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James Boutin


James Boutin
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‘Guillermo was een jongen die nooit oogcontact maakte, die zelden iets zei en die regelmatig in slaap viel in de klas’

18 december 2015

James Boutin

Guillermo was een jongen die nooit oogcontact maakte met zijn docent, die zelden iets zei en die regelmatig in slaap viel in de klas. Toch had zijn leraar, James Boutin, het idee dat de jongen wel wat van zijn leven wilde maken, gemotiveerd was. Op een dag hoorde hij de schokkende reden van Guillermo’s gedrag, en dat zette hem aan het denken. James schreef vervolgens een blog over public schools in Amerika, ooit opgericht om maatschappelijke ongelijkheid tegen te gaan. Hij laat zien hoe zijn standpunt daarover is veranderd: hij gelooft er niet langer in dat scholen dat doel kunnen dienen.

slapenToen James Boutin, leraar aan the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment in the Highline School District in de Verenigde Staten, tien jaar geleden met lesgeven begon, had hij een radicaal ander begrip van public schools en hun doelen dan hij tegenwoordig heeft. Aanvankelijk geloofde hij dat goede public schools voor grotere maatschappelijke gelijkheid zou zorgen, met name voor anders rechteloze mensen in de samenleving. Hij schrijft daarover meer in zijn blog. Hij laat zien hoe zijn standpunt is veranderd: hij gelooft er niet langer in dat scholen dat doel kunnen dienen. Natuurlijk: James schrijft over een andere maatschappij dan de Nederlandse, maar zijn  waarden en overtuigingen zijn universeel: ‘Does public education have a history of doing disservice to poor children of color in our country?’

Wait! I’m a Radical Educator?

A version of this post was published at The Answer Sheet.

When I started teaching, I had a radically different understanding of public schools and their purpose than I do today. Back then, I believed that great public schools could be the great societal equalizer for otherwise disenfranchised people in our society (I say much more about that in this post). And so, in this post, I’d like to discuss how that view has changed, and why I no longer believe schools can serve that purpose.

I want to start by telling you about a student I once taught. (Here, we’ll call him Guillermo.) Guillermo had long, dark hair that usually covered his face. He was tall and lanky and normally wore black pants and a black jacket to school. When he spoke with you (or, more often, sat while you spoke to him), he would keep his head down. I can’t remember a time that we made eye contact. After a long day at school, he would arrive late to the last period of the day with various colors all over the skin of his arms and hands. His friends had used markers to write their phone numbers, pictures, or messages on him.

Many days, Guillermo slept through class. Although he rarely spoke back to me when I asked him about his life, I had the distinct impression that he wanted to do well in school. To be fair, I believe every student wants to do well in school. But there was something unique about Guillermo’s behavior that made me think that. For one, he was in school virtually every day. I caught him, on multiple occasions, asking other students what he was supposed to be doing when he didn’t think I was looking. He always brought a pencil. And even though he never turned in work, I saw him occasionally writing on paper during work time.

A few years after I had him in class, I learned from our school counselor that the reason he slept in class so often was that his mom had relocated their family about twenty-five miles from our school. She wanted them to have an uninterrupted education, however, so she had them take public transportation from the temporary housing she’d found to our school, which required Guillermo to wake up at 4am to catch the bus. After school, he would hang out with his friends in the courtyard until the bus home arrived (around 5pm). He would return home around 7:30, help out with chores like grocery shopping, and fall asleep around 11 or 12.

Getting to and from school wasn’t the only challenge Guillermo faced, though. His father abandoned his mother and siblings when he was four years old after some years of verbal and physical abuse, and his mom wasn’t able to afford a regular housing situation on her own. Although I didn’t learn about these facts until after he’d left my classroom, it made a lot of sense. Guillermo was a student who had suffered the loss and abuse of a father, and the emotional instability of a mother. On top of that, he struggled with the same challenges that teenagers who don’t face such tremendous trauma deal with on a daily basis: hormonal changes, fitting in at school, and finding an identity.

I’m telling you about Guillermo because it’s so very important that people who don’t work in high-needs schools understand what the lives of the people who attend them are like. Of course, nobody else had Guillermo’s unique situation; but most students living in material poverty experience a high degree of what one might call emotional poverty as well. It’s not just about not having money for food and housing; it’s often about not feeling the love, support, and stability needed for social-emotional health.

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