Op-Ed: Letter from an anonymous public school teacher

For the past five years, I have taught full- and part-time for public schools that serve students  considered to be at-risk in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Washington, D.C.

Urban education invites a much different approach from the standard white middle class framework for education. As an early career teacher, I have had to pick up most of the unique, unspoken rules by trial and error, but the concept of a warm demander is something I recently acquired from taking certification coursework.

A warm demander is a term used to describe the most effective urban teachers. Warm demanders have a style of behavior management that could be misinterpreted by outside observers as harsh but is based on the concept that Black students are accustomed to a more direct style of management outside of school.

It could be that this style of teaching comes from the different ways Black and white children are parented. At home, Black students might hear, “go to bed, or “put down that remote control,” whereas white parents might ask “Isn’t it time for bed?”

Throughout my time teaching in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, I was encouraged to take on a more aggressive “warm demander” tone as a method to connect with my majority-Black students. I felt like the expectation was even higher for me to be an enforcer because of my status as Black and female. It was assumed by administration and students that because I am a Black woman, I could be “Mama mean” and this would naturally be something I could access in my “teacher toolbox.”

I once asked a student who was coaching me on becoming “more mean” why I needed to be that way. I asked her if I were a white woman, would I need to be “more mean?” She responded by saying “No! You’re Black! The students don’t respect you because you’re not mean enough!”

I gradually learned that this mode of behavior management would not consistently work unless trust was established. I had such a short amount of time with my students to establish the trust necessary to become a warm demander that I reverted back to my cool, soft spoken, authentic persona. Immediately the students seemed to mirror my tranquility and I found that I had less behavior adjustments to make.

I entered the field of education to fight in solidarity for the struggle for opportunity through education and share my love of learning. I have nothing against warm demanders. If it is done correctly, I am confident that it is effective. But I think what it takes to be an effective warm demander is striking a fine balance between discipline and punishment. And too often what I have seen as a teacher in urban settings is the misuse of punishment spilling over to abuse.

It is an open secret that profanity and corporal punishment are used as tools for behavior management with Black students in urban schools. In my experience, the teachers who receive the most positive feedback regularly rely on inciting fear as a method for managing behavior, which only conditions students to an inappropriate dynamic with authority. If students are conditioned to respond to aggression and violence, that only leaves them more vulnerable to interactions with police, which can potentially result in excessive use of force.

The intent of sharing my perspective and experience is not to “call out” urban schools that are already fighting the uphill battle of navigating generations of systemic racism. Anyone can point out what’s going wrong in a broken system. My intent is to begin a call to examine the long term ramifications of using fear to manage the unique challenges we face as urban educators.

It is the norm for many students in urban settings to have experienced chronic exposure to trauma. As a substitute teacher at Digital Harbor, I can recall stories from my students of being in the back seat of the car as their parent was murdered, or having discovered dead bodies in their neighborhoods. A child usually will not make connections between their past experiences, present conditions, and their actions. This is often difficult for adults to understand or accept. This reality can create an environment of mistrust, chaos, and violence if teachers are not well equipped to manage behavior with discernment between discipline and punishment.

Because there is no de-escalation training or discipline and punishment training, fear has naturally been adopted as the primary tool of behavior management and as a path to achievement in urban settings.

In my opinion, the mainstream framework that’s being used is egregiously inappropriate to humanely meet the needs of students in urban settings. All schools, but primarily urban schools, are at the convergence of every unaddressed social issue in one place. To use the same tools in such different environments shows a blatant disregard for the human rights of our children and evidence of a widely accepted devaluation of Black and Brown life.

The writer is a teacher who currently works in D.C. Public Schools and has in the past taught in schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. She has asked to remain anonymous out of fear that her comments could lead to workplace retaliation.

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