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“Would you become a teacher?” “No way.”

Last month I wrote about how readily some of my students will link their disruptive or disrespectful behavior to their race or the race of their teacher. One student, Joseph, called me courageous for, as a white teacher, “coming in to teach us black kids every day.” When I inquired as to what he meant by this, he explained that he didn’t mean to say the word “black”; he essentially used his race to describe a constellation of disruptive, irresponsible, and disrespectful behaviors that both he and his classmates often exhibited when they were bored or otherwise unmotivated in class. (My post elicited numerous recommendations from educators to develop a lesson around internalized oppression, which I have done.)

Now I want to delve deeper into my students’ attitudes toward race and teaching, which have implications that reach far beyond my students’ behavior to some of the most important education policy debates going on in New York City today.

A few days after my conversation with Joseph, the class was still working on the assignment that had inspired his comment: an essay about someone they know who demonstrates courage. A Yemeni student, chin in hand, was at a loss for a subject.

“Don’t you know anyone who shows courage?” I asked her. This particular student has a great sense of irony and its delivery; she peered to one side and the other, looked at me, and pointed at my nose.

“Why does everyone want to write about me?!” I exclaimed in mock exasperation, making her laugh and hiding that I was flattered. I hoped my attitude would bring her out of her shell enough to start writing.

“Because it’s true,” her neighbor, Danny, piped up. I’ve said before that my students are the most sophisticated race scholars I’ve ever met, and this is a great example. “If you’ll notice,” he said in a professorial tone, “kids would never behave this way [most of the class was off-task and not writing at the time] in front of certain teachers in our school.” He went on to name several non-white Kurt Hahn teachers and insist that it was their race — not their management style — that led most to their success. “It’s been that way since elementary school,” he said matter-of-factly. “We behave better when the teacher looks like us.”

“So what you’re saying,” I asked, “is that black and brown students will perform better in school if we have more black and brown teachers?”

“Yes.”

“So then, what you’re saying is that more of you need to become teachers.”

Now it was Danny’s turn to dart his eyes back and forth ironically before turning their bright glint on me again. “Never,” he said, laughing bashfully at himself. He ducked his head over his desk and picked up his pen, trying to hide his deep blush and end the conversation.

“Do you realize that you have just pinpointed one of the most controversial issues in New York City education?” I asked him. “This is a vicious cycle: we have a need for teachers, so the city brings in Teaching Fellows and Teach For America corps members, most of whom are from out-of-state and are white, so kids don’t want to learn from them, but then they also have no interest in becoming teachers because they see how teachers get treated …”

Unfortunately, Danny stopped listening a long time ago—about when I stopped asking him questions about himself and his peers. Sensitizing myself again to the developmental needs of the adolescent in front of me, I asked if he’d be willing to write down everything he just said for an online column I’m writing about race and education in New York City.

“I will think about it, Ms. Lustick,” he says politely. (In case you don’t speak Teen, that means, “Hell no.”)

I returned repeatedly to Danny’s comment throughout the day. Of course it was countered by thoughts of so many incredible white teachers I have known, teachers whose sage intuition won students’ trust in an instant or whose demeanor challenged stereotypes so harshly that students forgot about race altogether. Isn’t putting any weight on race a bit, well, racist?

The truth is, Danny’s comment is relevant to conversations I’ve been having with Teaching Fellows, Teach for America corps members, and other alternative certification veterans of New York’s city schools. Like me, a white teacher who is an outsider in the community where I teach, they moved to New York to become teachers. We all chose teaching and this city for a political reason, to help close the education gap (what some, as if the fault lay in our students, call the “achievement gap”). And yet we worry often about the implications of this work being done by white outsiders. We worry about the image we create when we, as one white TFA colleague at another school put it, “ride in on a white horse every day” to save our students from their own neighborhoods. It’s as if we’ve come to save them from themselves. These programs already come under harsh scrutiny for placing young, inexperienced (yes, largely white and middle- to upper-middle-class) teachers in urban classes of mostly non-white students. If more of these non-white students went on to become teachers themselves, could we lessen the need for outsiders?

As a teacher, I don’t have the time or resources to conduct the major investigation necessary to answer this question (Who does? The UFT. Check out the union’s investigation of the decline in minority hires in the city’s public teaching force since Klein and Bloomberg took office.) I can support Danny’s conjecture only by offering his classmates’ agreement: Danny’s vow to “never” become a teacher is echoed by two young women who have readily taken on minor teaching roles in my sixth-period class. They reinforce my routines with more precision than I do, insisting on total silence before they will call on a student and flat-out berating any out-of-turn or disrespectful comments. Though they are as flirtatious and silly as any other sixteen year olds, when they get up to teach, the class responds as if they were adults. These young women agree they have the organizational skills and classroom presence of natural educators, but neither would ever consider teaching high school. Alissa, who is blunt and would probably make a kick-butt high school teacher, says flatly, “No way. I see how we treat you guys.”

A teacher who has attended a suburban high school, received a rigorous college education, and been accepted to an alternative certification program has no idea what to expect in a New York City public school classroom. Unless s/he possesses that raw, natural talent for classroom presence and kid-connection that many of them do, s/he will (at least for a period of time) look for all the world like another clueless white person con the proverbial white horse. To protect my own pride, I’m going to be careful to separate teachers’ image from intention: Their lack of familiarity — connected to or disconnected from their race — leads these teachers to fit the profile of someone my students will disrespect and not want to emulate. They — we — have to work hard to to develop a persona that our students can respect, which might take years.

Recall what students are, meanwhile, not seeing: role models of teachers of color from their community returning to teach them, infusing the structures they need to succeed with the cultural tones and signals that will make them feel self-edifying and not submissive to the white man. Of course, this is where the “vicious cycle” is most vicious: Because she doesn’t see strong teacher role models like herself, Alissa dismisses the entire profession as one unworthy of respect, one undeserving of her intelligence and effort. But our most failing communities desperately need their youth to stay, to serve as role models for the next generation, whether or not they have had those role models during their own education.

To be a role model without having had a role model yourself takes courage. Most new urban teachers — whatever our educational background or race — will tell you that firsthand.

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.

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