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Dear Decaturish – How deficit approach drives teachers out of district

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Dear Decaturish – How deficit approach drives teachers out of district

DeKalb County School District Administration and Industrial Complex on Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse

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Dear Decaturish,

In a recent interview published in Decaturish, DCSD Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley made the following statement: 

“So, we do have a shortage of teachers. The number is changing daily. We are constantly hiring…We’re still recruiting…to make sure we have qualified people in our school buildings.”  

I was one of those “qualified people” until two weeks ago. I resigned from my position as a ninth-grade social studies teacher two days into pre-planning. During my brief time with DCSD, I earned consistently positive evaluations, including top marks in multiple metrics, participated in multiple committees and programs, and was recognized as an “emerging leader within the department and the school as a whole”. More importantly, I cultivated valuable relationships with students and parents alike; a process that is only successful by seeing youth as full-thinking people deserving of knowledge.

Despite all of this, I left. The short answer to “why” is that geography, my area of expertise in which I achieved these gains, was axed despite my opposition. However, the long answer is more nuanced. 

As many educators and pedagogues have stated over the years, the concept of “teacher shortage” itself is a misnomer. Peter Green recently published as much in Forbes, There is No Teacher Shortage. So Why is Everyone Talking About it?, reminding us “teacher shortage” rhetoric misidentifies the problem. It is not a shortage; it is an exodus.  

While the pandemic may have exposed many reasons highly qualified and competent educators leave, administrators, both in and above the school house, remain one of the most consistent reasons teachers do so. One such dispute is the administration’s insistence on utilizing what we call “deficit approach”. The deficit approach assumes less intellectual rigor and a belief that a greater focus on “skills oriented” classes will elevate general ed students (organization, managing deadlines, monitoring systems). This methodology could not be further from the empirical, epistemological, and pedagogical realities of the classroom and research.

Dr. Gholnescar Muhammad, my former GSU professor and one of the leading contemporaries of culturally responsive pedagogy in youth education, explains in her critical work “Cultivating Genius” the “Five Pursuits” to building critically literate and capable students. Skills are only one of those pursuits, and its isolation from intellect, identity, criticality, and even joy, is what inhibits student learning and stifles meaningful education. Geography’s elimination on the national level is just one example of how this happens. 

Who benefits from an individual who has these “soft skills” but no meaningful content about the world? Who benefits when someone deemed your culture and history unworthy of being present in the curriculum itself? Who benefits when administrators not educated in a content area deem some of our students unworthy of possessing the valuable knowledge of wealth, people, and ideas? And why do those same administrators see geography’s removal as acceptable as long AP students have Human Geography? Apparently, this knowledge is for some students, which often aligns with socio-economic status, creating a classist and unfair advantage rooted in inaccurate perceptions about the vast majority of our students, many of whom are of color.

This “skills” method is not creating informed youth empowered to change and craft the world around them. It forces teachers to create servile bureaucrats devoid of agency and knowledge. When “skills” are isolated from intellectual rigor, you create disempowered compliance, ignorance, and ultimately, violence. Our students- the same youth I was commended for collaborating with so successfully via geography- will not be prepared to face those obstacles because of class and racial inequities perpetuated by segregation of knowledge. 

It is also worth considering how this approach further enables dangerous far-right anti-public education stances and American nationalist/white supremacist moral panic fabrications around “anti-CRT” rhetoric and long-term systemic efforts to unravel public education. We are crafting ignorance that provides zero resistance to these repressive and destructive efforts, such as the GA government’s recent law around “divisive issues.”

If DCSD, among many other districts, truly seeks to rectify this crisis among education, they must move away from the false certainty of “educational data”, rigid corporate structures, and lack of accountability.

Instead, school districts must engage in a meaningful democratic process that values teacher expertise and student input above corporate “improvement plans” that often rely on purchased materials and external programs that eclipse educators’ craft and students’ agency. It must cease claiming to uplift struggling students while simultaneously stripping their very presence from the curriculum itself, replacing it with “white savior” skills-centered programs standing on outdated/questionably modified “QCC” standards and instead embrace content like Shane Safir’s & Jamila Dugan’s “Street Data”. It must recognize what courses like geography have to offer, especially when it has so much to do with the material challenges our students will (or currently are!) contend with. It must acknowledge that its own policies are driving highly qualified, accomplished, and passionate individuals out the door for “on-paper” plans that have no meaningful research backing them. 

I imagine many qualified educators would return tomorrow if districts, states, and even some community members, would stop treating educational expertise of successful teachers as secondary while imposing programming divorced from the value produced by the very relationships administrations expect us to develop. DCSD, among many other school districts, do not hold these values in practice.

– Robert Andrews

Editor’s note: The original version of this letter misstated the author’s name. This story has been updated with the correct information. 

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