MAGAZINE FEATURE

A Solitary Struggle

For many activist teachers, the journey of promoting equity in education is a lonely one.

Do you find yourself standing alone because you insist on a more inclusive curriculum or call for more cultural sensitivity among students and staff at your school?

Perhaps you want to confront the biased comments of fellow teachers or defend the rights of a gay student or teacher but hesitate to do so. Maybe you feel alienated because you happen to be the only Black or Jewish or Latino member of the teaching staff.

You are not alone. Many teachers across the country struggle to find a balance between being activists and being accepted -- and keeping their jobs. Taking a stand for equity is often a lonely journey, but the rewards can be worth the risks.

According to teacher trainer G. Pritchy Smith, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of North Florida, educators are morally obligated to take an active role in helping heal the racism that exists in our society.

"Our students must not see us merely as nonracists, but they must see that we are antiracists, actively engaged in our communities fighting racism and other forms of bigotry," he says.

Recently, Glenda Valentine, former Teaching Tolerance associate director and currently a diversity consultant based in Atlanta, led a discussion among seven teacher activists about the challenges they face in standing up for social justice. Following are excerpts of their conversation.

 

That Lonely Feeling

When did you first feel isolated or "on your own" in teaching for equity?

Sherry During my first year of teaching. All of the 1st grade teachers did a big Thanksgiving celebration, complete with paper bag vests and feather hats. The students were playing drums and singing "Indian" music. You know: "Hai, hai, hai. Hai, hai, hai." I didn't feel comfortable with it and talked to my students about invasion versus discovery and about real Native Americans.

I was seen as a party pooper by my students and fellow teachers. That was when they started to perceive me as "different" and I started to feel out of place. That was four years ago, and I still feel out of place. But I still talk about invasion versus discovery every November!

Celine I had been teaching for many years before my first lonely experience. I attended an in-depth seminar on multicultural education, and what I learned really inspired me. I returned to school full of ideas that I thought everybody would be delighted to hear. At first, my colleagues were curious, but their interest dwindled when I talked about moving forward to advance an agenda of equity.

Some things went over well, like bulletin boards for cultural holidays such as Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Ramadan -- that was fun stuff. But when I suggested we find and incorporate more multicultural literature and that we become more culturally aware and more sensitive to diversity issues, the teachers started whining about the extra work required.

Now, I do what I can in my classroom, and I continue to make suggestions for the school as a whole. I'm told my ideas are "appreciated," but they are also ignored.

 

When have you felt most lonely?

Kate The lonely teacher feeling has always been with me, since I'm one of few African American teachers in my school system. The lonely feeling intensified after I started doing workshops on diversity.

When I'm asked to do an in-service on diversity and folks don't have a choice about attending, I really feel the resistance and resentment. It's like I'm selling something they don't want.

Celine I know what you mean about the resistance. Everyone at my school knows my commitment to diversity, and the teachers are always afraid I'm going to ask them to do something "multicultural," so a lot of the teachers avoid me. Sometimes when I enter the teacher's lounge, the room becomes very quiet, and, of course, I wonder what they were talking about before I arrived. That's probably when I feel most lonely. It might sound childish to feel that way, but, whether you're a child or an adult, rejection by your peers can be painful.

Ted I feel lost in my department meetings where I listen to the constant blubberings of one giant, racist, misogynistic homophobe in a man's clothing. He dominates the meetings with his politically incorrect-to-the-nth-degree orations. But I rarely confront him because I don't have any allies to back me up.

 

That brings up the question of how to deal with biased co-workers. How do you confront offensive language, jokes or comments, or do you confront them?

Paul Until the last year or so, I was like Ted and I would just let comments pass. Now I speak up and present my perception and why I differ with the biased viewpoint. I won't debate with them, but I let them know I don't accept their views.

Ted Except for in the meeting I just mentioned, I usually try to use a gentle, humorous way to help people see a more tolerant view. I don't think I'm very effective, and I've still been labeled a bleeding-heart liberal.

Sherry I'm really working on this one. In my first two years of teaching, I usually swallowed my tongue and stood by quietly, not agreeing, but not arguing the point either. Now, I've been trying to speak up more, and, as a result, most people have stopped saying racist things around me.

Celine I know. I seldom hear biased statements, either. I know stuff is still said, just not in my presence. I quickly tell people if I think they say something inappropriate. My advice to others is under absolutely no circumstances should anyone accept racist rhetoric. If a person remains quiet to rhetoric of bias, it is assumed you agree with the rhetoric. Stand up and be heard.

Lauren Exactly. If I don't say anything, I feel I am letting my silence speak for me, and that's not acceptable anymore. I don't believe in choosing my battles now. Whether its racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever, every issue is my battle these days.

Ray For me, the most effective way to deal with these individuals is to educate them with the same patience and care we want them to bestow on children, because biased teachers can do great harm to children. If teachers are willing to display their bias to you, they'll display it towards children. I believe such teachers should be dealt with in a serious manner. This includes reporting biased comments to a school or district-level administrator, if necessary.

 

Standing Up … and Out

As the lone Black, White, Latino, Asian, Jewish or gay teacher, what special challenges do you face?

Ray The lone Black teacher often struggles with the issue of "tokenness" and all the stigma that comes with it, such as perceptions that you were hired just because of your race or to fill a quota, that you are not truly qualified, that you are an expert on your race, and that you are the only person who can coordinate the school or district Black History Month celebrations.

Kate Being the lone Black teacher, I'm continually working twice as hard as my White counterparts to get parental support, colleague support, career advancement, whatever. Unfortunately, there are still those who think it is their God-given right to receive awards, promotions, and so forth, just because they are White. It's scary.

Sometimes, at district workshops and in-services, I will sit at an empty table or row of seats. As the event fills up, I can watch White teachers fall over themselves to avoid sitting by me. Usually it's not until the speaker says seats are available by me that others will sit with me. This has happened in 1998!

Lauren A challenge I face is having to listen to White teachers dictate what ought to be done regarding students of color and what they need. One example was when I suggested a support group for students of color. Without even asking students what they thought, the principal said such a group was not necessary.

Being biracial, I also tire of being the spokesperson or guru for every underrepresented group in our building, school, district or anywhere!

Paul I am one of very few Jewish teachers in my school. My fellow teachers don't understand or appreciate the fact that, because of the school calendar, I can never spend Rosh Hashanah with out-of-town family and friends. The non-Jewish teacher can always spend Christmas and New Year's with their out-of-town family. There are never any school functions on Sunday but always on Friday and Saturday when I observe Shabbat (the Sabbath) and go to temple. On the positive side, when Jewish students see me in temple or in the community, I become somewhat of a role model because of my observance level.

Sherry As the only lesbian teacher in a school where most people still view homosexuality as a sin, I am very closeted and very lonely. I hear lots of anti-gay sentiment -- even from people who are my "friends" within the school community. I don't feel like I have real friends because I am only able to go so far when talking about my life.

 

What obstacles and challenges do gay/lesbian teachers share with members of ethnic/religious minorities, and what aspects are different?

Sherry I am extremely lonely in the closet, and it hurts to hear all the negative things my "friends" and fellow teachers say about gay people. On the other hand, I benefit from being able to hide my sexual orientation. Since I am not out, I am not discriminated against. This is not a choice that teachers of color have available to them.

Lauren I think what is shared is the sense of being on the outside and not part of the mainstream. What is different is the ability to fully share who you are with the community. As an Asian American, I can openly talk about my life and family. I am not able to share that my lesbian partner and I have children. Gay, lesbian and transgendered teachers cannot share their lives or their families with the student community.

For example, I was chastised by my principal for telling students I was unmarried. Now, if asked, I will talk about my children and my "step" children, but I no longer offer the details of my personal life. Many times, I let students assume I must be married to a man. I do this regretfully because I feel students need to hear that families come in many shapes and forms.

 

The Resistant Ones

What population presents the most resistance toward tolerance education -- colleagues, administrators, students or parents?

Ray The most resistant population are colleagues. It's more comfortable to live in denial than to face the fact that for the past 15 or 20 years you've miseducated more kids than you educated. Many teachers are in a state of obsolescence. They are outmoded, outdated and woefully ill-equipped to work with an increasingly diverse student population. Teachers can make positive change a reality, but they can also be great at maintaining an unjust status quo.

Kate I agree that fellow teachers still present the most resistance. There is a fear that someone is trying to take something away from them if they listen to messages about tolerance. I have heard more times than I care to recall negative and derogatory remarks when tolerance is mentioned.

Lauren Parents can be resistant, too. In years past, my attempts to teach accurate history brought resistance from some parents who indicated they were worried that their children would not learn "real" U.S. history because I was teaching about women, people of color and poor people.

Sherry I had a parent last year who said her child couldn't learn because the children at his table were "speaking Chinese." The children were actually Hmong and hardly spoke in any language.

 

Support Systems

Where do you turn for support and connection?

Lauren There are several colleagues and friends I can connect with. My family varies in its support. If the matter is about race, ethnicity or gender, I feel I have their support. If it concerns a gay/lesbian issue, the support is not as strong. Our teacher union came to the support of a gay teacher when he read a gay/lesbian-themed book to his elementary class. But we've been told by district administrators in so many words not to do what he did.

Sherry I don't have many White friends in this area who really understand what I am doing regarding multicultural education. There are two African American teachers at my otherwise completely White-facultied school. They are both supportive and helpful to talk to. Our education association is very supportive of tolerance issues. Several teachers at my school dropped out of the union after a section in support of gay and lesbian teachers was added to the bylaws.

Ray I try to remember that human support is quite apt to change. Time and again, teacher unions have proven they are much more committed to successful contract negotiations than successful teaching of students -- especially students of color. My support system is mostly limited to close family.

Diversity or equity work is more effective when based on principle, rather than popularity. Students and their magnificent potential offer the best hope for the future of diversity education.

The Teachers

Celine is African American and teaches elementary school on the East Coast. She has been teaching for 10 years.

 

Kate is an African American teacher in the Southwest. She has taught all grade levels in her 15 years as an educator.

 

Lauren identifies herself as biracial and Asian American. She is a middle school teacher in the Midwest, where she has been teaching for 10 years.

 

Paul is Jewish and has been teaching for 17 years. He also teaches middle school in the Midwest.

 

Ray is African American and has taught middle school for five years on the West Coast.

 

Sherry is White and has taught elementary school in the rural South for four years.

 

Ted is a White former Mormon who has taught middle and high school in the Northwest for 23 years.

 

*NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED