What becoming a mother taught me about the education beat

For the last 15 years, I have written mostly about other people’s children, often because the system has failed them in some horrible way. I have profiled students with severe disabilities who sit idly at home, unable to find even a public school that will admit them. I have reported on the suffering of children beaten at the hands of school staffers, and teachers armed with wooden paddles. And I have documented the stories of babies who’ve died avoidable deaths from gun violence or horrific abuse and neglect.  

But early last summer, when the news organization ProPublica released recordings of young immigrant children wailing for their parents inside a government holding center, I couldn’t bring myself to listen. Whenever the news came up on NPR, I muted the volume; whenever stories about the separated children appeared in my Twitter feed, I scrolled on.

I’ve been told the news and recordings were horrific and unforgettable. But the separation and detention of families crossing the border without papers did not represent some kind of new low so disturbing that I couldn’t bear witness to the pain. We live in a country, after all, that routinely ripped apart black families under slavery, and forcibly sent thousands of Native American children to boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, a calculated effort to strip them of their culture and family ties. Throughout our history, we have denied the sanctity of families of color again and again.

Nor do I think it was the immediacy of the news—the way in which  technology and social media allowed us to hear the children’s anguish in near real time—that overwhelmed me. I’ve thought back on my reaction to those recordings several times over the last several months, as terrifying news about children has continued to flow out of Yemen, the US-Mexico border, and other parts of the world. The main reason I couldn’t bring myself to listen is that I was a relatively new mother of a baby girl. She was six months on the day the recordings were published. With an infant relying on me for the entirety of her emotional and physical well-being, I grasped more intuitively what was at stake for those stolen babies and their families. Listening to the recordings felt reckless and pointless. My heart was already broken.

 

A few years ago, when the Education Writers Association asked me to write a guide to the standards and ethics of interviewing children, I began by quoting the maxim: first, do no harm. It would never have occurred to me then—and nor would it have been all that useful to many of my colleagues—to also advise: report and write with a parent’s love. But over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what it meant for me to report on children while childless for so many years, and about the challenges of empathizing with people and groups whose experiences we can’t begin to comprehend because they are so distinct from our own.

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I believe empathy is distinct from compassion. Empathy carries compassion’s open-hearted good will a step further: it’s the kind of sorrow that occurs when you absorb a portion of another’s pain and fear and own it as a part of your human story. I almost always felt compassion for the children and families whose stories I told; but I rarely felt empathy, partly because my personal experience with children and child-rearing was so limited.

Education journalists rightly talk a lot about children’s privacy and the importance of not publishing information that might embarrass or (as the maxim goes) inflict harm. Many good journalists I know shy away from writing about kids because they fear the murkier and more sensitive ethics of the beat. I continue to believe that when reporting on young people, journalists should, for instance, exercise more latitude in reviewing and discussing the potential consequences of a story’s content in advance of publication; they should also be more flexible with children than adults about concealing identities when the situation warrants.

Empathy carries compassion’s open-hearted good will a step further: it’s the kind of sorrow that occurs when you absorb a portion of another’s pain and fear and own it as a part of your human story.

Still, I have long prided myself on featuring kids in my reporting; one of the stated missions of the education reporting fellowship that I oversee at the Columbia Journalism School is to elevate the voices of students and teachers in our work. Yet when I began rereading old stories through my new lens as a parent, what struck me was how often—when it came to my writing about children—I wanted more. More details. More depth. More of them talking about their lives and feelings.

In the spring of 2014, for instance, I reported for The Nation and the Hechinger Report about the persistence of corporal punishment in southern schools serving predominantly black students. The story did incorporate several student voices; it quoted four pre-teens and teens (Jacoby, Curtis, Kameisha, and Steven) before quoting the first adult (former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who had called for less punitive approaches to school discipline in a recent press conference). Then 16-year-old Curtis remembered getting whopped in school by “Big Daddy”—two paddles wrapped together and used on students’ bottoms and hands. Getting hit “makes you feel like nothing,” Curtis told me.

I look back now and wonder why I didn’t carry any of the students’ stories further, probing more deeply into how tough-love discipline (or just plain tough discipline) affected their schoolwork, relationship with teachers, or attitude toward community and self. I interviewed at least two college students who surely could have reflected more, even if the younger students struggled. The piece quoted nine different adults on all sides of the issue, each with valuable insights. But I now wish that I had condensed and paraphrased several of them to make room for more from the kids.

Having a child didn’t change my opinion of paddling’s merits (or lack thereof) or my desire to write about the issue in a sensitive and contextualized way. But it made me imagine the unimaginable: someone hitting my daughter, hard, and the ways that could wound her both physically and emotionally. That, in turn, made me crave more detail and insight from those brave students I featured about both their resiliency—and the paddle’s lasting scars.

I crave more detail and insight from those brave students I featured about both their resiliency—and the paddle’s lasting scars.

In the corporal punishment piece, and several others, I also wish that I had more explicitly documented the high stakes of schools’—society’s, really—failures for children and their parents. Several times while writing about strict discipline policies, parents told me they had to take off from work because administrators called them to come get their children at school. That registered as problematic with me at the time. But now I’m more quick to wonder why there’s been so little attention to the ways that schools’ “no excuses” policies, including routinely bringing in parents whenever their child breaks a rule or fining them for their kids’ truancy, can jeopardize mothers’ jobs and the economic stability of entire families.

Some of the omissions in the corporal punishment piece were seemingly small but significant (at least to my contemporary eye). For instance, one young teacher who worked in Mississippi through Teach for America told me that she felt pressured by older colleagues to hit unruly students. She succumbed twice, the first time striking “a younger student who constantly jumped out of her seat and made rude, taunting comments to classmates.” During my reread, the vagueness of the word “younger” jumped out at me. Young for the grade? Younger than those she normally taught? How young exactly?

My piece went into considerable detail on the physicality of the paddles, quoting one employee handbook that called for them to be up to 30 inches long, half an inch thick, and two to three inches wide. But it contained very little detail on the physicality of the victims. Having a child of my own, I’m reminded every day many times over of kids’ small size and vulnerability. And I wonder now why the piece didn’t in the most literal of terms capture the lopsided power dynamic that struck to the heart of the story. It might have been less a piece on how the paddle’s use continues to divide adults, and more an exposé of how it continues to traumatize (mostly) black children.  

 

“Some of the best education journalists aren’t mothers,” wrote US News & World Report reporter Lauren Camera in a recent column for the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan, on balancing journalism with parenting. I agree. Personal insight is just one component of what makes someone a good reporter. Lauren herself reported on education brilliantly for years before she had children. And at times, perhaps, the feelings of a parent can be so raw, so overwhelming that they lead to a (hopefully fleeting) paralysis that doesn’t serve the cause of journalism very well. I won’t even go into the professional drawbacks that accrue from constant sleep deprivation. . .

But my professional reckoning over the last year (my daughter turned one in December) has made me more aware of the immense difficulty of truly empathizing when we lack shared experiences. This doesn’t mean middle-class people can’t ever write sensitively about poor people, that men should have no role in covering #MeToo, or that the childless among us can’t report passionately on kids. It would be counterproductive—not to mention unrealistic—to limit ourselves to reporting solely on people from our own gender, racial, and ethnic group, socioeconomic class, and general life situation.

Yet I have come to see the limits of good intentions and research—and even attentive listening—in promoting true understanding. We all have biases. We also have empathic blind spots, people we can’t relate to on an emotional level simply because their experience is too distinct from our own. I’m more suspicious of people who claim they can empathize with almost anyone, more skeptical of universal empathy as a worthwhile goal.

I have come to see the limits of good intentions and research—and even attentive listening—in promoting true understanding.

So consider this another argument for more diversity in newsrooms: for vastly increased numbers of reporters, editors, and producers who bring an intuitive understanding to the lives and experiences of black and brown communities, low-income communities, immigrant communities, and many other groups—because those experiences are their own.

But for all of us who care about covering people from different backgrounds than ourselves—with as much kindness, nuance, and depth as possible—this is not a call to abandon that effort. There’s a value in trying to empathize, as long as we don’t overestimate our capacity to connect. Viewing the education beat from a more maternal lens has been an important reminder to remain humble, and to remember that even after I’ve reported long and hard, and listened well, I know so little of what I don’t know—and quite possibly never will.

Becoming a parent probably won’t upend my approach to the education beat, but I think it will change the way some future stories are framed. And I hope it will lead to more work that is defined—and not just supplemented—by the voices and experiences of children.

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Sarah Carr is the editor of the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, and the author of Hope Against Hope, which tells the story of the New Orleans schools.