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Trayvon Martin and the Implications for Teacher Perceptions of Students

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The bad news: Another young black boy gets shot down on the basis of perception of threat. Trayvon Martin is the latest in a list of victims of our racial politic, a young scholar with a budding future. George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old man who one day dreamed of being a full-fledged cop, admitted to the shooting and alleged self-defense. What gets lost in this conversation is that somewhere along the line, our society still has people who teach our children that our racial differences imply inferiority or, worse, dehumanization.

The good news: Teachers can play a critical role in the move towards racial consciousness and, yes, harmony.

We greet students into classrooms with histories that don't always favor them, and it's often our job to remedy that situation. We help create cultures within our own school accounting for all these factors and develop an identity distinct from even the school next door. We invest time in the future citizens of this country, and the one who might provide solutions to the societal ills that continually plague us.

The first step always starts with a teacher's current crop of kids. The one question I always ask myself when students walk in is, "What do I see?" Then, "What do I think I see?" I'm laying down some of my general assumptions for me to probe, then trying to understand why I feel that way. Sometimes, these assumptions come from observations I've made about the world, but often, they come from hearsay and stereotypes I've also inherited. Red herrings like black hoodies, big earphones, and unbelted low-hung pants might tell me that the person in front of me has no respect for any classroom courtesies, but he could just as easily be making a countercultural fashion statement. He might spend as more time on the block or in his house helping his mother. He might actually care about what I have to say or he doesn't on that particular day for any number of reasons.

I won't know until I ask, and I certainly won't know by just drawing on a limited experience.

Once we learn how to reflect on our biases, we can progress into our pedagogy, i.e. the messages we convey as important actually matters in this conversation, too. Lisa Delpit recently said in The Nation, "One cannot divorce the teaching of basic skills from the demands of critical thinking; having kids question what is in newspaper articles, even question what is in textbooks." She implies that if students with little personal access to a text, a problem, or a map don't get to ask questions about it, then they are right to believe that the curricula forced upon them has little relevance. This instills a sort of academic inequality that often conflates cultural and racial divisions, and lays a foundation of low expectations certain children simply can't afford.

Speaking of which, many well-meaning teachers might take this essay as a signal to dilute their material with certain students. To them, they don't have a "racial bone in their body," yet allow students to slip away without the tools to succeed in ensuing grade levels. Without ignoring the cultural differences that exist in many of our classrooms, we ought to come into the classroom knowing that, without getting a clear sense of a child's intellectual capacity, we can't and shouldn't make severe judgments about that child yet.

Surely, learning isn't linear. In our classrooms, we're often asked to account for all types of diversity: cultural, sexual, economic, and educational. All of our students have certain needs, and when entrusted with multiple children at 45-minute clips, we may feel we don't have time to accommodate for one more routine to remember. With state tests either in session or quickly approaching, some think we should wait until the summer to create plans of action to promote better understanding amongst one another in our schools. Others still might feel like they have no control over what happens in their school and they are just cogs moving to the beat of the main office clock.

Just remember that, out of the 55.4 million students enrolled in school here in the United States, we have exactly one less. A few teachers no longer have him in their seats, and a couple of adults no longer have that child to take to school. In situations like this, people often consider the gunman the sole actor, estranged from a society's norms. With names like Danroy Henry and Oscar Grant still ringing in my mind, I proffer to you that somewhere down the line, George Zimmerman didn't have anyone to sit him down and ask him to reconsider his views and actions.

Trayvon Martin deserves our better selves. Let us reflect harder.