Of my twenty-five plus years working with and on behalf of children, about eight of those years were spent in schools where 99.9 percent of the students were children of color, and 85-90 percent of the teachers were white.
Having had experience working in three school districts, what I find most frustrating about teaching has very little to do with students, but moreover, with my fellow white colleagues and their sometimes egregious teaching methods and disciplinary practices, particularly towards African-American boys.
As I think back on my time of learning at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) School of Education, where the course work was quite rigorous, the usual discourse centered on the challenges of emergent and struggling readers, and ways to effectively implement strategies and techniques during guided reading sessions.
During a guided reading session, one student-teacher asked her set of readers to identify the picture of a rake. When they couldn’t identify the rake, she ranted about how they were disadvantaged and the gap in their readiness for learning. I was taken aback with her lack of understanding as to why her students didn’t know what a rake was or its purpose.
I began to think, apparently, this teacher is oblivious to the fact that her students live in the city—the concrete jungle. Other than the purpose of reading in context, her readers really didn’t need to know the purpose of a rake.
Her comments felt benighted, if for no other reason than the obvious teachable moment. I continued thinking…Teaching what students already know is simply reviewing, but, to teach what is yet understood promotes intellectual growth, and therefore, is sound teaching.
Columbia University Professor Christopher Emdin says it best in his book, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too”, “there is a need for teachers to develop the knowledge, skills and predispositions to teach children from diverse, racial, ethnic, language, and social class backgrounds”…until they do, I say, the struggle remains real.
When teachers try to understand the realities of their students’ experiences and using them as a point of instruction, that is teaching. Too many teachers are committed to an approach to pedagogy that is Eurocentric in its form and function that the color of their skin doesn’t matter. In other words, we teach the standard Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogy which results in many students being unable to see themselves, thus decreasing their desire to learn.
Recently, I substituted a first-grade class. In the class there was an African-American male, who was reportedly so incorrigible that he had to be accompanied by a behavioral health care specialist and is only allowed half days in school. I was told that he was disruptive, challenging, couldn’t focus, argumentative, destructive, and physically abusive towards the teacher and students—none of which he had exhibited while I was there.
During my time as a substitute, I had decided that I wouldn’t come across as the strict force of authority, but instead, to empower him, starting by including him in all activities. As I gently engaged him, I ignored what might be considered bad behavior, and acknowledged moments where he was “caught being good.” Reinforcement came in the form of compliments, coaxing, and using the system-wide school rewards.
Working with children of color, especially those suffering from trauma, is not for the faint at heart. Learning is not just cerebral but, it is also cultural, and the prerequisite for teaching is to have teacher friendly interactions, coupled with empathy.
My argument isn’t that white teachers shouldn’t teach children of color; for all children need all teachers, and as Christopher Emdin might add, “it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color,” and because of this, I merely suggest that teachers check their microaggressions and update their cards on cultural competencies.