Dismantling the Artificial Obstacles, by Joshua Vogt

Joshua Vogt teaches government at Gamble Montessori High School, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Here is the graduation speech he was invited to give in June 2016 by the senior class. You can listen to his speech here.

joshuavogtFirst I’d like to thank our class of 2016 for inviting me to speak at your graduation today. Honestly, what were you thinking? Actually, I am truly honored to be here today in this space with this amazing group of young people. I was privileged enough to share our final morning meeting with this group a short time ago – there is power in that ritual of shared space and I know in that moment in that circle that we have built such a strong community among the members of the class of 2016 – because we have built each other up, you are about to graduate from high school. That is no small achievement and I’ll say simply and clearly – I am proud of you.

In the spirit of this invitation to speak at your graduation, I’d like to give the speech I think many of you would give if you were up here at the podium right now. I know each one of you is truly grateful of the support you’ve received from people in your lives to help ensure your seat at this ceremony right now. However, I know even more clearly that you have overcome many obstacles to get to this place. Some of those obstacles are real and necessary to build character – learning to sit quietly and work diligently, for instance, even if the process is difficult or the work is boring. But many of these obstacles are artificial – these are things that we as adults, including me, place in your way, even with good intentions, that trip up your progress. These artificial obstacles don’t need to exist, yet they often persist anyway. Today I hope to name those artificial obstacles and I hope to give a call to action to everyone in this room so that we may recognize them and work to dismantle them. Through taking apart these artificial obstacles I believe we can help all of our children become more selfless, thoughtful people. Parents and family, Gamble staff, community members – we are doing good work, but we have to do even better.

So, I’m going to talk about four artificial obstacles that we, as adults, place in the way of our children’s progress. I’m also going to offer some solutions to each one of these – some strategies we can all use to dismantle these obstacles. I’ll warn you right now, though…these get progressively more difficult.

The first obstacle I’d like to name is that of frustration. This is a pretty easy one. I see too often that when adults are frustrated with their children or their students, that the language shifts – it immediately becomes negative. We are all guilty of this from time to time – I am certainly not exempt from letting frustration get the best of me. When we are frustrated, all of a sudden, the child who is simply tired becomes “lazy” and the child who is simply disinterested is “unmotivated”. This language is particularly damaging when we engage in it around other children or direct this language toward an individual child. When a child perceives himself or herself to be a hard worker, for instance, an adult’s negative judgment can unnecessarily damage that child’s self-image and plant nagging doubts where there was only confidence before. When we call a child lazy or unmotivated, they have a hard time viewing themselves as something different than that. This language of frustration doesn’t serve to encourage a child to be more motivated – instead, it serves the opposite purpose by giving that child a negative self-image to live into. I cannot emphasize this enough – the words of a trusted adult carry a lot of weight. With that in mind, the simple way to dismantle this obstacle is to recognize and identify our own feelings as adults. When you are frustrated with your child or with your student, saying “I’m frustrated with you right now” is a powerful start to the conversation that needs to be had. It opens the door not with anger, shame, or disgust, but with a temporary feeling of frustration. At that point, we can teach that child a more appropriate behavior or a better way to express himself or herself. If we start from a place of negativity, however, that sentiment overrides any teaching that happens after. So, in order to remove the artificial obstacle of our unintentionally destructive language, it is important that we recognize and identify our own feelings first before lashing out in frustration.

The second obstacle is that of our very own ego. This one is a bit more complicated, so I’ll give you a short example. I did my student teaching here in Cincinnati at an urban school that was known for being very “no-nonsense”. I was working with a veteran teacher who was well-respected within the building. One day, I was having an issue with a noncompliant student over something silly I’m sure, and instead of escalating the conflict, I walked away from it and told the student I’d address the issue later. My cooperating teacher was horrified. She could not believe I walked away from the situation. Here is what she said, I’ll never forget it, “The classroom is a power struggle and you have to win every time.” In the moment, as a brand new teacher, that message seemed to match up with what we learn in teacher education programs in college – it is my way or the highway…you must comply or else! Over time, however, I realized how harmful this outlook really is. If the children in your classroom continually lose, what are they getting out of that experience? Instead of fighting WITH students, we should be fighting FOR students – that is at the root of advocacy. This authoritarian outlook, for certain, is a symptom of that second obstacle: our ego, which is the opposite of youth advocacy. Let’s say we win that power struggle – yay adult! – by escalating it to the point where the child is removed from the class or given some sort of other punishment. We won! Well, we won for now…we got the child to comply – to do whatever we had initially wanted him or her to do or we removed them completely. But will that stick long term? Absolutely not! In that interaction, the dispute itself wasn’t solved at all! Essentially, the adult said “I’m the adult and you’re the child, end of story.” “I’m the adult and you’re the child…” if I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase I would’ve driven here to graduation on a freaking spaceship. This belief is not a justification for making a child do something – even if it is important. It is simply a clear expression of our ego – I have more authority than you, so don’t question me. It is also a very effective way to take away a child’s voice. This makes me especially sad because, when asked, parents and teachers say that critical thinking and self-reliance are two of the most important skills a child can learn – we say we want children to have a strong voice. What this means essentially is that, yes, we want our children to question authority unless we are the authority in which case they’d better listen and not be disrespectful!

Here’s the simple solution to this obstacle of ego: questioning authority isn’t disrespectful, it is democratic! We have to ask questions, we have to challenge authority – without this, we submit to our own oppression. Yes, the stakes are that big. Ask any 7 or 8 year old child about fairness – they’ll be able to tell you exactly what is and isn’t fair – they feel injustice very strongly and they aren’t afraid to tell you about it. Of course, they can be wrong or irrational, but they certainly have voice – they aren’t afraid to question authority. So, instead of punishing those little challenges or using our position of authority to quiet their voice, we can remove this obstacle of ego by helping that child make his or her point. Give them even more words, strengthen that child’s voice – there is wisdom waiting to be heard, not silenced.

The third obstacle is a pretty difficult one to tackle but it exists in every urban school I’ve seen – that obstacle is our own bias. For those of you wondering if I’m going to name the real beast here, wait no longer – yes, I mean racial bias. I would like to say, however, that we are generally lucky to be affiliated with Gamble Montessori in this instance as this is a conversation we are willing to have. We are willing to be critical of our own bias even if it is uncomfortable – we are willing to legitimize the experience of our students, we are willing to listen. But, we could do much better too. My students know the national statistics here: they know that students of color are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than white students. They know that those suspensions occur more often for subjective offenses like disruption or disrespect, whereas white students are suspended for provable offenses like drug possession or property damage. My students know that statistically, students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to end up incarcerated, they know that nationally an average of one out of every three Black men will be incarcerated at some point in his life. In fact, my students participated in a protest that they planned themselves – most of them stayed silent for an entire day in protest of this racial disparity. It was a proud moment for me, as a person who believes that education and liberation are the same thing, to see my students walking silently through the halls with tape over their mouths and one simple message – Hear Us. Their silence was deafening.

They know we must do better. We cannot continue to make an implicit judgment about a child from the moment he or she walks into a classroom on the first day of school. We cannot continue to ignore the lived experience of so many of our children who are instantly written off as problematic with very little chance for redemption. The consequences of implicit bias are very serious inside and outside of the classroom. This is quite literally a life or death matter in our society at large – one that has resulted in the senseless killing of so many young people of color like Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice – boys, who, in a snap judgment clouded by bias, were deemed to be a threat to the peace. We as a society own that – we let these babies pay the ultimate price for having the audacity to be young Black children minding their own business. We have got to reckon with that somehow and it has to happen in every household and every school.

I say that we’re lucky to be at Gamble because we are actually talking about racial bias. We know that we can be exceptional, but we know we’ve got to acknowledge this often invisible elephant in the room that exists literally everywhere in American society. And, yes, we can do better. Here’s my partial solution for Gamble and other schools willing to actively start dismantling the obstacle of implicit racial bias: listen. That’s it. Just listen. It is that easy, but it begins with this premise as well, this universal truth: we can’t live each other’s lives. We can try to empathize, sure, but my life is my personal collection of experiences and feelings and your life is your personal collection of experiences and feelings. I don’t have the right to tell you that your feelings are wrong or that your experience doesn’t have value. As an adult, if I want to eliminate the obstacle of bias, if I want to accept my students or my children for who they are and not who I’d like them to be, I have to listen to them, and, yes, sometimes that isn’t easy for me to do. But that simple act legitimizes that child’s lived experience. By listening, you are really saying that that child’s experience has value, that his or her feelings are true. If a child is feeling discriminated against, a response of “Well, I just don’t see that” doesn’t really serve much purpose – it fails to acknowledge the child’s feelings and it fails to create a pathway for examining biases that do exist in individuals and in the education system. Let’s resist the temptation to be dismissive of feelings of racial bias – all that does is bolster an already unnecessary obstacle in the path of our children’s success.

Right now, you’re probably saying something like “What is this guy even talking about? If we take to heart all of his ridiculous solutions, we won’t be able to hold our children accountable!” Well, here’s your final shocking moment – the fourth and final obstacle we needlessly place in the path of our children’s progress is what I call the myth of accountability. As adults, both teachers and parents, we are so fearful that our children will absolutely lose their minds if we don’t provide harsh consequences – by the way, even those evil behaviorists call these punishments. “We have to hold them accountable!” we say without stopping to ask the obvious question: “Accountable to what?” Well, of course we do need to hold our children accountable, but we usually say this as a justification for an any-means-necessary approach for getting our children to do what we want them to do. There was a story that recently went viral on Facebook of a famous Black motivational speaker “going off” on a group of Black teenagers in an assembly because they “refused to be quiet”. He angrily lashed out at the students and even at one point in his rant said “You ain’t got but a few people who care about you in this world.” His actions were widely praised in many circles – across boundaries of race, class, and gender. This disappointed me greatly, however, as I feel that this speaker was completely out of line. I want us to empathize with those teenagers for just a second. You’re a high school student of color attending an underserved and underfunded school. You have been to assemblies like this before – someone comes in to speak AT you, thinking they’re doing you some big huge favor, giving up time to save you from yourself. This is someone you haven’t met and probably will never see again. He insists on lecturing you about his personal experience, which, of course, isn’t the same as your experience. Feeling motivated yet?

Can you really blame these children for valuing the conversation with their peers over a lecture about responsibility and motivation made by a complete stranger? I certainly can’t!  Our children won’t -and shouldn’t – automatically give someone respect because they are an adult at a podium. But, I assure you, they won’t hesitate to listen if you actually have something valuable to say and you have earned their trust. We can’t simply write off this generation of teenagers as disrespectful and disengaged because they don’t want to listen to lectures about how impolite they are. This won’t help them become better people, but it will help us become bitter people.

Yes, we can do better. Instead, we should recognize that we are always most accountable to those people we are close to: our family, our friends, our significant others – really anyone we’ve worked to build a positive relationship with. If we have worked to build strong relationships with our children based on mutual trust, we are both accountable to that relationship. Yes, children will still misbehave. Yes, adults will still overreact (I certainly will). But the guilt one feels knowing that he or she has damaged the trust of a person that truly cares about them, and now must work diligently to repair it, is quite powerful – more powerful than shaming, more powerful than a detention, Friday School, or suspension, and, perhaps, more powerful than a jail cell. Caring for one another…truly building close relationships…I believe that that’s where real accountability lies.

So, we’ve come to the end here. And it is time to see these wonderful, thoughtful,  creative, passionate, kind-hearted, young people graduate. They have earned it, there is no doubt. But they are here not just because we love them, not just because we are the giants upon whose shoulders they stand so that they may see further. No, they are also here because they’ve succeeded in spite of these artificial obstacles we’ve all placed in their path, often unknowingly – frustration, ego, bias, and mythical accountability. So, seniors, graduates, I hope that when you are old enough to raise your own children that you can carry on this message: your life, your childhood, your adolescence, your schooling doesn’t just have to be something unpleasant. You don’t just have to grit your teeth and push through it like it is a chore. You don’t have to stare longingly out of a classroom window waiting for a superhero to swoop down save you from yourself. And, most importantly, you don’t have to stay silent. There is so much joy in the lives of young people and so much power in their wisdom. I hope that you can commit to a future in which you actively clear that path to progress of artificial obstacles so that generations to come may walk safely. Clear that path so that we may all do better.

Thank you. And congratulations, Class of 2016.