Since this past November, when I interviewed the mother of Josie Ramon, the 12 year old Royal Oak Middle School student who taped classmates chanting “Build the wall” at her and other Hispanic students, I occasionally get notes from people, asking that I help get the word out about similar things taking place within Michigan’s schools. And that’s how today’s interview came about. Someone wrote to me and asked that I talk with Mika Yamamoto, a charter school teacher who had recently been fired for, as it was explained to me, “talking about inclusion and oppression.” Here’s our discussion.
MARK: Do I understand correctly that you were recently fired from the Michigan charter school where you taught 5th grade?
MIKA: Yes, I was fired about two months ago, on December 7, from Renaissance Public School Academy, in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.
MARK: And, prior to being fired, you were suspended, correct?
MIKA: Yes, I was displaced a week prior to the termination.
MARK: By “displaced,” do you mean that you were told not to come work?
MIKA: Yes. They told me to “relax at home.”
MARK: The woman that first introduced me to you, if I remember correctly, told me that you were the only teacher of color at your school. Is that the case? And, if so, do you think that race entered into the decision to suspend you?
MIKA: Yes. I was the only teacher of color there. Maybe, ever. And yes, I was racially discriminated against.
MARK: So, it’s your belief then that you were fired because of your race?
MIKA: Yes. I was fired for exercising my first amendment right to speak as a member of oppressed group to empower the oppressed.
MARK: I’m assuming that’s not the reason they gave you… When you asked why you’d been suspended, what did they tell you?
MIKA: They didn’t give me a reason. They didn’t even tell me they were suspending me. In fact, my principal lied to me to get me out of the building. She said she would be putting a substitute in my room for two days so that we could talk about how to teach tolerance.
MARK: So, when she asked you to not to report for work, you thought that this was a good thing, that your principal wanted to work with you about how to implement a curriculum.
MARK: When you say “teach tolerance,” what do you mean?
MIKA: Teaching Tolerance is a system for talking about diversity, and building strong K-12 communities, that was developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I received training in how to implement the system when I was beginning my teaching career. I remember it to be meaningful, but brutal. To teach tolerance, you have to examine intolerance and what the consequences of that are. And that’s not easy. What is easy, though, is getting children to care. They get it. They know what oppression feels like…. If you think about it, children are an oppressed class.
MARK: So it’s kind of framework to talk about diversity, thereby fostering a capacity for empathy in students?
MIKA: Yes. I’ve come to think of it as “space-making.” But, also, teaching tolerance means that we ourselves have to always be practicing with them, and not just rely on lazy thinking. For me, every moment of teaching has to be done within the teaching tolerance framework.
MARK: What do you mean by “lazy thinking”?
MIKA: Well, platitudes are an example. Too much of elementary school curriculums is about platitudes. Adults love to hear children parrot cliches. This, however, does not foster empathy or learning of any kind.
MARK: Why were you having this conversation about teaching tolerance with your principal?
MIKA: The day after the election, I gave a speech to the entire middle-school. The event had been scheduled prior to the election. The middle-school teachers, knowing that I wrote, had asked me to give a talk about how to write horror, and it just happened to have been slated for the day after Trump won… I was asked to speak in the capacity of a writer, not as a teacher.
MARK: Knowing other teachers who had to get up and talk in front of classes that day, and having heard them talk about how difficult it was, I can imagine a lot was going through your head… wanting to address what had happened in some meaningful way, while, at the same time, perhaps not wanting to get overtly political…
MIKA: Yes. I remember thinking, “What is there to say on a day like this?”
MARK: So what did you tell the middle schoolers?
MIKA: I talked about writing from experience, as a woman and a domestic violence survivor. I discussed Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is about a mother that has to choose between either a life of slavery for her children, or death. Women’s lives have always been horrific, I said, so it makes sense that we write horror. And I said that, on that particular day, I felt less safe than ever, because our country had just elected a president who had openly spoken out against women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and other people he felt were different than him. I told the students that I saw this as a call to arms to share our stories honestly in order to make safe space.
MARK: So you shared something very personal with them, and encouraged them to be brave, tell their own stories, etc…
MIKA: Yes… In the speech I said, “I will share with you my darkness so you feel safe to share your darkness with me, such that we can vanquish the darkness together.”
MARK: Then what happened?
MIKA: The very next day, on Thursday, a girl, let’s call her B, confided in me that she had been experiencing severe racism at school, but had told nobody because she was afraid people would think she was making a big deal out of it. A boy in her class was showing her pictures of slaves and laughing. He told her he “liked it when they got beat,” and thought it was funny. B’s best friend, the boy’s girlfriend, had also joined in. Together, she said, they taunted her. They wouldn’t stop, even after she repeatedly asked them to. According to B, the white male music teacher witnessed it at one point and did nothing but tell the boy to put the pictures away.
MARK: And what did you do with this information?
MIKA: I told our principal the following day, which was the Friday after election. She didn’t hesitate to say that what happened to the girl was wrong, and she promised to address it. In the next breath, however, she implied that I should never have given the talk.
MARK: Did she say explicitly why?
MIKA: She said “a huge Trump-supporting” white male student had gone home and complained about it… I remember that he’d tried walk out when I said that women make less than men across the board. He was apparently made uncomfortable by this fact. Okay. That’s fine. I’m uncomfortable about this fact too. But let’s look at the subtext, here. A female of color was made to feel safe enough to advocate for her rights because of my talk, while one white male was made uncomfortable by the facts of my talk. I was being silenced, it seemed, because it was not okay to make a female of color feel safe if it also meant that a white male would be made to feel uncomfortable. What does that say about priorities?
MARK: And I assume you noted this disparity to your principal. How did she respond?
MIKA: This is when the issue of my safety was raised for the first time. My principal said, “I’m not going to tell you what you can and cannot talk about, but I’m just trying to keep you safe.” The implication was that I wasn’t safe.
MARK: OK, so how long after the speech in front of the middle school did the suspension happen?
MIKA: Three weeks.
MARK: What, specifically, brought about the suspension?
MIKA: My speech did what I intended it to. It empowered students to advocate for themselves and others. After that day, I had many students approach me about concerns they have in their lives. When I relayed these stories to our principal, she sighed, “You’ve opened up a whole can of worms, Mika.” On the Monday after Thanksgiving, a student sought me out to tell me that she felt unsafe at home. As a teacher, I am obligated to report this to Children’s Protective Services. The principal, however, did not want me to. We met for two and a half hours the next day, discussing this situation. When she couldn’t get me to agree to not report it, she transitioned into a discussion of my safety again. I was given a false option. I was told that I could be silent, be endangered, or leave. She said, “The community is not ready for your voice.” She clarified that she intended the racist implication of this statement by explaining, “People always asked me why I didn’t have a more diverse staff. When I hired you, I didn’t hire you because of that, I hired you for other reasons. But it happened! I made it happen! And I was so happy. But now I think I set you up, because the community wasn’t ready for you.”
MARK: Wait. She actually said this to you?
MIKA: Yes. She said that maybe in a place like Chicago or New York my voice could do powerful things, but the community we were in was not ready for me. I was being discriminated against. A white male teacher would not be told the community wasn’t ready for his voice. Also, my minority status was being used against me to intimidate me against whistle-blowing. I e-mailed the principal that night voicing my concerns regarding my treatment.
MARK: You mentioned earlier that your principal lied to you to get you out of the school. What happened?
MIKA: Yes. The next morning, she called me into a meeting with her and the curriculum coordinator… The curriculum coordinator is the only other administrator in the school… She said, “You have to stop using your voice.” And he agreed with her.
MARK: What did you say?
MIKA: I told them that they were violating my first amendment rights. I was also very clear that I was being racially discriminated against.
MARK: And how did they respond?
MIKA: They repeated over and over that the community was not ready for my voice. They even said that there were members of the staff who were not ready to discuss diversity. The conversation came to an impasse, since I didn’t relent on holding them accountable for being inclusive. They are obligated to do so by federal law and the charter of the school. Finally, they said I should go home and take care of myself for the rest of the day, and that they would put a substitute in my room for two days so that the three of us could meet to discuss diversity and tolerance. When I got home, human resources told me I was not to return to campus for the next two days.
MARK: Did you receive any kind of warning prior to the suspension? Did they tell you that, if you didn’t comply, you’d be terminated?
MIKA: No. They gave me no directives. At the end of the meeting, the principal hugged me. The curriculum coordinator then walked me down to my classroom chatting about his annual Beer and Chocolate Party at his house that I was planning to attend. I didn’t know that they were planning to terminate me.
MARK: Did you reach out to representatives from the school, and not just HR people, since all of this happened?
MIKA: I emailed the principal of the school immediately. She confirmed that I should stay home. The next morning I reached out to the principal, the curriculum coordinator, and HR to continue the dialogue about teaching tolerance. Nobody responded. I got no response for my request to be reinstated either.
MARK: I’m just curious… Is Renaissance Public School Academy a part of a larger charter school entity?
MIKA: Yes, they’re chartered through Central Michigan University and managed by Charter School Partners.
MARK: I see one article about CS Partners expanding in Michigan, in spite less than stellar performance, but I’m not finding much about their corporate structure or history. Do you know if CS Partners is a for-profit firm?
MIKA: I didn’t know the answer to this and also couldn’t find it anywhere. Apparently, it’s not as straight-forward a question as one would think.
MARK: This is kind of off the subject, but, as I didn’t know much about Central Michigan University’s role in sponsoring charter schools, I just did a little looking around and discovered that they operate something called the John Engler Center for Charter Schools, which is the entity that authorized CS Schools. Not only that, but the President of CS Schools, Mary Kay Shields, was, just prior to joining CS Schools, the Chief Deputy Director of the John Engler Center for Charter Schools. In fact, she was mentioned in a recent Detroit Free Press investigation into “insider dealing” in Michigan’s charter school industry. It seems Shields is one of several charter authorizers who left for more lucrative jobs at management companies like CS Schools, which run the schools they authorized. I don’t have a question for you. I just find it interesting.
MIKA: Two weeks after the election, I was at the CS annual conference. I noted that Mary Kay Shields did not make a statement of inclusion, nor did anyone else.
MARK: When did you start teaching at Renaissance?
MIKA: I started there this fall. I’d only been there three months.
MARK: What was your teaching experience prior to this?
MIKA: I’ve always taught in public schools, starting at an inner-city school in Los Angeles. This is where I received my training in the Teaching Tolerance program. Inner-city school teachers have to know how to speak about racism. Public schools lack agility, which can be frustrating, but I’ve never witnessed anything like this – where apparently no rules apply. This is utter chaos. None of my colleagues could speak-up on my behalf because there is such a great threat that they too would lose their jobs for doing so. In fact, only one teacher has reached out to me at all. I am eternally grateful to this teacher for the courage and kindness she has shown in doing so, since none of my other friends at work did.
Charter school teachers have no contract and no union. In an at-will state, this means that they can be fired for almost any reason. Charter school teachers usually get paid poorly compared to public school teachers, so teachers often don’t have the financial security to be jobless for even a short time. As an example, I’ve never been paid so little as a teacher. I have years of experience and a master’s degree. Nonetheless, I was making less at Renaissance than I was my first year teaching, almost 20 years ago without experience or a master’s degree. These conditions directly cause a lack of academic freedom to teach. There are dire consequences for this. If teachers are afraid to advocate for student safety, or are fired for discussing oppression, what happens to our society? This experience, gives me even more reason to be concerned with the appointment of Betsy Devos.
MARK: I heard that some of your students protested to get you back?
MIKA: The students decided to become Agents of Change, instead of victims. They put up posters in my room that say things like, “Help stick up For Ms. Yamamoto Because we love her!” Three girls made 35 posters and gave them to the principal, asking her to put them up all over the school. Another student said she was going to ask to go to all the classrooms and tell them what has happened to me. They did what they could, knowing they were taking certain risks.
I feel bad for the children in all of this. Their teacher was taken out of the classroom, in the middle of the day, without giving them any explanation. And they didn’t hear anything for two whole days. When the principal finally talked to them, she said that I needed to stay home so that I could feel safe. Aside from not being true, what message does that send to the children? Are they supposed to feel safe in a school that their teacher felt too unsafe to be in? I was worried sick about them. But this group of kids has always been strong, smart, and kind. They have learned the lessons of tolerance well. They understood what Elie Wiesel meant when he said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
They felt that there had been a great injustice. They took a side. They didn’t stay silent. They didn’t use being children as an excuse for inaction. They used their voices with power.
MARK: Would I be right to assume that, inside the charter school you worked for, things were relatively regimented? Was there, in other words, an expectation that you’d just read from the workbooks, sticking to the script, and not bring too much of yourself to the job?
MIKA: Oh no! Absolutely not! The reason I decided to work there despite the poor pay was because I was wooed with the promise that this principal was progressive, and I would have great academic freedom. My position in the school only declined precipitously after I spoke out against oppression.
MARK: So, what’s next for you?
MIKA: I will fight the good fight in court with my amazing lawyer, Julie Gafkay. But I miss my students terribly, every day, and I’m heartbroken because nothing will put me back in their classroom again. I can only hope they keep their promises and continue to write. If they do, we will always be able to find a way back to each other, and together we can vanquish this unspeakable night befalling us.
[note: The photo of Mika Yamamoto at this top of this post was taken by Miriam Berkley.]