As I look toward retirement in a few days, I’ve been thinking about the most difficult class I taught in 30 years in the classroom. I was about 20 years into my career when I was hired to lead the English Department in one of three schools that made up my district’s first experiment in choice. Our school was the new one—the one many students didn’t want because it had no history and no ties to the community.
The boundaries for all three schools were redrawn, and our school opened with only ninth and tenth graders. If students didn’t get their first choice, they were guaranteed a spot in their new home school. Because of our signature program in the arts, many creative students chose us. We also had a large number of students who didn’t want to be there, as well as some students who had problems in their home schools who came to us to get a fresh start. Those in the second group created the perfect storm that shook my confidence to the core and gave me a dose of humility that I’ve never forgotten.
In working to engage students like those in that class, I’ve participated in many conversations with colleagues, especially since moving to my district’s central services office. Over and over again I hear this lament among instructional leaders: “We’re preaching to the choir. How do we get others to hear us?” I don’t have a complete answer to that question, but keeping in mind that class and my experience as an English teacher, I do have some thoughts about the language we employ in our conversations about disenfranchised students, particularly students of color.
Rich Benjamin, a journalist, gave a humorous and enlightening Ted Talk that ended with a serious conclusion: “…a country can have racism without racists.” I believe Benjamin is absolutely right, and if what he says is true, we need to understand that we can’t end institutional racism by wrestling people into submission and forcing them to admit to racist beliefs. Instead, we must regularly question our own unconscious biases and share them with a humility that allows others to express theirs without fear of being seen as part of the problem.
Vernā Myers, a diversity advocate who runs a consulting firm in Baltimore, says, “…historically, the work of diversity has often made majority groups ‘bad’ in order to make room for other groups to be ‘good.’ We [need to] focus on moving beyond this polarizing approach.” While that historical message is not the one school systems intend to convey, it is the message sometimes heard by teachers—the ones who are essential to propelling meaningful change.
In one of the most moving Ted Talks I’ve ever watched, Myers offers three suggestions to move us forward. In her work she hears many people say they don’t have a biased bone in their bodies. “Really?” she responds, “I do this work every day, and I see all my biases…We gotta get out of denial. Stop trying to be good people. We need real people.” As educators we must create a climate that allows dialogue. When teachers hear a tone of sanctimony, the subtext becomes I’ve checked my privilege, and it’s about time you check yours, and any attempt at meaningful discourse ends.
We could also learn from Pedro Noguera, an education professor at NYU. At this year’s Teaching & Learning Conference in D.C., he gave an inspiring talk about our collective potential for change. He believes in students: “How many of you know kids that have memorized the lyrics to hundreds of songs? What does that tell you about the capacity to retain information…when they want to?” (Part 1, 4:03). And he believes in teachers:
There are lots of highly effective teachers—and they’re not all teachers of color—who have figured out how to teach students of color…They still hold to high standards, but they make the standards accessible. It’s not about watering it down or lowering the standards or the expectations. The other good news is that kids are less biased than adults. And consistently when you talk to kids about the teachers who are able to reach you, they don’t talk about race—they talk about the person, about character. (Part 2: 0:01)
Like Myers, he also talks about the importance of moving beyond blame. In his work with hundreds of schools, he says, “I’ve never been to a school that gets it right where people are still blaming” (Part 2, 1:50).
We must confront racism when we encounter it. But teaching is not a profession that tends to attract racists. Most teachers truly want their students to succeed, though they don’t always know how to make that happen. Nor do any of us hold all the answers.
Prior to teaching that most difficult class, I had successfully taught far more diverse classes. I had also successfully taught students of all races, including poor white children in Appalachia and students with significant learning disabilities, whose skills were lower. But that class was the only one in which I ever had a fight between students. I had rarely raised my voice at students before that year because one of the key tenets of my teaching was to praise publicly and reprimand privately. I was overwhelmed, and I lost my temper on more than one occasion.
The year our school opened, the signature coordinator had brought many visitors on tours through my classroom because it was a place where parents and potential students would see students who were engaged. But the second year, he walked by the door of that class just as I lost my cool. In my peripheral vision, I saw him change course and walk the visitors to the next classroom. I was deeply embarrassed, though he never said a word to me about what had happened.
That day, I went to the assistant principal and asked for help with the class, something I’d never done in my career. As we talked through the issues, I realized that it wasn’t the whole class—just a few students with some challenging needs. We came up with a plan to work with those students, and though we weren’t successful with all of them, I came away from that semester understanding the power of moving beyond blame and working with my colleagues to do the best we could to reach every student.
A few years later my husband and I had dinner with our best friends, and their son came home with a friend he had made at a local community college—an African-American student from that class who had barely passed the course. My friend, a former principal, a black man whom the superintendent once called “a warrior for social justice,” grinned widely when the boy recognized me. Always one to stir the pot, he asked the young man, “What kind of teacher was she?” The boy hesitated, and I held my breath. “Well,” he said with a grin, “I’d have to say she cared more about my education than I did.”
My warrior friend passed away three years ago, leaving us to continue the fight. In two weeks I will retire, knowing the work is still not done. It is often said that teachers hold the key to education. I hope that, one day, there will be no locked doors that deny our students access to learning. But for now, there are as many locked doors as there are students on the outside of them. I sometimes feel that I’m fumbling in a pile of keys, trying all of them out until I find the right one. Sometimes I find the right key, but the door sticks a little before it opens. And sometimes, I know I have the right key, and the lock is so rusty that I have to call for help, letting someone stronger put his shoulder against the door with a little more force.
If I have any wisdom to offer as a retiring teacher, it is that the work will never be done. It begins anew every school year. Often we have to care more about our students’ education than they do. It is sometimes exhausting and sometimes exhilarating. If we want to keep teachers in the profession who are struggling to give their best, we must remember to avoid blame and look forward together. With a little bit of teamwork when we need each other’s strengths, those doors will eventually be shaken from their hinges.