Diary of a pre-certified teacher, Vol. XII: Stereotype threat

Augustine Brehon Contributor
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I was wrong about my professor.

When I started taking a class, “Foundations of Education,” toward getting certified as a teacher, I thought I should come to class with a helmet on. If American academics are lefties, then the wing that actually teaches the teachers was sure to be Red Square. Being a conservative, I was going to get creamed.

I was wrong. The first sign was when my papers started coming back with As. I had told myself that no matter what it cost, I was not going to sell my soul to Lenin or the NEA for a good grade. In my papers I wrote that there needs to be more, not less, religion in schools; in class I observed that Western Civilization, with it’s link between Athens and Jerusalem, was superior to any other system in the world. I argued that the public school system in Washington, D.C., where I live, is badly broken, and that teachers unions and liberals are to blame.

I kept getting As.

But the most astounding moment came when my professor, whom I call Karen, gave the class an assignment: We would get into groups of four, pick the kind of school you would want to run, prepare a presentation, then defend it in front of the class. The class could ask any question they wanted afterwards. We could choose from charter schools, vouchers, Schools.com, green schools or home schooling.

I was expecting the groups to hold their own. What I did not expect is that they would absolutely dominate the debate. The home schooling defenders easily slapped down objections: hey, what about social skills? Well, replied a guy who looked about 19, I myself was home schooled. Once a week we got together with other home schooled kids; it was called an “umbrella group.” On top of that we got to go on field trips with other home-schooled kids. In fact, we got to go when we wanted and stay as long as we wanted. Oh, and home schooled kids routinely outscore other kids on standardized tests.

The charter school presentation, and the attempted rebuttals to it, was even worse. It was like watching the New England Patriots play the school where I sub, St. Mary’s elementary, in football. Charter schools are expanding, and provide motivated teachers, discipline, and financial savings. The teachers are more devoted and enthusiastic. It provides competition. The presenters so easily won every point raised by the class that the professor let them go over their time.

But perhaps the most remarkable moment came when we were discussing the D.C. public schools. I observed the reality of the Washington school system. I had just read an article by June Kronholz in “Education Next” magazine about the D.C. schools, and the stats were incredible: a 50-percent high school dropout rate; only 8 percent of eighth graders reading at normal proficiency; a backlog of 25,000 work orders to fix structural problems; six superintendents in 10 years; the government spending over $16,000 per pupil for some of the worst SAT scores in the country. I offered these to the class and the professor, and announced that to any rational human being, and by any reasonable standard, the District of Columbia school system was broken.

Karen looked at me for a couple beats. Then she said it: “It is incredible, isn’t it?”

I was stunned. I was sitting in one of the most liberal counties in America, just outside D.C., in a class taught by someone with a master’s in education. And she was admitting that the system sucked.

I felt a rush of happiness. The kids in this class were at least half my age (I’m 45). They are the future. And they—and their teacher!—knew that the school system in America was changing, and that this was a good thing. They, and the kids they would teach, would grow up in a world of charter schools, home schools, private schools—any school that would work. And they would not be indoctrinated to think that this was anything other than good news. The trend was clear: between 2004 and 2008, D.C. public schools lost 13,500 students. Charter schools in the city gained 10,000. The only things standing in the way were the teachers unions and the Democratic Party.

I had been wrong about my professor. She was actually great. And not just for having an open mind. The techniques she was giving us for running a classroom, the way she balanced power point with lectures and videos to keep things from getting boring, her sense of humor: she was a great teacher. And we would be better ones because of her.

As I was leaving the class to go and see a band, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, I realized that I may have inflicted “stereotype threat” on myself. Simply put, stereotype threat, which we had learned about in class, is when the very idea of someone rejecting you due to stereotype is enough to make you screw up before the fact. The term was coined by education researchers Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele. Aronson and Steele found that African-American students would often feel added pressure to perform well in school due to the negative stereotypes about the race. In other words, when they were called on in class or given an exam they would be performing not only for the class but to disprove the stereotype of blacks as illiterate gang-bangers. The stress causes them to fumble, the threat of stereotype resulting in the actual reinforcing of said stereotype.

I’m not black, but I am a conservative. And if anyone suffers from stereotype threat, it’s a conservative trying to, as I am, get a job as a teacher—not to mention a right-winger attempting to break into Hollywood, journalism, interior decorating, whatever. When we venture into the liberals badlands, we are absolutely sure of rejection before the fact. Hell, we don’t even get to the interview process most of the time.

Liberal stereotype threat and conservative stereotype threat are both caused by liberalism. In the example that Aronson and Claude Steele cite, the black student is not bombing his exam because of the racism of his classmates or professor, but because the popular culture from film to music ignores great black artists in favor of rappers and comedians. Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson is an intelligent, articulate, and regal performer. When was the last time you saw her on the “Today” show? How about Thomas Sowell? Star Parker? The black kid getting the vapors during his mid-term is not battling Denise Graves or John McWhorter or Bill Cosby. He’s battling “Fuck Tha Police.” He’s fighting Jeremiah Wright. He’s trying to defy the resentful liberal culture that tells him its better to fail and blame society than succeed on society’s terms. Indeed, the popular culture celebrates the rebel stance.

For conservatives, stereotype threat is based on hard cold fact. We know what it’s like to not get called for a job interview even if we’re qualified; we’ve had copy changed and rejected because it didn’t fit the Democratic orthodoxies; we’ve watched people at cocktail parties back away when we say we’re pro-life. I saw an opening for a teacher position at a local Catholic school, and the description emphasized that it was “a Vatican II parish with a heavy social justice component.” Translation: We’re liberal. I knew not to apply. Journalist Nat Hentoff has written about how his circle of professional friends and admirers quickly dried up when he came out against abortion. And so on.

But does this affect us a priori? Can we screw up a job interview by assuming rejection beforehand? Maybe. I had assumed that my semester was going to be a pitched battle between Karen and me. Because I had been a substitute teacher for over a year I thought I had nothing to learn. I was wrong on both counts.

That night I went to see Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Leo is a gifted and intelligent songwriter who was heavily influenced by passionate bands like the Clash and the Jam. His best song is “Me and Mia,” a driving cry for political change and spiritual transcendence. Watching Leo power through it, I felt that the last two years of my life—the cancer, the teaching, getting a book published—may not have been the detour from real life that I thought. Maybe it was destiny.

But figuring that out was for later. It was spring, and rock and roll was in the air. I sang along with Leo:

As I was walking through a life one morning

The sun was out the air was warm

But oh, I was cold

And though I must have looked a half a person

To tell the tale in my own version

It was only then that I felt whole

Do you believe in something beautiful?

Then get up and be it

Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.