Denizens of the internet recently discovered Patrice Brown, a fourth grade school teacher in Atlanta whose curvy physique and form-fitting wardrobe have sparked the Twitter hashtag #TeacherBae, an ongoing non-debate over what is and isn't appropriate for women educators to wear at work.
It's a non-debate because Brown's wardrobe isn't actually the problem. Her clothes cover her body completely and seem to meet the guidelines laid out in the Atlanta Public Schools employee dress code (though in the end, violations are determined on a case-by-case basis by administrators from each school). The real problem is people's apparent inability to see Brown's body in clothing that fits and not think about sex. This has forced both Brown and local administrators to take time away from their actual jobs — educating the children of Atlanta — and address this now-nationwide debate. Brown told 11Alive via Twitter the situation was "overwhelming."
"I just wish they would respect me and focus on the positive and what truly matters — which is educating the children of the future generations and providing and caring for them," Brown told the Daily Dot.
APS told 11Alive that Brown has been "given guidance regarding the APS Employee Dress Code, the use of social media, and Georgia Code of Ethics for educators, and she has been cooperative in addressing her presence on social media."
Brown has since made her Instagram account private. Now, people have spent multiple days analyzing this woman's outfits at a time when very real challenges face Atlanta's public school system, black students in general and black teachers across the country more broadly.
Here's a snapshot of some issues people should be addressing instead of shaming Ms. Brown:
1. Georgia's proposed Opportunity School District is threatening local control of schools.
In November, Georgia voters will head to the polls to decide one of the more sweeping and controversial education measures in the country. It's called Amendment 1, and it's the brainchild of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who has been criticized in the past for overseeing some of the deepest cuts to public education in the country following the Great Recession.
Amendment 1 would create a statewide "Opportunity School District." The OSD, headed by an appointed "education czar" would allow the state to seize control of public schools it deems to be "perennially failing" — i.e. schools that score too low on the state's College and Career Readiness Performance Index, which is based largely on how students perform on state standardized tests, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Opponents of the amendment criticize its vague language, and argue that it will effectively wrest control of public schools away from local communities.
"If you read the fine print, you'll see that Amendment 1 will silence parents and teachers and hand over local control of our schools to an unelected, unaccountable political appointee who can close schools without public input and fire teachers without cause," Louis Elrod, campaign manager for the organization Keep Georgia Schools Local, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We have to use our voices now to stop the state takeover."
At least 16 different school boards have come out in opposition to the Opportunity School District so far.
2. Starting salaries for Atlanta public school teachers aren't exactly enticing.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the average starting salary for a public school teacher in the metro Atlanta area is $44,312. In a city where a fairly-priced two-bedroom apartment costs almost $1,000 a month, that's technically affordable, but doesn't leave a lot of breathing room — especially if said teacher needs more space to start, and house, a family.
3. The school-to-prison pipeline affects students across Georgia.
Across the state of Georgia, black children comprise 37% of public school students but 67% of those suspended and 64% of those expelled. The figures are less stark in the Atlanta Public Schools, but still have a racially disproportionate impact: black children are slightly less than 80% of enrolled students, but 94% of those who are suspended.
This mirrors a much larger pattern across the United States. The school-to-prison pipeline is a system whereby school discipline measures — like suspension, expulsion and aggressive in-school policing — place children into contact with the criminal justice system and tag them with criminal histories and records early, often and, in general, without legitimate need.
Sometimes, the mechanics of this system border on the horrific, especially in how some disciplined students are treated. From the Southern Poverty Law Center:
We've represented children across the Deep South who were shackled for hours at a time in school, sprayed with chemical weapons, tossed into jail for offenses such as throwing a penny on a bus or being in the hall without a pass, and more. One child's arm was broken by a sheriff's deputy who restrained him in school.
4. The number of black teachers is dropping in major cities across the United States.
All of this is happening at a time when the share and number of black public school teachers are dropping in cities across the United States. The Albert Shanker Institute — a nonprofit organization that studies education — released a study addressing this phenomenon in 2015, and its findings were more than a bit troubling.
In nine major cities — Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — the total share of black teachers dropped dramatically in volume, ranging from 1% to 28% between 2002 and 2012. The number of black teachers overall fell in even greater numbers during this period: decreases ranged from 15% in New York City to 62% in New Orleans.
The benefits of having more teachers of color have been widely documented. According to the Shanker Institute, minority teachers not only tend to be more motivated to teach children of color in high-poverty, segregated schools, they also tend to have higher expectations of those students, resulting in accelerated academic growth.
But this is also a double-edged sword. In this context, the pressure to address any and all issues concerning students of color also falls to these same teachers.
"According to some African-American male teachers, [an] 'invisible tax' is imposed on them when they are the only or one of only a few nonwhite male educators in the building," U.S. education secretary John King wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. "It is paid, for example, when these teachers, who make up only 2% of the teaching force nationally, are expected to serve as school disciplinarians based on an assumption that they will be better able to communicate with African-American boys with behavior issues."
In other words, high attrition rates for black teachers aren't coming out of nowhere. The Shanker report points to greater institutional support, instructional autonomy, investment in high-quality teacher education programs at colleges across the country and more favorable contract negotiations — including clearer paths to career development — as ways to attract and keep black teachers, and make sure teachers of all races are up to the task of managing challenging education environments.
It's a tall order, but it's certainly doable. And it definitely won't come to fruition if people keep spending time complaining about what teachers like Patrice Brown are wearing.