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Race Against Time: A Teacher’s Constant Struggle

Classroom management decisions are all about timing, and time waits for no one — not even a white teacher striving to capture the sophisticated racial commentary her students are never shy to espouse. I am often forced to choose between my established parameters — learning objectives and the rules of my classroom — and a teachable moment that, if done right, my students will remember long after those parameters have stopped mattering.

In my second period 10th-grade world literature class, which tends to be the most precocious and defiant of my three classes, a restless energy fills the air. We are concluding a human rights unit in which students focused on how survivors of human rights violations demonstrated courage, and I’m trying to psych them up to write the final project: an essay about someone they know who demonstrates great courage. As we are brainstorming potential people we could interview, a student named Joseph blurts out, “I want to interview you, Ms. Lustick! You got the courage to come in and teach us black kids every day.” I wait a beat, for a burst of laughter or some other response, but rest of the class waits silently for my reply.

When a student calls out, two sides of a teacher’s brain light up. The content-driven side of my brain gets excited: wow! That student made a fascinating point! I’d really like to hear more! I bet other people do too!  Listen to the content-driven side of your brain and students will learn very quickly how easy it is to get you off track. So a teacher quickly learns to beef up the management-driven side of her brain. The management-driven side of my brain can hear a student call out just about anything and it will compel me to do one of two things: repeat, flatly, that I’m only calling on students with their hands raised, or show this by flat-out ignoring the comment in favor of a student whose hand is up. It’s usually this latter strategy that I employ. It’s less disruptive to the lesson, while sending the same message: I will take your comment as soon as you raise your hand. I always feel it’s the more impartial and professional of the two strategies. It says, “I don’t discriminate against specific students or their opinions; I simply only acknowledge those with their hands raised.”

But there’s a layer to this particular comment that complicates that. It is so personal and racially charged that ignoring it could look like it is being done out of fear, or out of embarrassment at the answer. Because to be entirely honest, I do think I have courage. My students challenge me every day to prove to them that I see and care about them for who they are, and if I’m not willing to prove that in every fiber of my persona, everything else I’ve planned will probably be a waste. Joseph senses some of this, I’m sure, but not the nuances. To pretend what he’s saying is ridiculous or not worth hearing would be fake of me, and my students can’t stand it when I am fake.

So I’m left with an impossible decision: Should I respond to his comment, showing I can engage in a racial discussion but forgoing part or all of my lesson? Or should I ignore him in favor of a student with his hand raised, allowing the learning to continue? In a split second, I know I must make the latter decision and speak with Joseph later. I’ll know whether I made the right decision at the exact moment it is too late: When I call on another student, I almost flinch in anticipation of raucous laughter and exclamations of “Yo, Joseph, she violated you man! She totally ignored you. Oooooh…”

But no — there is just silence, with the exception of Thomas asking if they have to turn the interview notes in with their papers. “Yes,” I respond. “You have to show your own process.” Phew, over the hurdle. Class continues, and the two sides of my brain are back in action as one.

I speak privately with Joseph later about his comment, asking him all the questions I wanted to ask him in class. He says he didn’t even mean to say the word “black”; it just came out. What he meant by it was “kids acting like this”: He gestures around as the rest of the class talks, laughs, and otherwise wastes time instead of working on their essays.

“Poor behavioral choices?” I prompt. He nods. I’ve heard other black students complain about “black people” when they really mean to complain about irresponsible or disrespectful behavior. I want to ask Joseph why this is, whether it’s a mere joke, and whether he agrees with me that perpetuating negative stereotypes, in jest or not, is an example of internalized oppression.

“So why didn’t you say that?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he insists. He doesn’t seem interested in engaging in the topic anymore. I’ve given him the space to have this conversation, and now it is he who is shying away. I wonder what it will take for me and my students to be able to have the kinds of conversations we so clearly want and need to have, still play our roles as teacher and students, and still get our work done.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.