I say this sentence at least once per 3-5 hour class with my Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) students. I say this while looking around the room at their white/privileged/middle and upper class faces. I say this in department meetings to my white/privileged/upper class colleagues in the teacher preparation program. I say this to undermine the implicit message that those who ‘have’ should share with those ‘in need’. I exclaim this to explicitly reject the old narrative of the white teacher savior coming to help them. You know the story. You can probably recite it word for word. It goes like this:
*push play on Bone Thugs in Harmony*
The poor/urban/at-risk black/Hispanic/immigrant kids are in danger. They live in a gang infested neighborhood in single parent households with barely literate hardworking mothers trying to make up for the fact that dad/brother/uncle is in prison and you yourself are a (soon-to-be) pregnant teenager. Then, out of nowhere, the unqualified second career substitute teacher arrives in your not-enough-desk-having classroom with her (because it’s almost always a woman who can nurture us the ways our mothers can’t despite centuries of being the mammy) blond/brown hair, blue/green/grey eyes, thin yet athletic stature and radiant smile.
She is nervous because she’s never been around people like this but she is smiling. She smiles because she feels empowered. She is doing her part to make this world better by teaching these kids. She doesn’t have license or endorsement number one. She doesn’t have even 50 hours of classroom experience in a state that requires 600. In essence, she doesn’t have a clue. But there Michelle Pfieffer and Hillary Swank are to save us from our dangerous minds to help us become freedom writers.
In one of my graduate courses I spend two weeks with MATs right before they graduate helping them understand the nuances of instructional differentiation. Until that class, they’ve been taught to differentiate based upon student ability. But I help them understand they must differentiate based upon student….everything. We spend a day each on language, income, sexuality, homelessness, delinquency, and race (among other variables). The race day is of course the most uncomfortable day because for my mostly white teacher candidates, they’ve never had to confront the intersection of their identity with those of their students.
In my first year I learned that texts do a much better job of articulating the intricacies of interracial interactions than I ever could. My passion, which on every other topical day is motivating, is frightening for them. Perhaps because the word ‘race’ primes my blackness whereas all of the other course topics can be swept under the rug of my professordom because I do not wear my socioeconomic status, sexuality, address, or criminal record on my face. Or perhaps because I am a real-life, in your face, counterargument to colorblindness.
To get past their hesitancy, I found an article that is particularly powerful as they are forced to label themselves instead of their students. In 2005 Nora Hyland published an article entitled Being a Good Teacher of Black Students? White Teachers and Unintentional Racism. In this summary of a qualitative study, she describes four teachers who embody the ways most white teachers approach their role in a classroom of [other] students. Each teacher was represented by a guiding principle: A good teacher of Black students is a helper; A good teacher of students of color is assimilated; A good teacher of students of color is an intercultural communicator; A good teacher of students of color is a radical.
Though the principles alone can’t possible relay the (un?)intentional racism embedded in their teaching practices, we can highlight how their word choices serve to subjugate the [other] student as a being in need of help, whose goal should be to fit in despite not mastering the language of power and behaving in deviant, radical ways.
Sigh…this story, like so many stories in our education system is old and tiresome. Instead of trying to undo a lifetime worth of educational experiences through which my MATs were made to learn and live this narrative, I teach them another story. One where [other] students excel in the classroom despite being of no consequence to educational leaders and policy makers.
In this story, classroom teachers are effective because they know their students. They are not interloping do-gooders on a spring break trip to build wells in a foreign country. They do not step into a classroom with the mindset of me and them. They do not see themselves as helpers or cultural brokers. They are not afraid of their students because of how they dress or speak. They do not hide behind district policies as a reason for not visiting students’ homes.
They do not need to do any of this. In fact, it never occurs to them to do any of this. Because these teachers are them. They live in the neighborhoods where their students live. They shop, eat and pray at the same establishments frequented by their students’ families. They understand (though may not adopt) students’ choice of clothing, music, and slang. They track down parents anyway they can, recognizing and respecting that parents’ life contexts may be different than their own.
I am not saying effective teachers of [other] students must share backgrounds with their students; but they must share the present. You do not have to look like your students to know them or love them; but you must understand your students to teach them.
Every year I welcome a new cohort of MATs who’ve chosen this profession to ‘help children learn’. I always want to ask them: which children?