Dear Businesslady: How Do I Reach Across the (Classroom) Aisle?

Plus a PSA on the ACA

Photo: xMizLitx

Questions? Email me!
Previous installments can be found
here and the deeper archives are here.

Before the Q&A It’s a PSA

As you may have heard, the deadline for signing up for insurance coverage via the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) is January 31st. And while yes, the incoming president and his political allies are giddy with anticipation about dismantling it, actually accomplishing that will take time. While they’re figuring out the legislative logistics, your coverage will continue — at least through the end of 2017. Additionally, if you’re hoping that whole scheme backfires, this is your chance to become a data point in statistics about “the number of Americans whose health insurance is imperiled.”

In case that’s not enough to convince you, here’s a cautionary tale. I went without insurance for a few stretches at a time when I was younger, and it was fine. But in retrospect that was foolish — I just happened to get lucky. A few years later, my appendix ruptured (fun fact: turns out not all doctors are capable of successfully diagnosing appendicitis) and I spent a month in the hospital and two months out of work. Not even counting the loss of income while I was incapacitated, that little adventure would’ve cost me over $200,000 if I hadn’t been insured — or possibly even more since I would’ve been billed out-of-pocket.

But the financial consequences aren’t even the point here, because without insurance, I might’ve been reluctant to visit the ER. Considering that I already had peritonitis by that point — something a whole team of doctors had trouble correcting in the following weeks — that decision, no hyperbole, would’ve killed me. Up until the moment I learned the truth about my ailment, I remained convinced that I was suffering from a particularly nasty stomach bug (hooray for high pain tolerances and their capacity to lead you astray!). Bodies are complicated machines, and when things start going awry, dangerous problems can pile up fast.

Is that a sufficiently illustrative example? Youth and overall good health can’t prevent you from getting a random illness, or being hit by a proverbial bus, or suffering some other kind of unexpected medical event. Having insurance means you don’t try to talk yourself out of seeking medical care or convince yourself that something serious is really just nothing.

Don’t risk it. Get insurance. Go do it, and do it now:

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Dear Businesslady,

I teach history in a public middle school located in a very red, very religious community. My department head, soon-to-be my teaching partner (we will teach the same curriculum next year) has up until now taught with a person who shares his political views. However, that partner is retiring. Dep’t. Head and I will be required by district policy to administer the same assessments; unfortunately, he teaches (and tests) topics like “Andrew Jackson Was an Underappreciated National Treasure” in opposition to my view that he was an oppressor and murderer of indigenous peoples. We will be granted several paid workdays over the summer to edit the existing shared assessments. I could use some help with scripts for A) how to get him to agree to come in over the summer to edit and B) what to say during disagreements like the example above. For context, I have a grade 5–9 certification, while his also includes high school, which he perceives as being superior to mine. [Of course he does! — B’lady.] We have a good existing relationship, but have never worked together before in this way. Thanks!

— Mansplainer Mandate Mess

Dear Mansplainee,

While I have absolutely zero envy for the position you’re in, it fills me with hope that you’re fighting the good fight. I wish I could slip you a secret password that would shut down all the counterarguments you’re likely to encounter in your quest to properly educate your students on American history, but alas, no one has seen fit to entrust me with the Mansplainer Override Code. I also think this is going to be the type of problem that will benefit from a diverse toolkit of different strategies — so you can pivot your approach in response to whatever’s thrown at you — and to that end, if anyone wants to share additional suggestions via the comments, the more the merrier.

The first piece of advice I have is to accept that this will be frustrating. It sounds like you’re clear-eyed about this in the abstract, but it can easy to shut down worries about impending unpleasantness with thoughts of “maybe it won’t be so bad!” that only serve to demoralize you when, in actuality, it ends up being even worse. It’d be great if this guy proves me wrong and is the picture of respectful collegiality, but until and unless he pleasantly surprises you, assume that he’ll be The Worst: condescending, pompous, patronizing, and way too quick to repeat outdated information. Prepare for this near-inevitability via good self-care — whenever you’re going to be interacting with him, do your best to be well-fed/rested, relaxed, and focused on the mission at hand. It won’t totally inoculate you against irritation, but it might help minimize the damage it does to your psyche and ability to deal.

Okay, so now on to the actual struggle. I think some of the solutions I can offer for your Question B are relevant to Question A too: before you raise this, I’d recommend doing research on best practices for your field in terms of un-whitewashing US history. Compile a list of resources that back you up on how the Let Us Now Praise the Dead White Men curriculum is both antiquated and damaging. Ideally you can organize it by topic, so that whenever you find yourself at an impasse, you can quickly find a credible source that supports your side.

As you’re doing this research, highlight the material that you think will be most compelling to your co-teacher. Obviously you’ve got some major ideological differences, and in my experience it’s hard to get someone to do a 180 on deeply held beliefs. But if you can find common ground, you might have more luck convincing him. Can you dig up any statistics suggesting that students who are taught a more balanced, less Eurocentric form of history end up enjoying greater success down the line? Can you uncover sentiments that echo (or at least don’t directly contradict) your own, coming from writers and thinkers that you know your colleague respects?

I realize that the public education system’s assessment metrics have, uh…some issues, but I’ve got to believe that some folks have managed to make compelling claims that endorse truthful, diverse history instruction. Unfortunately this isn’t my area of expertise so my cursory googling wasn’t terribly successful, but I did find a more general paean to history education on a conservative website, so I figured I’d throw that out there in case it’s useful ammo at some point. It’s also, needless to say, unbelievably unfair that you need to prove the value of owning up to our nation’s cruel past, or the fact that we owe future generations an honest account of the actions of those who came before. That should be self-evident, and it breaks my heart that it’s not. But nevertheless, I do suspect that this kind of preparation will end up serving you well as you try to plead your case.

Whether you decide to broach the topic via an in-person conversation or an email is up to you — I’d opt for whatever mode of communication you feel most comfortable with, and/or whichever is the most typical for your extant interactions with him. If it’s a face-to-face discussion, you can mention your references and send an email follow-up if he presses you for more concrete info. If it’s an email, you can cite directly: “I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this, and experts agree that these kinds of curricula are more beneficial for students (link, link).”

While issues of spiritual faith are tangential to both this column and your letter, the fact that you describe your community as “very religious” gives me another idea. Given the juxtaposition with “very red,” I’m assuming that you’re referring to some flavor of Christianity — but even if not, pretty much all major religions have a strong “be excellent to each other” component so the following still applies.

Yes, Christianity is often deployed in support of ideologies that I, personally, believe Jesus would find highly objectionable. But there are also church leaders who are willing (and were willing) to point out the ways in which actions like slavery and colonization are at odds with Christian dogma, so you might be able to use that to your advantage as well. I realize it’s dicey territory, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being the one to introduce religion into the conversation — but if he brings it up, then I think it’s fair game.

Okay, so that’s all advice for attempting to achieve consensus with someone who’s probably not super receptive to criticism. What about if he’s unwilling to budge?

I have zero expertise in this area, but fortunately my spouse is a professor and therefore more inclined to think about pedagogical strategy on a daily basis. I mentioned your situation to him, and he pointed out that team teaching — especially in collaboration with someone you tend to disagree with — is a great way to model the type of debates that were playing out in real time during the periods you’re studying. And that strikes me as an excellent idea. Even if this guy doesn’t share your perspective, surely he can acknowledge that his isn’t the only viewpoint, right? So you can turn that into a feature, not a bug.

The way you handle this will depend on the age group you’re teaching to and the usual format of your courses, but I can envision all kinds of opportunities to foreground your differences of opinion in ways that are useful to students. After all, we’re living in an era when many adults find it difficult to distinguish objective facts from utter nonsense — so I can only imagine that kids would benefit from an early primer on the concept of “reasonable people can disagree.” It might even be useful to do some thinking about how you’d implement this in practice, since it’ll be harder for him to dismiss your proposal if you’ve already developed some preliminary outlines for your lesson plans.

Finally, you might want to look for an ally among the folks you both report to, in case he completely digs in his heels and refuses to even entertain the thought of adjusting the curriculum. If you have to take this up the chain, your research and brainstorming will help you plead your case.

I hope you’ll keep me/us posted on how this goes, because in the course of thinking through this scenario I’ve become really curious about the outcome. You’ve also given me the opportunity to consider the challenges faced by primary and secondary educators, and I’m grateful for that. It makes me happy to know that there are children growing up under your tutelage.

Before I go, one more plug for health coverage!

With that, I belatedly wish you all a happy and healthy New Year, in spite of the worries we’re facing.

Businesslady is in her early 30s and a successful professional despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. She currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet. Her career guide, Is This Working?, will be available from Adams Media on April 1st, 2017 — preorder it today!

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