I’ve worked in Title I charter schools my entire career: first as an ELA teacher and now as an Academic Dean of Humanities. While our classrooms are filled with young students that hold the same social identities as me, the teachers in my departments reflect a different set of identities and experiences. I’ve sat in rooms with white teachers who believed they needed to mimic student interests to be affirmed, especially by students of color. However, the reality is that our white teachers often struggle to connect with students because they show up as inauthentic caricatures of themselves.
Recently, I reflected on my experiences developing white teachers after an in-class teaching demonstration with Daniel, one of the white male teachers on my team. I was particularly excited about the lesson section I’d chosen because it involved deconstructing a scene from Issa Rae’s HBO series, Insecure.
During the discussion, I compared my own experiences with the characters in the scene. Students engaged in the lesson, and I left the room excited to debrief my model with Daniel. However, as I walked out of the classroom, it dawned on me that I couldn’t simply ask Daniel to mimic the structure of my discussion. The lesson I designed was heavily rooted in how I experienced the scene because of my social identities, and replicating my demonstration would put Daniel in a disingenuous position.
Now that I am responsible for teacher development, I must navigate different challenges and needs. The question is: How do I empower our white teachers to be their most authentic selves while creating culturally responsive experiences for our students of color?
Privilege and Authenticity
Experience has taught me that building culturally responsive classrooms for students of color means that white teachers must actively and continuously interrogate their whiteness and how it may show up in curriculum and instruction. Experience has taught me that this work must be done with intentionality and trust. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:
Our students are not monoliths, and white teachers must expect and prepare for student experiences and feelings to reflect diversity in all its facets.
Reflection: Thinking about Daniel, I knew I needed him to first engage and reflect on the lesson content rather than emulate what I did in the classroom. As instructional leaders, we must allow white teachers to process their feelings and thoughts before delivering content to our students. Questions to ponder in reflection may include: What were your initial reactions to the passage? What came up for you as you read about the character’s experience or feelings? What beliefs or values do you hold that may show up in unproductive ways during instruction? How will you respond to strong feelings your students may have about the content? These questions help unearth potentially problematic beliefs and ideals white teachers may hold in hopes that they will use these reflections to build environments where students feel safe to engage with triggering or emotionally charged content.
Facilitating Discussion: In addition to personal reflection, it is imperative white teachers create and facilitate authentic, meaningful lessons in their teaching curriculum, regardless of the issues that emerge. We explored how Daniel could initiate and maintain a robust discussion between the students without centering his feelings and inadvertently decentering our students’ feelings. A big mistake would be to assume all students understand and experience content the same way because of shared identities. Our students are not monoliths, and white teachers must expect and prepare for student experiences and feelings to reflect diversity in all its facets. In practice, this means that white teachers must decenter their emotions, reactions, and assumptions and allow students to delve into lessons without any preconceived expectations of the outcome.
Bring All of You: The most successful white teachers I’ve worked with create space for their Black and Brown students where growth becomes a shared experience. Many teachers bring their love for music, sports, books, and other interests that some assume do not interest our students. However, this is an integral part of the process. A culturally responsive classroom is also a space where teachers can see themselves. Decentering does not mean erasure. White teachers should also feel supported in incorporating their passions and reflections into the curriculum. This allows students to see teachers as whole people with diverse and meaningful world perspectives.
Using Privilege to Create a Better Future
Giving white teachers the space to reflect and productively engage with their white privilege has led to significant changes in our classrooms. Students are bursting with creativity and a depth of vulnerability we haven’t seen before. For example, Quinn, a literature teacher on my team, has created a space where students engage with content that highlights and challenges racist and sexist ideologies. Not only are his students motivated to explore this content outside the classroom, but they are also doing so in a way that does not perpetuate racial stereotypes among Black and Brown communities. Quinn’s willingness to bring his interests to the table and embrace the discomfort of discussions about cultural marginalization and white privilege has inspired students to lean into the content with passion.
To build classrooms that reflect our world, we must demand that white teachers do the work of self-reflection and confront their biases about Black and Brown students. Some students may be passionate about “sports” and “hip hop,” but it is not all our students are. The microaggressions associated with these interests should not plague their daily lives, much less the content we teach them in school. We cannot place teachers unwilling to face the uncomfortable truths about their privilege in front of our students. To dismantle the systems of institutional racism, white teachers must first look within.
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