Welcome to the Teaching Tolerance blog, a place where educators who care about diversity, equity and justice can find news, suggestions, conversation and support.
I’m sitting in my office with Sam, a senior, whose counselor brought him to see me. He missed more school than he attended last year and has started this school year in similar fashion. His counselor thought that a meeting with me might help emphasize the importance of better choices.
It’s not unusual to encounter misconceptions about Africa. People erroneously refer to “the country of Africa” or say that someone “speaks African.” Most of my third-grade students were African-American, and they not only knew very little about Africa; they held negative assumptions about anyone who is African. Worse, my students used “black African” as a slur. No one knew how that got started. In fact, part of the reason I usually say “black” instead of “African-American” is that I got used to my students saying “black.” The term “African” was not anything they wanted associated with themselves, even with “American” tacked on to the end.
My student was trying to act like he wasn’t smart. He told his parents that being smart meant not having cool friends. When test time came, he simply made random patterns with the bubbles on his standardized test, scoring one of the lowest scores in the sixth-grade class. The following year, he made a fresh start by earning one of the highest scores on the pretest. I knew I was in for a fight or, rather, a battle that would culminate with a full-on war to maintain. One I hoped to win.
Among my third-graders, conflicts often arose over the issue of skin color.
“Your mama left you in the oven too long. You look just like a burnt cookie!”
“Oh yeah, well you look like a white boy. I bet you ain’t even black.”
As a young white teacher coming into a school that is about half African-American and half Latino, I knew there would be racial conflicts, but I didn’t know how they would manifest themselves. I assumed that both groups’ first concern would be the oppression and racism from white people. I was not expecting the intense criticism that I found within the African-American community of its own members.
Recently, I met with the second- through fifth-grade teams at our school to look at student achievement on our district benchmark tests. We analyzed the results. Then we set out to identify specific focal questions that large numbers of students answered incorrectly. We’d hoped to develop an instructional plan to help the students answer similar questions correctly in the future.
“To err is human” but to reflect is divine. Teachers are human. We get frustrated, lose our tempers, make bad judgment calls and sometimes wish for a do-over button. Unfortunately, there isn't a magical reset button—or is there?
Being an effective, successful teacher does not mean you never make mistakes. It just means we need to learn from them.
How does a school community deal with the violent loss of a student? Unfortunately, this is a question my school has had to answer too often. Still, no matter how many times I’ve been through it, trying to understand my own pain while holding space for my students to feel theirs is something that pushes me beyond my capacity as a teacher.
Throughout the year there are opportunities for school dances. It could be homecoming, Sadie Hawkins or even a Halloween costume party. Students spend hours discussing them. While many students view dances as a tremendous opportunity for fun, socializing and a great experience, others view them as potentially dangerous and anxiety-filled events. I am not thinking about the general stress induced by dating or the politics of popularity that often emerge here.
Rather, what concerns me is the anxiety for LGBT students.