Photo of me from my youth.
I am a white man, but I do not feel burdened.
My article yesterday, The New White Man’s Burden, might be construed as an argument for the black teacher. It is no secret that one of the biggest issues in New York City is the lack of black teachers, especially black male teachers. The disappearing black educator has been a consequence of not only Bloomberg’s education reform philosophy, but of Bloomberg’s mayoral policy overall.
The black population of NYC has declined under Bloomberg’s reign. It would stand to reason that the number of black educators has declined as well.
But I am not from the school of thought that holds that black teachers should teach black students and white teachers should teach white students. We tried this philosophy earlier in American history. It was called segregation.
My idea is simply that students are best served by teachers who come from the communities in which they live. Sure, seeing as how the city is largely segregated along racial lines, this might mean the same thing as having racially segregated classes. It also might not mean this.
My own experience is a testament to this idea. I grew up poor in a single-parent household. My mother was on and off welfare throughout my childhood. I ran around housing projects in my youth, listened to hip-hop music and kept friends who were mostly black and Hispanic. As a senior in high school, my best friend was shot and sliced in front of my eyes due to some street nonsense.
I did not realize how my upbringing shaped the way I viewed race until I got older. The teachers highlighted in the New York Times article seemed to all be so very conscious of their race and how they were different from their students. It was an entire issue to them. Yet, to someone like me, race was never an issue at all. I never thought of my students as “black” or “Hispanic” students. I thought of them as people. They could very well have been my friends growing up, or my neighbors, or my classmates.
One of the most common bits of feedback I get from students past and present is that I speak to them like human beings. They appreciate the fact that I do not condescend them, insult their intelligence or treat them like inferior creatures in need of correction. This does not mean that I am the easy or the pushover teacher. Quite the opposite, I have one of the more strict reputations at my school.
There is a way to run a classroom that does not include a bunch of carrots and sticks all of the time. I do not say to my students, “if you don’t do this, then you get/won’t get this”. When my classes get out of hand, which is never, my reaction is “it’s ok, it’s not my education” in a sarcastic way. If I tell a student to pick their pants up, I tell them to stop doing what everyone else is doing. “Oh, I guess you’re cool because the TV told you to wear a studded belt and sag your pants.” I have no interest in threatening them or telling them that, if they don’t cut out the street talk, they will never be the next Bill Gates. When I was their age, what did I care about being the next Bill Gates? That was not on my agenda. It is not on most of theirs either. I encourage them to find their own paths and not do things simply because everyone around them is doing them.
So, I try to communicate to my students that they do things in my classroom because it is good for them to do, not because there is a penalty attached if they do not do it. They are encouraged to see the intrinsic value of learning history.
This requires connecting history to what is going on around them. Even if we are learning about ancient China, I try to find a way to connect it to something they can relate to, a connection that seems organic and not forced. This requires cutting out all threats. This means being fair. Most of all, it means communicating on a level that is natural.
When people observe me teach, the first question they always ask is “how do you get them all to listen and work like that?” and my answer is that I talk to them like people. I don’t call them “scholars” or feed them a bunch of clichés. Those things are insulting to their intelligence. They see right through them.
It is my upbringing that allows me to communicate this way. A few weeks ago we had “culture day” at our school. A few of my students asked me, “how come you’re not representing your culture? You know, shouldn’t you be wearing a du-rag and sagging your pants?” The implication was that my culture was “black”. I smiled and told them I don’t consider that black culture. I understood what they were saying all the same.
This is why it is tough for me to understand this entire obsession with race. It shocked me to learn from that NY Times article that there are a group of white teachers who have created an organization just so they can talk about how to talk about race with black kids. It was not surprising to learn that they came up with ideas like “diversity flowers”. It is disingenuous.
I never needed a class or a seminar in how to talk to people. I talk to people like people and keep it at that. If I want to bring up the topic of race in my class, I bring it up. My students know that they can be honest about race with me and they are comfortable with the fact that I will do the same. I do not mince my words.
Look at the story of the Pruitt-Igoe houses in St. Louis, one of the first public housing projects in the nation. Pruitt-Igoe, like most housing projects, was designed to be a healthy place to live. They were supposed to be an improvement on the tenements that preceded them, or the shacks from which sharecroppers fled in the south. The first generation of tenets was able to raise families there. Many children from that generation went on to become part of a new black middle class of doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals.
But, because those children had grown up to “make it”, they were no longer poor enough to live in the projects. In an effort to get poor tenants Pruitt-Igoe, as well as most other housing projects, had to accept ex-convicts and people addicted to drugs into their units. The net result was that the next generation of youngsters was deprived of role models. Instead, the convicts and the gangsters were the strongest, most visible and most successful males in the community. In a very short time, Pruitt-Igoe went from a wonderful place to live to a war zone. They eventually tore Pruitt-Igoe down.
Whether it is Pruitt-Igoe, or Cabrini Green or Wagner Houses, the story is the same. Legitimate male role models are nowhere to be found. Instead, boys from single-parent homes learn about manhood from the thugs who dominate the communities.
This is why that there are people who say we need more black educators. I would not necessarily put it like that. I would merely say that we need educators who understand, truly understand, where the students are coming from. That goes a long way towards earning the respect and the ears of your students.
Treat people like people, not a race, not a curiosity, not a problem, not a project, but people. A tough sell in the era of education reform, but an idea that cannot be repeated enough.