What I Learned Teaching Black Students

11/03/2015 09:55 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2016
Schoolkids standing in a row
Schoolkids standing in a row

When I graduated from college I knew two things, my husband and I were moving to Atlanta, and I was going to work in the inner city. I had taken my mandatory multi-cultural education class, and taken an elective intercultural communication class. I prided myself on how much I thought I knew about race. I was totally racially aware, especially for a white girl.

I had no idea how much I didn't know. After moving to the most diverse city in which I had ever lived, I landed a job in a high school that was almost exclusively black. I knew that any first year of teaching was going to be hard, but I had no idea just how underprepared I was. My ignorance showed up in the very first lesson I taught.

On the suggestion of my colleagues I taught a story included in the English course textbook about a family reunion and consequent argument about favoritism within the family. As we read through the story together we tracked the plot on the board. When we reached the climax and one of the characters declared his brother was favored because of the brother's lighter skin tone, I asked my students to tell me what the conflict was. They told me exactly what the story said, showing clear understanding of everything that was happening. I responded by asking again for the real conflict because the experience they were telling me about "wasn't a thing" in my mind. I told my black students that discrimination based on skin tone wasn't real.

I didn't know about colorism within the black community, and so I assumed it didn't exist. In a classroom where I was the only white person, I still privileged the white experience. I was teaching a story by a black author to a black class, and still I thought I had the final say on the story's main point.

My students were stunned, but still they gave me the benefit of the doubt. One tenth grader politely raised her hand and gave me the basics. I listened, shocked at what I did not know, finally understanding the literature I was supposed to be teaching them.

This would not be the only time I would do a disservice to my students because I did not understand anything about being black. The first week of school I memorized many of my girls by their hairstyle. One girl was particularly easy to spot with her bright lavender bob. Two weeks later, after the long weekend gave many of my students the opportunity to change their hair, I started marking her absent. I marked the child absent for weeks, until someone pointed out to me that she was in fact in class, in the same seat she had always occupied, just with waist length micro-braids.

I was using white cues to look for my black students, and I literally could not see her.

Still I did not examine my own lack of awareness. It would not be until many weeks later, when I asked a child to pull out a pencil, and when he reached into his book bag I stood frozen and afraid. Something within my brain screamed to me that this child had a gun. "What are you doing?" I shouted at him loud and sharp. He looked at me, brushed the long locs out of his confused eyes and showed me the pencil I had asked him to produce. Only then did I understand there might be something wrong with me.

Still I brushed it off; I couldn't be racist. I was voluntarily teaching at a black school. I was part of the solution.

I cringe when I read The White Teachers I Wish I Never Had from Mia McKenzie. I see myself in her experiences, young, well-intentioned, and desperately unaware of my own whiteness. Even in the moments I knew I was failing them, I didn't understand how my lack of reflexivity was harming the children I was trying to teach.

When I tell these stories I am often applauded. People tell me I learned so much. They praise me for letting the kids teach me. It must have been a warm fuzzy experience like the ones they have seen in all of those uplifting teacher movies.

Even when we fail our students, our (white) experiences are still centered.

No one mentions the ways the children are failed, how it is not the responsibility of students of color to educate their ignorant white teachers. No one is horrified that these students were yet again disadvantaged by a system we hold up as the best way for these same kids to get a leg up.

This isn't a problem of one well-intentioned woefully under-prepared white teacher. This is the reality of American schools.

The American teaching force is 80 percent white, while America is only 62 percent white. The mistakes that I made in the classroom are repeating themselves every day. Then we blame the kids for their inability to learn from teachers who are not taught to teach them -- people who refuse to examine their own whiteness.

I wanted so desperately to help. I wanted to fix. I wanted to make a difference. But I was unwilling to really learn what I needed to know before entering into the classroom. I didn't want to learn about myself. I was so afraid of being called racist, I was unwilling to see racism as a system in which I was participating. I wanted to be above it, so I pretended I was, which only made the problem worse.

I am not trying to imply that white teachers can never teach black children. I know white teachers who are really good at it. However, in order to effectively teach children of color, we need to be aware of our own whiteness. I was not. I had never even thought about my race and how it shaped my experiences. I don't know that many white teachers do consider their whiteness before we are confronted with it in the classroom, but we must. In order for our students to best learn from us, we must make sure we know about ourselves.

This has been excerpted from a completed manuscript Abby is seeking representation for.