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Race and Ethnicity: Or, I Connect With The Kids Easier Because I’m Black???

So, I’m in month 3 of my first year of teaching. It’s still challenging, frustrating and very rewarding at times. I still have my battles with the Reading and Writing Workshop Model, but I am slowly starting to see the benefits of it–even if I’m not always sure what they are.

But, there is one issue I still have problems with. At the school I work at, I’m one of a few teachers who are male, and of those male teachers, I can count on one hand how many of them are black men. There are 100 teachers on staff at my school apparently, and educators of color are in the minority at my school. In my particular academy, I’m the only black literacy teacher…PERIOD. There are other black literacy teachers, but in my particular academy a big deal has (and still is) being made because I’m the only black male working there this year.

At times, it doesn’t bother me: I have always been used to being “the only one” or “one of a few.” I was one of a handful of students of color at both my undergraduate and graduate schools–the grad school touting itself as being a bastion of diversity and equality. It reallly wasn’t, But, that is another post in and of itself. Yet, there are times when it does bother me. Specifically, it bothers me because some of my white colleagues tend to use that as a kind of “fall back” when trying to explain to me how I have such an easy time teaching.

I have been trying to tell people that I have been struggling and screwing up left and right. I have had my second observation by my assistant principal, and it was WAY better than the first one. I still have a lot of improvements to make. But, of course, no one sees that since I teach in the honors academy. The honors academy I work at is known for hiring either Ivy League grads OR students from very prestigious schools of education. But, it doesn’t mean that I am any better than anyone else. I have always wanted to be a teacher, and I am committed to education and all that it offers the students I teach, etc.

But, there was one particular episode that really made me question how ignorant and disturbing people can be when it comes to dealing with a colleague who isn’t white. The situation in question happened a week before the holidays. During one of my free periods, I was walking the halls of an academy on another floor of my school. I was hoping to speak to a friend of mine who teaches there, but she wasn’t in her room. So, I decided I wanted to check the floor out. I was told that the kids on this floor were extremely unruly and evil. Yet, the ones I met from the floor were very kind and respectful to me, since I started teaching there in September (I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m cool with their teacher, who everyone loves to death.) On this particular day, I was walking past a room where there was complete chaos. Kids were screaming at each other, throwing paper and pencils at one another–it was scary. The teacher, a NYC Teaching Fellow in her first year–like me, was completely frustrated. So, I walked into her class and asked her if she needed help with calming her class down. She said yes, and I helped her out with doing something I do in my classes every day: There were students who were quietly waiting for class to start. I went over and thanked them and told them to take out their materials for class and gave them a sticker for their behavior (Who knew that middle school kids like stickers so much? It was a class of 6th graders.) I did this for two other tables in the classroom.

The other kids who were talking loudly and acting up stopped. They wanted to know why the other kids got stickers. I smiled, and told them: “It’s very simple. The kids who got stickers were quiet, followed the teacher’s directions and waited for class to begin. Yet, because the rest of you don’t know how to act and checked your manners at the door, you won’t get a sticker from me. Now, what you need to do is to take out your pen or pencil, open your reader’s response notebook and copy the directions on the board. Once you do that, you will wait for Ms. — to begin.” The class was quiet. Now, mind you, it has taken me a couple of months to be able to calm my classes down. My biggest strength is not yelling. I can get my point across by being firm and raising my voice to make a point. I’m still working on this as a classroom management technique, but it is one that works for me.

The class quieted down and the teacher proceeded with class. I thought things would be fine then. But, they weren’t. I finally got to the teacher’s lounge for lunch and ran into the teacher and her friends. The teacher was happy I helped her with managing her class, but she killed the entire comment with one of the most irritating replies one could give me: “Oh, it must be so easy for you. You’re black, and they look up to you. They connect with you immediately. I’m a white woman, and they don’t respect me at all. You must understand their situation completely….”

I just looked at her. Seriously? Since I am a black man, I connect with black and latino kids quickly? OKAY….I don’t think so. It would be easy to say that!

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10 Comments:

  • 1 institutional memory
    · Dec 6, 2005 at 6:04 pm

    It’s great to hear that things have begun to look up for you. The first year is usually a surreal experience, under the best of circumstances. Plus, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. This can cause enormous cognitive dissonance!

    As for your colleague’s presumption that the job is easier for you because you’re a black male, that probably reflects her own insecurity and inexperience more than any malevolent intent.

    We’ve come a great distance from the (not-so-long-ago) time when “You’re a credit to your race,” or “You’re so articulate” were common remarks even from progressive white people, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go before we can honestly say that color plays no role in day-to-day interactions.

    Some white teachers (and some non-white ones, too) may believe that black males fewer obstacles to overcome in dealing with students, which may or not be true, depending on each kid’s individual point of reference. In some cases, it might be an obstacle. Obviously, no general assumption is valid here.

    The best one can say about your colleague’s remark is that she might have meant well, but clearly needs further enlightenment.

    Maybe you can broach the subject with her before the year is out. You’ll do her a favor. At least you’ll have gotten her to think about the way things REALLY are.

    Try to maintain your equilibrium despite everything that’s going on, and keep up the good work!

  • 2 media-teach
    · Dec 6, 2005 at 8:06 pm

    I don’t necessarily think that you have it easier, but as a white teacher in a 99% black school, I get called cracker every day and even phone calls home are met with laughter. Makes one wonder anyway.

  • 3 KDeRosa
    · Dec 7, 2005 at 9:10 am

    A good follow-up would have been to tell them that the research shows that praise is far more effective in controlling classroom behavior. But, then again they would have known that if they knew the research instead of using racial stereotypes.

  • 4 joan320
    · Dec 7, 2005 at 12:55 pm

    First years are always hard, real hard, and it gets better if you have the desire and the fortitude to keep moving forward. Your colleagues fail to understand that teaching is successful when the children know that you have their best interests at heart regardless of the race of the teacher.

    I’ve seen teachers of all races succeed and fail not based upon race or ethnicity but based upon their ability to reach children through mutual respect.

    Your students know that you value them as individuals and as communities of leaners.

    Too many schools with minority staffs have failed miserably.

    For the kids race is only skin deep, you can’t fool them.

    I’m speaking as a Black woman with thirty four years of teaching experience in schools totally made up of children of color.

  • 5 F
    · Dec 9, 2005 at 11:39 am

    The woman you helped will never have good management with her classes as long as she tells herself, “I’m white so it’s just not going to work.” What you did with her students would have been effective regardless of your race.

    And I wish people would learn sooner that yelling does not help. I refuse to yell, I am a white woman and while it took a couple years to really grasp the management thing, I did it. Kids can sniff out sincerity over phoniness any time.

  • 6 BronxTeacher
    · Dec 11, 2005 at 2:44 am

    BXMS Teacher–
    You are right to be insulted; that teacher’s comment was immeasurably ignorant and racist.

    Kids connect with teachers who are real, and who know classroom management, period. And they can tell who’s real MAD QUICK, to use their vernacular.

    Our students are smart as all get-out. Ain’t no two ways about it.

  • 7 Persam1197
    · Dec 11, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    I remember telling my first class in 1992 that they did not respect my authority because I was a black Hispanic. After they finished laughing, they told me that they treated most of their teachers like crap. Meanwhile, a white, young, petite colleague had the same class eating out of her hands. I quickly learned that race/ethnicity has little to do with classroom management. We do have a different perspective on how race and ethnicity will have an impact on their lives that people outside of the African diaspora cannot even imagine, but the magic that transpires in the classroom is certainly not limited to melanin.

    As for the workshop model et al, take all of that education du jour with a grain of salt. This is a tool, not a substitute for real teaching. We, as professionals, know when to use the appropriate tool to get the lesson across, be it the workshop model or the myriad of other instructional tools at our disposal. Whatever works for your kids is what you should use. You are the professional and most of the DOE managers have little or no field experience. Otherwise, you would not be struggling with the technique and the worth of its implementation. After 14 years (and still “new”), I’m certain of one thing: there will be a new mandate tomorrow totally disregarding the crap we’re working with today. Follow your gut; that’s the only thing that’s permanent!

  • 8 NYC Educator
    · Dec 15, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    Persiam,

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more.

  • 9 coachjw
    · Dec 19, 2005 at 1:34 am

    I’ve felt that my race is an asset in terms of what I bring to the classroom. That doesn’t mean that students of color will succeed as a result (or that they’ll even take to me as their teacher). I’ve recently moved to a school district that has a significant black student population and I have struggled this year.

    I do agree that “knowing” the vernacular gives me a little bit of an in but woo!

    I know what it’s like to be the only male teacher of color in literacy (language arts, in my case).

    I’m babbling but I wanted to send you a little encouragement… Keep doing what you do because you are making more of a difference than you might think! :) Enjoy the holiday break!! We teachers have to recharge the batteries at every opportunity afforded us… ;)

  • 10 firebrand
    · Dec 20, 2005 at 9:28 am

    Well I am a Heinz 57 (my mother is half latina and half white and my father is a mullato).

    Most of my teaching career (7 of the 15 years I have been teaching) was in a school that serviced mostly (I’d say 95%) black children. I was tormented every day of my first year by my Black AP and maybe every third day by the children themselves.

    It didn’t make me leave (well not for 7 years anyway). It didn’t make me lower my standards (although I was told that they were too high every day by both my AP and principal). After the first year there were skirmishes betwixt myself and the administration at least twice a week. It didn’t make me shy away from comments on my “not being able to relate” because I’m “not black.” I told those students,every day, and at least half of the few parents I met every parent teacher night or afternoon, that my genetic make up (or even appearance) had nothing to do with what they had to learn in the classroom and had even less to do with what they would have to do when they made it into the working world.

    I now teach in my alma mater, which was mostly white and Asian when I was enrolled there as a student, but is very diverse now.

    Race has nothing to do any of it. Class and upbringing have everything to do with it. If the children you teach are raised to treat everyone with respect regardless of color, they will. If they are not…they will “play” what ever race, religion, socio-economic status “card” they can find.

    The apple never falls far from the tree.