Series: White People Homework: White Teachers (7)

I will try to write this as simply as I can. But it is long. Push back as needed.

My first job, and one where I stayed for twelve years, was a middle school located in South King County, Washington. Being at a school for that long is an honor: I became part of the teaching and family community, and being a consistent, collaborative voice was one of my greatest joys. I am still a fan, mentor, supporter, and friend of many former students who have families and lives of their own. It’s not unreasonable for me to understand since I spent more time (and often money) on my students, putting my own sons at equal or second distance through the love of my job that I would gather years’ worth of memories, notes, and communal shared respect and love. I did, however, notice a change or shift, and it’s taken me the past two years of reflection to recognize what may have been happening. I noticed during about the last two years I was there, that Black male students were hurt. So much so, often power struggles escalated to the point of being concerned for my and their safety (not from me, but from other safety officers).

From 2019-2020 (I left after the 2017-2018 school year, and may have changed the average years of teaching)
  • There are a few key points to share:
    • There were few BIPOC teachers on staff at any point in time
    • We did have occasionally BIPOC assistant principals and principals, but mostly white women in administrative roles
    • We had teams, and then we didn’t. These teams, when functional, (and the ones I was on were functional) were one of the best supports for students in our cohorts we had–hands down.
    • A cross-content team worked together to contact parents, confer with students we felt were in academic or emotional danger, and provide supports and shared expectations. The teams were comprised of white, Hispanic, Black, female and male teachers by default.
    • When we didn’t have teams, as in the last two years I was there, we had little or no support. And the support we did have was limited. We had a team of white women administrators, and that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, I began to notice Black male students were struggling. Many students were, but two in particular had a very difficult time. None of my solid classroom engagement strategies or “management” (which is a problematic word) seemed to help. And even though the current administration dabbled in culturally-relevant teaching and offered what I’m going to term as “CRT Lite” any change of substance or conversation was nonexistent.

During the penultimate year, one student of the two seemed to hate me. He was from another district, and he complained to his mom and other community advocates that I was racist or picking on him. And that was his truth. So one of the family volunteer advocates, a Black woman in the community who knew him and other BIPOC students well, asked if she could come in and observe me. Now, if I had chosen, I could have said no and had admin and union support alike. But that’s not who I am or my practice. She said she was there under the pretense of observing him. She observed me in my class a few times, and then in a quiet voice, told me, in honest surprise, that I was a good teacher and was ‘helping him.’ Well, yes.

Keep that in mind when I share this next part: the next year, my last year in that building, we had one student who also really struggled. But his story, and his actions are traumatic and painful for himself and others. My admin wanted me out, and they got their wish. I moved to another district, a building with mirror demographics of that school I was leaving. I thought it would be great: the admin practically leapt across the interview table, hired me on the spot, and off I went. I got a call from another principal in the district and when he heard I accepted the position at XYZ school, just scoffed and said, “Good luck!”

This school was in a challenging transition. They had a young, white principal who hadn’t received her admin credentials yet. She had been a teacher at a charter school for about three years. School discipline reform, much needed and long overdue, was still in its shaky beginnings. We had a restorative justice person who was forced out of the building mid-year. There were many highlights, one of which I was introduced to Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. However, I didn’t have anyone to collaborate on this new learning with because my previous colleagues who shared neuroscience and education work were still at my previous school. This loss of institutionalized knowledge and feelings of isolation grew. And I didn’t realize how much losing connection with my previous school’s community would affect me: but more importantly: how this loss of connection affects students.

Through that year, I had some traumatized students. Behavior is communication. And I realized, just now, that what they saw in me was a threat. A very real, present threat: another white woman teacher, just like every other white woman teacher they’d had. I was the enemy. And they treated me accordingly, and they were justified. They were justified because unless I worked very hard to check my privilege, power, and bias, they were not going to feel safe to learn.

Some facts:

  • The school’s population is almost 900 students in a building designed for maximum capacity of 600.
Important: I could not find data on BIPOC educators.

They came to me with having been shamed, humiliated, and judged by white lady teachers for nearly all of their schooling. Many BIPOC students have to fight all their lives to be heard, respected, and receive equitable and rigorous education. They came prepared to fight, and their movements, actions of leaving classrooms, was their way of expressing what their words couldn’t say. And if they did use words, it was often expletives and tears. They carried in their young bodies the harm of white teachers from day one. How could they see me, Mrs. Love, when I was just another middle-aged, white face? The same race as the president. The same race as police and their principals and the security following them through stores.

This isn’t easy to write. And I have a big ask. White teachers: please–do this internal work. It’s not comfortable, and it’s never ‘done.’ Fight for decolonizing curriculum. Fight for inclusion. Fight on behalf of your students and their families and never, ever expect a reward, thank you, or pat on the back. Do not fall into the savior trope. And yes: take it personally. Because if your student is screaming at you they have the fierceness and bravery of more lifetimes than you can ever imagine. This does not mean you need to dissolve your own dignity or self-respect. But please; do not give the ‘respect’ lessons first: self-respect and dignity matter more. Black lives matter.

And finally: we need to flip the table. I am angry that Jane Elliott’s work wasn’t in my teaching Masters coursework. That work on social justice isn’t the first things we work on as future and current educators. That we don’t confront the questions of if we’re teaching predominately white students or Black and students of color, how is it the same, and what matters?

Jane Elliott