Wow has my view on this topic grown over the years. I have always considered myself pretty open minded. I never thought of myself as racist or insensitive or ignorant of social justice issues. I mean I had “black friends” and “Hispanic friends”. I went to a semi-diverse high school and I got along with everyone. I mean “I didn’t see color” ya know?
Then I decided to be a teacher. If you recall my first teaching position was in a suburban middle school in a low-income area. The school was probably 90% black and 10% a mix of Hispanic and white. Most of the teachers were black too. I felt out of my element in a lot of ways. Being a first year teacher is so hard but at this school it had its own set of additional challenges. First there was no such thing as discipline or student accountability. No sending kids out of the room for any reason other than physical violence. No curriculum what so ever!! They took me to a room the day before school started. It was stacked with sets of decades old unit size textbooks. They said pick a set and get started. I was in so far over my head I thought I would drown the first week.
Then a miracle happened. Two of the most amazing teachers took me under their wing. One an English teacher that taught the same kids I did and one the 8th grade science teacher on my team. I would not be the teacher I am today without these women. I was the only white gen ed teacher on the team. The kids had little to no respect for a lot of teachers and I was on the top of that list. It took me years to really understand. I spent a lot of time that year in tears because I really did care about those kids but they treated me so terribly. Of course I blamed it on everything but myself. Bad home situations, they have no respect for white people, the admin doesn’t hold them accountable, and on and on. But I stuck it out and I learned a lot. It was not a happy fairy tale ending. I was not Michelle Pfeifer. But I made it and then I got fired along with a ton of other teachers that year. At the time I had no idea what it was I learned and I was kind of relieved I was fired but also I needed a job.
I looked all summer for a job and got no where. I finally, reluctantly, applied to work at a charter school in the south loop of Chicago. I was hired the same day I interviewed. This school is a 6-12 public charter school. Again about 90%black and 10% white/Hispanic. This time older kids in an urban setting. I was far more comfortable with this population. But somewhere in my head without me even realizing it I still thought of myself as different from them. I didn’t even know it at the time. One of the biggest differences was there were a lot more white teachers and there was a discipline structure and kind of a common core set of beliefs called A Disciplined Life. The discipline we used was called restorative justice.
In 3 years at that school I learned several things that completely changed me as a person. First I learned exactly what white privilege is and that it isn’t something I need to be offended by it is simply something I need to understand because I can’t change it, it just is. In truly understanding what it is I can then ensure that my interactions with young people of any color are geared toward a mutual respect for each other. You don’t need to talk about it once you understand it, the way you interact just changes. I know that I have never experienced what these students have been through, how they live, or the obstacles they are up against. But I now understand that these things exist and that the denial that they do exist is what puts up a wall between us. All of a sudden I could forge deeper relationships with these kids.
Next I learned more about classroom management that I ever thought possible. First, a LOT of my students would rather roam the halls or hang out in the bathroom than be in class. So I had to have a bathroom policy and I had to have strategies for keeping kids in class even when they cussed me out or tried to start trouble because in the classroom was the best place for all of them. I just needed to figure out a way to diffuse situations quickly and get back to teaching. This meant that the “trouble makers” stayed in class and it did not distract from the learning. This took me a very long time to master. Probably all three years if I am being honest. But every year I got better at it. One thing that always strikes me is when I read blogs or articles teacher write about getting the trouble makers out of the learning environment so the other students can learn. This is the wrong way to think of things. Building relationships and trust is key, more on that in the next post.
Finally I learned that black students have an inherent mistrust of white teachers and that is OK!!!!!! Let me say it again for those in the back IT IS OK!!!!! It does not mean they are racist or trouble makers or disrespectful. It means that all they know is white people that misjudge them in ways that none of us (us being white people) can understand. White people that look at them and clutch their purses, lock their car doors, move to the other side of the street, get a terrified look on their faces (lets be honest most of us can’t control our faces that well). White people that assume the worst and call the cops and won’t hire them or their parents. I could go on and on. A white teacher walking in to a classroom of black students faces all of this mistrust from them. It is not the teacher’s fault and it is not the students’ fault. What I can tell you is that it is 1000% worth it to work through it. I had to earn their trust every day and little by little I did. At first I was very resentful and I did not understand at all why I was being treated the way that I was when I did nothing but pour my heart and soul into these kids. I am so very thankful for my time with them. They changed my life in the best ways.
For more reasons than I can list (maybe sometime in the future) I decided that the charter school system was not for me. After 3 years I left. My first year at my current school was so hard. I am teaching white students in a rural/suburban area. There are very few discipline problems and the administration is much more supportive. But I still found myself not being able to relate to these students. I felt like I failed my students in Chicago and gave up on them because I left. I was kept awake at night wondering what else I could have done. Then I slowly started realizing all of the things I have learned. I don’t feel guilty anymore I feel thankful. I am at a school I love and I have found a way to become part of the community.
Now I desperately want to teach my white rural students social justice because they don’t know what they don’t know. This will hopefully be a big part of what I implement next year.
This picture is a few of my AP Bio kids from my last year at the charter school.