Event Date
Feb 09, 2012
Jessica S. Cobb, UC Berkeley
Freeden Oeur, UC Berkeley

Freeden Oeur and Jessica S. Cobb


CRG Thursday Forum Series


Construction “Appropriate” Families: Education, Inequality, and Teacher Subjectivities
Jessica S. Cobb, Sociology

Classic sociological studies of teachers have examined how teachers establish a professional identity and make meaning in their work through relations with students, parents, colleagues and administrators.  However, these studies have been largely decontextualized from conditions of between-school inequality.  To understand what it means to be a teacher in the modern era, we must look at how teachers understand their work under conditions of increasing de facto residential and school segregation that tend to concentrate poverty within high-minority schools.  In addition, the influence of segregation on teachers’ subjective experiences must be examined within a context of large-scale immigration from Asia and Latin America that has altered the makeup of segregated schools.

This comparative study is based on 64 in-depth interviews with teachers at high schools in three independent, suburban Los Angeles-area school districts that vary in terms of student demographics, material resources, and historical legacy of white flight. Two of these schools (Keith and Woodlawn) serve student populations that are low-income and Black and Latino; one (Sunnyside) serves a wealthy white and Asian population. In this paper, I examine teachers’ descriptions of their students’ community and families, especially in those moments where they fail to live up to teachers’ expectations.  I explore teachers’ constructions of appropriate families, which are framed in highly racialized and classed terms.  In general, appropriate families are independent of the welfare state, speak English, help with homework, maintain a nuclear family structure, reinforce school-based definitions of success at home, and respect the authority of teachers and the school.  These broad understandings of the appropriate family reflect institutional representations of schools as meritocratic and shift blame for inequality from schools and teachers to families and communities.  However, the varied ways in which teachers deployed this description of the appropriate family, explained families’ failures to live up to this description, and related to actual families of their students reflected important differences in how teachers constructed racialized, classed, and gendered selves-as-teacher within the setting of unequal schools.

“Our Boys are Depending on You”: Caring for Black Boys at a Single-Sex Public School
Freeden Oeur, Sociology

With support from both Congress and the Department of Education, single-sex public schools have become a popular option for school reformers, educators, and parents.  The bulk of recent scholarly and media attention has debated two lines of argument:  single-sex environments empower boys and girls who each have been disadvantaged in coed environments, and boys and girls require separate learning spaces tailored to their “essential” differences.  Yet a focus on sex and gender differences fails to explain why the majority of all-male public schools today serve predominantly or all low-income, African American boys.  This study draws on eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork and 68 interviews with students, staff members, and parents at a school I call Patterson High, a class-disadvantaged, nearly all-Black, all-male public school in a city on the east coast.  At Patterson, the Black male leadership intervened in the lives of boys deemed at-risk and in crisis.  Staff members recognized that several developments had negatively impacted Black boys’ and men’s lives in the community:  namely, the growth of an underground drug economy and its accompanying violence, the dearth of job opportunities, and racial discrimination.  The “crisis of Black boys” was due, in part, in the eyes of key administrators, to a lack of sufficient care for Black boys.  Thus, they envisioned Patterson intervening in the lives of their students as a paternal institution—a caregiving institution—that would help to orient the boys away from the dominant all-male institutions in the boys’ lives—prisons and disciplinary schools called “placements”—and assist mostly female-dominated households in raising and providing care for the boys.  It was the responsibility of the Black men at Patterson to address the problem of absent fatherhood.  Finally, I will demonstrate that through daily practices, messages, and informal and formal school events, the boys were told that they themselves needed to grow up to become responsible fathers and husbands.  While the Patterson staff struggled to create this caregiving institution for boys, a focus on care and carework moves beyond common portrayals of urban school as strictly punitive regimes, and asks researchers and educators to consider how the over-disciplining of Black boys prevents those boys from receiving the care they need and deserve.