A few years back, I was in my room meeting parents during an open house, just days before the school year started. A woman walked in, looked up from her phone and locked eyes with me. I saw her face fall. “Is this your first year?” she asked, her tone implying that she already knew the answer to her question.
Some context. I am White and the woman was Black. In fact, almost all of the staff and students at my Atlanta high school are Black. This year I am one of only three White people in the building. I thought it made perfect sense that she seemed disappointed to see me. After all, I have known more than my fair share of first-year White teachers—too many of whom never make it past year two or three—if they come back for that second year at all.
“No ma’am,” I replied. “This is my 10th year here.” Her demeanor instantly changed—she smiled, strode forward, shook my hand. She asked if I knew her older daughter and, in fact, I had taught her for an elective some years back. We had a great conversation, and her younger daughter went on to become one of my favorite students, one I taught again her senior year. Her graduating class voted me “Favorite Teacher.”
This success is important because it was so hard-won. Dial back to the beginning of my career and that mother would have been wise to look at me askance—I was a young teacher with no experience, a clueless White guy working with Black children for the first time.
My training was minimal—I was flying by the seat of my pants. Yet, somewhere between my first terrible year and my triumphant 12th, I became a good educator—a qualified White teacher of Black children. I wonder, though, how many mothers shook their heads at me during those years in process?
How Much Damage Can a White Teacher Do While Learning How to Teach?
Let me make a list. To be clear, I will say upfront that each of these items has applied to me at one time or another—I am not throwing stones at other White teachers I have known. That is, only unless those stones could be cast first at me because, in learning how to be a White teacher of Black students, I have made mistakes. These words serve as the start of an effort to repair the damage done. If, by chance, younger, White teachers can also see themselves between the lines, well and good.
27 Mistakes White Teachers of Black Students Make
1. Most of us fail to reckon with the fact that America is a country built on a foundation of slavery, genocide and White supremacy.
2. Most of us fail to reckon with the fact that America still grants real privilege to our Whiteness each and every day.
3. Most of us fail to understand the damage done by having grown up with de facto residential segregation. And yet, racial isolation is a step toward the formation of prejudice and implicit bias.
4. Most of us fail to understand the damage done by having attended schools separated by de facto segregation. And, again, racial isolation is a step toward the formation of prejudice and implicit bias.
5. Because many of us grew up in racial isolation, we learned about Black people from the media we consumed. And yet, this media—news, sports and entertainment—overtly plays on dangerous stereotypes.
6. Some of us went to racially diverse schools and took “college-bound” classes. Since Black students are disproportionately and unjustly tracked out of these classes, we received dangerous messages about “intelligence” and “race.”
7. Most of us grew up in families and peer groups in which we avoided conversations about race and racism. We reached adulthood without learning how to speak about either of these things.
8. When conversations about race or racism could not be avoided, many of us learned to say things like, “I don’t see color. I just see people.”
9. Many of us went to colleges where Black students were vastly underrepresented. Because higher education remains de facto segregated, we again received false messages about “academic success” and “race.”
10. Many of us studied education in college. And yet, even at the institutional level, Black students are underrepresented in teacher prep programs. While trying to learn how to teach Black students, we were isolated from our Black peers.
11. Many of us had our first experience talking about race and racism in that one “multicultural education” class we took in teacher prep. Some of us were uncomfortable and compensated with arrogance.
12. When conversations about race or racism made us uncomfortable, many of us thought things like, “I went to high school with Black people, took classes and played on teams with them. I don’t have a problem with race.”
13. When conversations about race or racism made us uncomfortable, many of us thought things like, “My family isn’t from the South; we never owned slaves or benefitted from Jim Crow. White privilege isn’t a part of my past.”
14. When conversations about race or racism made us uncomfortable, many of us thought things like, “My family comes from a blue-collar background. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Every American has that same opportunity.”
15. Despite our inexperience and discomfort reckoning with the realities of race and racism, many of us started our careers teaching in schools that were mostly Black. We assumed our well-meaning presence covered over our ignorance.
16. Some of us think that because we choose to work with Black children, problems of prejudice and implicit bias could not possibly apply to us.
17. Many of us refuse to allow news stories about race or racism to come up in our classrooms—even when a teenager like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown is murdered in the streets.
18. If we teach math or science, many of us avoid talking about race or racism by thinking something like, “Math and science are universal languages. Culture and society have no place in my classroom.”
19. If we teach liberal arts, many of us avoid talking about race or racism by thinking something like, “We have to stick to the curriculum or we won’t get through everything. I have no time to talk about current events.”
20. For some of us, we make an exception to our rule disallowing conversations about race or racism on or around MLK Day. Some years we also allow it on April 4th.
21. When classroom conversations about race or racism cannot be avoided, many of us repeat a variation on the lesson we learned in childhood: “I don’t see color. I just see students.”
22. When conversations about race or racism cannot be avoided, many of us try to signal our virtue by working the conversation around to the fact that we voted for Obama.
23. When conversations about race or racism cannot be avoided, many of us say ignorant things like, “I know just how you feel.”
24. Some of us have experienced discrimination in the past for one reason or another. When conversations about race or racism cannot be avoided, we try to drive the conversation with our own experience.
25. If a frustrated student accuses us of being racist, many of us panic and overreact. We will get too quiet or overly loud. Sometimes we will even try to punish the student.
26. Many of us realize how little we know about race and racism when we first become friends with a Black person. Yet, we think this small exposure makes us automatic experts.
27. Some of us have grabbed the word “woke” and held on to it a little too tightly.
There is Hope for Change
It is reasonable to assume that right now there are tens of thousands of first-year White teachers working in classrooms with Black students. Perhaps you are one of them, and as you read through this list you likely winced more than a few items.
The good news is that there is hope. Growing up White is not an insurmountable barrier to being a successful teacher of Black students. It is an obstacle that will take intentionality to overcome, however. A naïve colorblindness will lead only to failure.
Address the items on this list and, equally important, add to it. There are far more than 27 ways for teachers like us to do wrong—tell me what I’ve missed. I know, unfortunately, that even in my 14th year, I will find some way to make new blunders as well. But the more we caution each other about our mistakes, the better chance we have to avoid the pitfalls we don’t see coming until it’s too late.
And then one day, maybe, a Black mother will walk into a classroom, see a White teacher, and smile all on her own—before that White teacher says even a word.