I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, August 10, 2015

Marylin Zuniga and the Plight of Teachers of Color

As we approach the beginning of the new school year, I think it's important to go back and recount the story of Marylin Zuniga.*

You'll recall that Zuniga was a third grade teacher in Orange, NJ, a district that is almost entirely comprised of black and Hispanic students, 81 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Zuniga had exactly the sort of training any district would look for in a novice teacher, including degrees from Montclair State and Columbia (!), and was hired last year to teach at a school where she had already worked as a substitute.

Zuniga self-identifies as a Peruvian-American. I don't have precise data to say how many Ivy League-educated candidates send their resumes to districts like Orange, but my guess is it isn't many. I've not met Zuniga, but on paper, she is the ideal candidate for a career in urban education. And the fact that she's a first-generation immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country makes her even more desirable as a potential staff member.

By all accounts, Zuniga was a fine first-year teacher; certainly, there were no reports of problems with her work prior to the incident in question. Zuniga was apparently committed to social justice education, and gave assignments to her students that were designed to get them to think about issues of racial and other forms of equality.

For one of those assignments, she used a quote from Mumia Abu-Jamal as a writing prompt: "So long as one just person is silenced, there is no justice." Let me add here that I have no better than a layman's understanding of the Abu-Jamal case. I was a high school student living in the Philadelphia suburbs at the time of Daniel Faulkner's death, but even my politically naive mind could tell that the trial and subsequent appeals were about far more than the particulars of the case. Abu-Jamal's story, like the stories of the MOVE bombings or Rodney King or OJ Simpson or Trayvon Martin, created spaces where America conducted its stilted discussions of race in the post-Martin/post-Malcolm world.

According to Zuniga, her students came to her sometime last spring with the news that Abu-Jamal was ill. In fact, just this month, Abu-Jamal filed a lawsuit alleging that he has gone untreated for Hepatitis C, which is not a surprise as the disease has reached epidemic proportions in America's prisons. I point this out because, as Jose Luis Vilson notes, the realities of incarceration are not merely theoretical for many of the people who live in communities like Orange:
After ?#?ISupportMarylin? made national news, I reflected on what all of this advocacy meant while we wait for Ms. Zuniga to get due process. Many of us weather online threats accompanied by American flags, naval crests, and reasonable racists just to assure that social justice education could breathe for another school year in Orange and perhaps across the country. Similar avatars lined my messages when I advocated for boys and girls of color whether they were victims of police brutality, outdated immigration policies, or victims of educational inequity. Imperfect as the circumstances may be, we have to believe that our hearts and minds are in the right place. With so many of our youth knowing prison second-hand through their parents, their older cousins, their extended families, writing letters to prison is the catharsis that allows our children to hang on. [emphasis mine]
I don't teach many students of color, but I do teach third graders. And I will tell you that nine-year-olds see the world in very personal terms: if they have a relative or family friend in jail, the story of anyone's incarceration is going to speak to them in a very personal way. So it's not surprising to me that Zuniga's students would talk about Abu-Jamal with their parents, nor that they would know about his health problems and react to them.

Zuniga had her students write get-well cards to Abu-Jamal, and subsequently delivered them. She then did something she now admits was a mistake: she tweeted about it. From my perspective, posting about this assignment on social media was wrong, and Zuniga was correct to apologize. Whatever you may think about Abu-Jamal, we all know his is a highly controversial case, and children and their families should not be caught in the crossfire of a larger political war.

I know I'm going to sound like an old fart here, but I often think that younger adults like Zuniga (or my own sons) who grew up with constant access to social media don't fully understand the consequences of leaving indelible digital trails wherever they go.

We live in a world where professional hell-raisers scour the internet in the hopes of finding isolated incidents of alleged perfidy to "prove" that America is tailspinning out of control. Fox News, for example, is built on a foundation of rage, constructed of tales (usually myths) of Christmas bashing and Obama indoctrination and hordes of murdering immigrants and other such artificially manufactured red meat.

Millennials often see no problems with living their lives openly in social media. But when Zuniga posted about her assignment, she was generating material that the outrage machine is designed to turn into pink slime instantaneously. There wasn't going to be a rational, serious discussion about the merits of her teaching methods; all that would follow was grist for the right-wing media mill.

Which brings us to the assignment itself. Was writing get-well cards to Abu-Jamal a good idea? Vilson, as usual, has a thoughtful take:
The first honest question I get is, “If your son was in that class, would you want your son’s teacher delivering letters to a killer in jail?” The answer depends on how we phrase the question. I would have wanted Ms. Zuniga to request permission from me and the other parents in the class before hand-delivering the letters, even if my son requested that she send his letter to Abu Jamal. I would also want assurances that names and addresses were scrubbed from the letter. I would also hope it was in the context of a lesson in restoration and rehabilitation for those in dire straits. But ultimately, yes, this is a fine activity. The second honest question I get is, “If this was a KKK member who had killed a Black kid, would you have the same feeling about this?” In my disposition, the answer is a complicated yet. If I believe in social justice, and I do, and the context of the lesson was compassion and rehabilitation, then I would want that letter sent. 
My activism is predicated on what is necessary at the time I activate. Thus, I, like so many others, including the parents of her students, demand complete reinstatement for Ms. Zuniga. Looking at the breadth of vitriol thrown in Ms. Zuniga’s direction, one must realize that negotiating from the middle (“give her a suspension until the next school year and have her under a two-year probationary period with mentors”) is a losing strategy for what people close to the situation would call an honest rookie mistake.
I'm a long way removed from my own sons being in third grade, but I'm going to disagree with Jose's answer to his second question. I certainly see the value of actively engaging students that young in acts of compassion, and I don't have a problem with students appropriately writing letters to prisoners. But a Klan member would be immediately off the table for me, especially if he had killed a Black child.

I just got back from a family trip to Poland; our last stop before returning to Germany was at Auschwitz and Birkenau. I have great respect for anyone who can find it in the hearts to forgive the monsters who perpetuated such terrible crimes, but I would never put anyone in the position of being forced to express such forgiveness. A teacher is an authority figure, particularly for children of such a young age. It isn't reasonable to give them an assignment and then expect them to express their reservations to the authority in their classroom.

For that reason, I also disagree with Zuniga's original assignment. Again, whatever you may think about the Abu-Jamal case, people have very strong feelings about it one way or another. You don't have to agree with those feelings; you don't even have to respect them. But I believe, as an educator of young children, that we should be very, very cognizant of the positions of authority we hold with our students. This assignment, to me, is just too fraught with political subtext to be appropriate in an elementary classroom.

But here's the thing: I don't live in Orange, and these aren't my children. Again, as Vilson points out, the reality of the systemic incarceration of black men in America is not an abstraction in a community like Orange: it is a reality. Are the outsiders who descended upon this case suggesting that this reality should be ignored? Are they prepared to override the values of the parents of Orange -- many of whom supported Zuniga -- and impose their own? Would they be happy if the same happened in their communities?

And was writing a get-well card such a grievous action that a gifted, committed, burgeoning young educator should be thrown out of the profession forever?

Here's where Vilson, I think, gets it exactly right: this was, at worst, a rookie mistake. However, the response to this mistake was disproportionate, partly because Marylin Zuniga became a pawn in a much larger game. But let's be blunt: there are other forces at play here.


This is from my testimony before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools of the NJ Legislature this past spring. When the Newark Public Schools "renewed" eight schools back in 2012 under then-State Superintendent Cami Anderson, one of the consequences was a significant drop in the number of black teachers working in those schools.

The same thing happened last year in Camden:



Black teachers were 1.64 times more likely than white teachers to face an employment consequence under State Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard's school "transformation" plan, even though many of the "transformed" schools were arguably some of the strongest performers in the district.

I'm not saying that Marylin Zuniga was the victim of exactly the same policies that are in play in Newark and Camden. I also don't want to conflate the issues facing black and Hispanic teachers (and further note that "black" and "Hispanic" are hardly homogeneous classifications). 

I am saying, however, that we appear to be in a time where the wholesale dismissal of educators of color is being tolerated, if not actively encouraged. And I am left to wonder: were Marylin Zuniga a young white teacher who had committed a similar transgression, would she have been hounded out of her school by outsiders in the same way?

The current state of affairs for educators of color ought to concern all of us, for several reasons. First, as I've pointed out repeatedly, we have some very strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. I am, of course, not saying that children should only ever have race-aligned teachers. But it's important that we bring more young people like Zuniga into the profession, and allow them some space to stumble, if only because that will be a natural part of their growth.

Again, it seems to me that Zuniga's actions were not tolerated because she was dealing with issues of racial justice in her classroom. But the very fact she was willing to broach the subject ought to be reason enough to give her a wider berth. And isn't it reasonable to think having more teachers of color  will push schools toward making social justice a part of their curricula? Whether you think Zuniga made a mistake or not, does it make sense to pounce on her when she is trying to navigate a topic that is both complex and critically important (and likely with little guidance)?

Second, when we push teachers of color out of the profession, we destroy a path to the middle class, particularly for young women. There is no evidence that replacing teachers of color with white teachers in urban schools leads to better outcomes. But even if there were, would marginal test score gains be worth it? Especially on instruments that are designed to yield normal distributions?

I know we can't ever, ever speak about education policy in terms of what might be good for teachers, as doing so is proof that the "status quo" is all about adult interests and greedy, lazy union members and blah, blah, blah... But what good is raising the test scores of students of color if we don't have middle-class jobs waiting for them when they graduate? Why wouldn't we want young students of color to aspire to becoming educators? Shouldn't they see teaching as a viable career option, one that will provide economic security and a fulfillment?

And will they seriously consider teaching if they know their every move will be subjected to intense scrutiny -- particularly if they dare to address issues of social justice?

Again: I think Marylin Zuniga made a mistake. I think she would have had to demonstrate she had learned from that mistake if she wanted to remain a teacher. I don't think her assignment was appropriate, and I would expect she not give it again. And I think her story is a lesson all teachers ought to take to heart about the appropriate use of social media in these times.

But let's be clear: chasing Marylin Zuniga out of the classroom probably made a few people outside of Orange feel better about themselves, but it didn't do much to help make teaching a profession that is attractive to the talented young people we need in our schools.

I know the reformy spin machine is going to be working overtime to deny it, but this country has been killing the teaching profession for a good long time. Were I an Ivy League educated 20-something like Marylin Zuniga, I'd suppress any urges I had to make a difference in the classroom and find a different career in which to make my daily bread. That she and others her age are willing to put up with the crap being dished on teachers these days (Mel and Steph, I'm looking at you) is nothing short of amazing to me.

That we would be so quick to pounce on them when they falter, however, is even more amazing.

ADDING: Here's Democracy Now's take on the story:


* News reports have spelled Zuniga's name as both "Marylin" and "Marilyn." I believe the first is correct, but my apologies to Ms. Zuniga if I've spelled her name incorrectly.

2 comments:

Jose Vilson said...

After having met Ms. Zuniga about a month or so ago, I'm even more convinced of the contrived nature of this case. This warranted nothing more than a slap on the wrist, especially because the rhetoric doesn't match the lived experienced. You can't find a parent of one of her students who will speak out against her. In fact, the only testimonials they were able to tease out were from folks working in, ta da, hypotheticals.

I'm concerned that folks don't understand some of the larger issues around the data in Jersey and everywhere. Teachers of color are more likely to teach in schools with predominantly students of color. The idea that schools don't discriminate based on color in their hiring practices is awful at best. Even though teachers of color don't have a particular preference for schools of color (generally), there's also my theory that suggests that predominantly white schools won't hire people of color as often. If it's like that in NYC or NYS, I can only imagine how disparate it is in other states.

With Marylin, I'm convinced that this was more than just a case of firing someone for having an inappropriate lesson, but about teaching folks a lesson, especially in a state like Jersey that's hostile to anything pro-Black Panther (eyeing Assata Shakur here). As someone who believes in social justice education, I must be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and the best type of learning is one in which we can explore these subjects within context (yes) and with wider borders. So speaking about the Holocaust in larger terms than millions of people died ought to be permissible in an appropriate context. Speaking of the KKK outside of being "bad people" is appropriate in the right context.

What's disheartening about some of the arguments I see out there is that social justice education isn't appropriate for kids. Yet, they're bombarded with messages that embed our status quo daily, and injustices are normalized for them, not just poor kids of color, but rich white kids, and everyone in all different parts of the spectra.

Thanks for taking the conversation deeper. Let's build.

Duke said...

Thanks, Jose. I take your point about the larger context, and I agree that we shouldn't shy away from the uncomfortable. Maybe I'm a little more squeamish here because of the age of the kids; again, it's hard for really young children to find the agency to express their discomfort in a classroom. 15-year-olds are a different story. But it's likely I'm being too cautious here.

Importantly however, as I say above, this is not my community. The fact that so many outsiders came into Orange and descended on this case speaks volumes, especially when many of those same folks, I suspect, are the first to grouse about SFRA sending more state aid to districts like Orange. Apparently, we can't bother to fully fund our urban schools, but we can make damn sure they don't dare address issues of race and social justice in the classroom.

The appropriate way to work through these things is as we're doing here and now: as colleagues in an open forum. Marylin Zuniga was not afforded this basic right granted to other professionals. We can disagree on the appropriateness of her lesson, but there's no disagreement that she was a pawn in a sick political game.

Further, she was clearly targeted because she is an educator of color addressing issues of social justice. When you look at, say, the comments section of nj.com under stories about this incident, there's no doubt that was always the real problem some people had with what she did (and who she is).

As to the data: I have a project coming soon (I hope) that looks more carefully at the issue of how teachers are assigned to schools, both within and between districts, based on race. My preliminary investigations confirm what you're talking about here. In Jersey City, for example, there are clear differences across the high schools in the racial composition of staff. I suspect this is true in other cities; I know it's true in Newark.

Folks, if you didn't know, Jose is coming to NJ to speak at the NKEA convention this fall. Do your homework for the event: pick up "This Is Not a Test," Jose's book, and read it before he shows up. In fact, might I suggest a discussion of this book would make for an excellent professional development opportunity?