When I first became a teacher, honestly, I didn’t think race mattered. As a child who grew up in single-parent, low-income household, when I first graduated college, I felt I was the “model” of the American Dream. As a homeowner, mother, wife, college graduate, there were many reasons for why I didn’t challenge the paradigm that I was the exception.
Yet, as I entered into my first teaching jobs and even more importantly as I moved into graduate school and reflected more on my background and experiences, I learned to see the privileges I benefited from, including, coming from a family where my great-grandmother and her siblings were college educated, and that my mother, raised in a middle-class household taught me to see our poverty as an anomaly which I was duty-bound to overcome. How did this occur? First through personal experience.
In my first teaching job, I taught in a school in a small mostly rural area that was not too far from a large naval installation. As a result, our school had more diversity than most in the area. Among our demographics were Samoan students, who by-and-large were affiliated in one way or another with the Navy. In my third period class, of the 16 or so students (as a writing class, we had a classroom cap of 19 students), over a quarter of my students were Samoan, with a couple of African American students while the rest were White. As the year progressed, I was concerned because half of the students struggled, most of all my Samoan and Black students. They were disaffected, uninterested, and seemed to resist even the slightest amount of rigor. When I engaged my colleagues to inquire about ideas regarding the different approaches, insights into the kids and their backgrounds (I did not live in the community), and additional supports for my instruction, many times I was told things like: not every student will pass; they are failing themselves, you are not failing them; you’re doing everything that you can. For me, these were insufficient answers. Why were my students failing? Why was it such a struggle to help them find a way into the course and why were these efforts failing them?
In contrast was my second period class, many of whom were in band and/or orchestra, many of whom were passing with high As and Bs, almost all of whom were White, with a few Asian (non-Samoan) students. When I asked others about students’ behaviors, because often I found students challenged my authority, or in some cases tried to make me “look” stupid, I was told to expect them to challenge and that as high achieving students, though annoying and at times not respectful, that was simply a characteristics these kids brought to school with them. My question always was what is the difference between these two sets of kids? Would they ever tolerate the same behaviors and approaches to the classroom from students in my third period class? How did the differences in the ways we interacted with the students, as well as our expectations for them impact their performance and overall interactions in school? Don’t all kids want to be successful? Didn’t they all have ambitions and dreams, even if they didn’t share them with me? If so, why would we see behaviors and interactions differently for one group and not another? Didn’t they all deserve the same opportunity to fulfill their dreams and ambitions, and wasn’t that indeed my job to help them try? I didn’t find the answers. Instead I found an ample amount of labels to describe students, most of whom are minority, some of whom grew up in poverty, some others of whom may be labeled with a behavioral disability, and many of whom are disciplined and suspended in school. To be clear, this is does not only apply to students of color. Any student who does not fit the mode of behavior and expectations, which differ at the different levels of school: elementary, middle school/junior high, and high school, are caught in a web of school marginalization that sometimes leads to failure and/or drop out.
As Arne Duncan said in the fall of 2010, it’s important to have a diverse workforce in the classroom that reflects the diversity of our nation. In many cases this is racial/ethnic and even language diversity. In many other cases this includes gender. My understanding of this came years after I stepped out of the classroom.
In 2001, at the end of my first year in my second teaching job, I left the K-12 classroom a few years after I entered. Essentially, I stopped teaching because not only were my students unable to handle the racial tension that having their first Black teacher presented, but my school and more importantly my school district had no idea how to support me in this transition. When I sought assistance, I received none. When I complained about my principal’s handling of the situation, first and foremost I was told it was not racial, though I was the only Black teacher in a teaching staff of over 100, and that he was simply a bad principal…allowed to keep his job while he threatened mine. My response, go to graduate school.
In the intervening years, I have learned that teaching and learning is profoundly a social event. At the base of this event are all of the assumptions, stereotypes, beliefs and values that we each, student and teacher, brings into the classroom and that this does not apply only to the subject of instruction, but to the nature of what is means to be “teacher” and “student” and how fluid these roles and definitions are as they interact with our understandings of what it means to “learn” and to “teach.”
When we have implicit or explicit lower expectations those are communicated. When we ignore the tensions of having someone “in charge” when people typically see them as “those who take orders,” that also makes a difference. What minority teachers can (because not all do) bring to the classroom is a better understanding of the social, psychological, and personal stakes that minority students are presented with when they enter the classroom. To learn is a risk. Not only must students trust that the teachers will guide them with the students’ own best interest at heart, but there is always the fear of losing or moving away from those who are familiar whether they include family, language, or culture, and in that, students also risk elements of their own identity in an education system that continues to maintain a colorblind paradigm. As a social event, we are all subtly and not, impacted by the relationships we develop and “teaching” and “learning” that occurs. To actively and implicitly learn that you are a member of a group that has historically occupied the bottom rungs of society, necessarily means that you learn that you are of lesser value. To overcome this, minority teachers can help to dispel the myths, stereotypes, and assumptions that White and middle class teachers bring into the classroom about those children who are not like themselves. They can also better explicitly teach students how to connect to a curriculum that often marginalizes if not entirely excludes them, the contributions that minority groups have made to the founding and strengthening of this country and in turn the contributions that today’s students of color can make to us all. These are certainly not elements that appear on a standardized test, yet they are important, nonetheless. Lastly, as Sonia Nieto’s wide body of work on “multicultural education” points out, all children want to see our eyes light up when they enter the classroom. Isn’t that our responsibility to show all students?
 In this time of celebrating Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays, consider what we are celebrating. In the case of Thanksgiving, it’s important to recognize that is not a celebration for all. In the case of Native populations (whether they identify as Native American or American Indians) we are celebrating the impending demise, intentional and accidental, to entire populations of people in the service of building a country literally on the backs of enslaved and impoverished people of color, who for the most part, were not even considered citizens.