Simon & Schuster; 2003.
White, T. (2015). Demystifying Whiteness In a Market of “No Excuses” Corporate-Styled Charter
Schools. In Bree Picower & Edwin Mayorga (Eds.), What’s Race Got To Do With It: How
Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality. New York: Peter Lang.
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Tanesha B. Forman
I'm a current middle school administrator who loves breaking down complex topics and providing opportunities for educators learn, reflect, practice, and implement methods that foster equity and anti-racism. I believe we win together!
I’m a current middle school administrator who loves breaking down complex topics and providing opportunities for educators learn, reflect, practice, and implement methods that foster equity and anti-racism. I believe we win together!
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