I did not have a particularly successful October in my internship, though I started the month off feeling very confident. Coming out of undergrad, I felt like I had a solid foundation of knowledge, both English and pedagogy related, to use as I worked with my eighth graders in a Title I, majority-minority school. All of the semesters I spent following the history and growth of African American literature, and all of my experiences being a marginalized person myself and and my passion for intersectional disability activism have shaped who I am as a learner and who I am as a person, so I thought that that part of me would help me connect to the students as a teacher.
I never considered the possibility that my students would consider me racist, yet that happened. I know not all of them felt that way, but enough did that the dynamic of the classroom shifted and some of the students even went to the principal to relay their suspicions. She told me that the students were feeling that I treated the students of color differently than the white students, and this immediately perturbed me, so I started to do research into what I could do better and then managed to fail to implement what I had learned from my readings or from direct suggestions. Here is some of what I learned during October, my reflections, and the evidence to back up what I was trying to do.
I’m a white girl from an upper middle-class background in Northern Virginia. My students see my privilege. They don’t see my experiences being a marginalized person because of my disabilities. They don’t see my health problems, my grief and changed outlook on life from my mother’s somewhat recent suicide, and the lasting effects from having a very difficult time as a trouble teenager who was ostracized and ignored. The students started out suspicious of me, and I couldn’t blame them. I was yet another white woman standing over them all day.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s report on The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce, a large majority of teachers across the country are white. My middle school is classified as Urban, which I found kind of laughable at first. I grew up right outside of Washington D.C., so I had a hard time seeing what I view as a sleepy area as urban. I learned quickly that how the students saw themselves and their experiences were incredibly important and I am mental kicking myself for not realizing this earlier, as important as self-identity and non generalizations about a group of people are in the disability community that I love so much. What I should have done was been able to break through whatever barrier that existed between me and the students and connected with them, and I couldn’t do that. I know that is going to take a lot more reflecting and change on my part to make sure that I can do so with my future students.
I know just how important it is that I as a teacher (let alone I as a human being) need to see color. I didn’t correct students when they used grammar from other than the so-called Queen’s English, as one of my beloved professors likes to call it, and I worked hard at quickly learning names and correct pronunciations because I know the importance of names to one’s identity. When I encountered a surname with a rolled double R that I am incapable of pronouncing, I never made him feel like his name was the problem. Instead, I turned his name into a thing of pride: he had bested me! We bonded over his name and he enjoyed asking me to try and say words in Spanish that have that dreaded rolled R. I embraced his heritage and native language and he and I had a more positive relationship after that.
When my mentor teacher asked me to reflect on who I most often had to verbally discipline. The black boys, I quickly answered, but not because I as targeting them. They made up a large chunk of the classroom’s population and were the ones who most often were not following directions or following behavioral expectations. My mentor questioned me to make sure I wasn’t falling to into common trap of being prejudice while disciplining and challenged me to look at these experiences from their point of view. I realized that to them, it seemed like I was always nagging at them to get off of Snapchat when that white girl over there was allowed to be on her phone, and I always asked specific students of color if they needed pencils because they were poor. My rationale was that the girl I allowed to be on her phone was reading a book on the Kindle app and had asked me permission after finishing her work, whereas the group that I reprimanded were all playing a cooperative nonacademic game and had not finished their work. I also thought that I was being kind to show the students that I would non-judgmentally give them pencils if they needed and that I had taken the time to get to know the students’ frequent needs to anticipate what they might ask for before they even needed to ask.
I learned that I was very guilty of Belief #2 on this list. I asked the students for song suggestions to use in analyzing text (or songs) for mood and tone. After asking the students for song suggestions, something I did to try and show them that I am interested in their interests, I went through and tried to find school appropriate suggestions. I chose one that somebody had written down as a joke, used the wrong version of another, and chose a different rap song after none of the hip hop/rap suggestions could be used. Apparently nobody listens to Kanye in 2017. Who knew? I should have known or found out before my lesson. Instead of connecting with the students like I had hoped to do to make Gloria Landson-Billings proud, the students thought that I was making fun of their choices.
I’m still not entirely sure what went wrong or how the students progressed to believing that I am racist, wanting to leave class if I was teaching, and making fun of my weight to my face. I’ve certainly learned that knowing the literature about a culture is not the same thing as being able to connect in the moment with somebody who happens to be from that culture. I’ve learned that teaching content is much different than teaching people and that I am better at the former.