When Intention Isn't Enough: An Educator's Struggle to Validate Black Students
The 2015-2016 school year was easily the most traumatic work year of my adult life. I was a teacher at an alternative high school in New Orleans, a job very similar to one I left in Philadelphia. Alternative schools are intended to address the push-out crisis by creating spaces for students who have not found success in traditional schooling environments. Some of these students may not thrive in large environments; some may have been pushed out of the charters that claim to be educating "all" of our kids. Some are in the criminal justice system, or young parents caring for children of their own. The possibilities are endless, and serving youth comes with a unique set of struggles and challenges. Having worked in the field for a few years, it’s a population that I am very comfortable with. It is also one that I care deeply about.
Despite my passion for, and comfort with, alternative education, last year led me to question the very foundation that I had built my career on. I cried a lot, vented on Facebook, journaled during professional development meetings and frequented happy hours with other educator-friends while we soaked it all away over margaritas with chips & salsa (yes, we’ll need another pitcher). I worked out for self-care, got a therapist to maintain balance and dug into my yoga practice to begin meditating regularly. I did the usual things one does when they’ve got a stressful job.
With teachers, all of the above are done with student stories sprinkled in between. Exasperating, funny, touching and annoying moments with kids that make the job everything that it is. But kids weren’t always the main topic of conversation with my peers and I. We talked about them, sure, but much more of our dialogue was spent on how racism played out in the daily grind. We vented about administrators whose savior complexes were evident in the very way they spoke to and about students. We talked about how meager the expectations were of our low-income, predominantly Black kids. We talked about the inability of our white coworkers to even acknowledge the differences between themselves and their students, so great was their desire to be colorblind. And more than anything, we talked about how these behaviors indicated the same age-old (and, well… racist) idea that our students should not be expected to excel.
What I realized halfway through this school year was that my desire to center Blackness in the classroom, to help my students unlearn most of the things that the media told them about themselves, still had to be done within a racist system. Perhaps this isn’t shocking to folks of color who are teachers, but after 9 years in the profession, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks. The progress I felt like I was making in the classroom with my students was frequently counteracted by other staff members in the building: those who looked down on them, made wild assumptions about their lives based on stereotypical views of Black communities, and centered conversations about the kids on their academic deficits more than anything else.
So what exactly did this look like on a day-to-day basis?
Extreme white saviorism.
In one staff meeting, a white teacher claimed that it was actually a great thing if students ended up working at local grocery stores after graduating, because at least they weren’t "in the streets shooting each other up.” Others nodded along in agreement.
The idea that they were essentially “saving” kids from themselves and the communities around them drove some staff members to befriend kids rather than encourage their academic or personal development. One particularly infuriating example — let’s call him Mr. Frank — taught special education students who struggled behaviorally and academically. In this setting, it meant that his class was full of the Black boys who could not sit still. Students dubbed it the place you go to “listen to music and eat snacks.”
In meetings, Mr. Frank spoke openly and often about all the academic tasks he felt like students were incapable of even trying. These ideas help to explain some of the trash that passed for rigor in his classroom. He let students print Wikipedia pages and paste them to tri-folds for final project work. He excused them from completing assignments and rarely failed kids regardless of what their effort or attendance looked like. Instead of encouraging academic growth in any meaningful way, he took kids to the store, bought them food, and handed out money.
Let’s pause here, because many of these things sound incredibly sweet when done by a family member or friend. And yes, relationships are super important when teaching. But building them isn’t the only part of teaching. As educators, we focus on building relationships with kids in order to better teach them. To do this, we have to actually believe in their intellectual capabilities enough to push for their academic growth. Mr. Frank didn’t see the second part of the equation as important. He thought so little of the kids’ intelligence that there was no urgency in actually teaching them. He was there to be nice to them. To call them his “boys.” To make friends.
Over the course of my year there, it wasn’t difficult to see how Mr. Frank’s desire to “save” these allegedly broken Black kids made him treat his class like a fun holding cell, just somewhere to put the kids. He greeted Black kids as the n-word and jokingly called a young woman a “ratchet ass bitch” in front of a group of males in order to get a laugh from them. Before my time, he stood idle while his students would verbally — and in one case, physically — assault his co-teacher, who was a gay trans man. Instead of using the teachable moment to encourage students to confront their blatant homophobia and transphobia, he claimed his co-teacher needed to make better relationships with the kids. Of course, the latter would not have been easy. But teaching never is.
The privileging of white voices and opinions.
Outside of Mr. Frank’s outrageous everyday actions, another obvious indicator of racism in our workplace was the constant approval of white opinions and the subsequent shutting down of voices of color. One white teacher who was covering a Black educator’s classroom told students that their definition of racism, one that recognizes that all whites receive benefits and privileges from systems of white supremacy, was wrong because it made white people uncomfortable. He justified his assertion by coolly stating that he could speak to the issue because his partner was mixed race.
Over the course of the year, several teachers of color had complained about Mr. Frank’s behavior, specifically about their discomfort with him using the n-word and how his decision to do so made the workplace feel unsafe. They were told several times, “He has his methods.” Early in the year, a young Black woman was hired as his co-teacher but didn’t last in his classroom a month before needing to be placed with another educator. She expressed to me that he often seemed unprepared to teach and when she asked for lesson plans or outlines, she was scolded. He told her, “You don’t ask questions. I’ve been doing this for years. I’m the surgeon, you’re the assistant.” When she went to the principal with complaints of being treated condescendingly, she was reprimanded for causing trouble and made to sign a contract stating that she would never discuss Mr. Frank with other teachers while on the school premises.
Later in the year, when I tried to organize a meeting with a few teachers of color to talk about how best to deal with his language and brainstorm coping strategies for the growing list of racial microaggressions at work, I was called into the principal’s office for a meeting with her and the dean. I was made to apologize for my unprofessional behavior, despite the fact that I had previously addressed the principal with my concerns and was dismissed without any promise of further action.
All these instances taught an easy lesson: if you had issues with how white teachers treated you, you kept your mouth shut. If you questioned how certain practices and behaviors were impacting students of color, you kept your mouth shut. And if you wanted to address issues of microaggressions that made the workplace toxic, you didn’t discuss it at work in hopes of bringing about change. You went to happy hour with people you trusted and cried.
Valuing intention over impact.
One of the major things that became apparent to me during my time at this school was how heavily white people leaned on their good intentions. Because everyone meant well, because everyone could couch their behaviors in the altruistic deed of educating Black kids with huge academic gaps, they did not seem to mind if their actions had negative impacts on coworkers of color or even the Black children they were supposed to be serving. When I realized this about my boss and coworkers, I began to see how strongly whiteness seeks to protect itself in schools. Everything from Mr. Frank’s “methods,” to teachers doing work for students they didn’t deem capable, to oft-expressed colorblind sentiments that white teachers used to make connections between themselves and the kids, were excused and never questioned because the people who did or said them “meant well.” It didn’t matter what impact this had on the kids and it sure as hell didn’t matter how it made staff members of color in the school feel.
It was around this time that I began to draw connections between law enforcement and education systems in this country. I knew from the many instances of cops who got off for murdering unarmed Black men and women, that whiteness in their institution also tended to protect itself. And much like with law enforcement, the issues that exist in education aren’t addressed as system-wide problems indicative of attitudes and biases towards people of color. Instead we discuss the few bad apples, which in the education field means the teachers who don’t care at all, the teachers with ill intent.
The problem with this approach is that most all white folks, teachers and otherwise, never see themselves as bad apples. They know that they mean well so they assume that they couldn’t possibly be a part of the problem. At this alternative school, the white folks who caused a great deal of the microaggressions could barely hear us decrying their actions and language. Our complaints were drowned out by the sound of them patting themselves on the back for their hard work.
Recently, I read a headline that announced that percentages of Black teachers in the classroom have fallen drastically in the past few years. I didn’t bother reading the article because I felt like the wounds from last year were a little too raw. In an old Facebook rant, I reflected on nearly 9 years in the education field and the experiences it took to get there. I specifically recalled going to grad school with people who made sweeping generalizations about Black and Brown communities. I remember smoking cigarettes after classes with fellow students of color lamenting the fact that some of the people in our Ivy League program were already in positions of power in schools full of Black children. I remember how proud they seemed of themselves for taking on the work of “fixing“ kids and schools, despite the lack of desire to fix their own racist viewpoints, language, approaches, etc.
Like last year, I brushed it all off over happy hours. I was still hopeful then. I thought that I could teach Black and Brown youth in a way that centered them, their stories, their beauty, and their lives. I did not consider that those grad school classmates who thought so little of us, and that people who shared their ideas, were already running the system and starting the charter schools. I did not consider that fighting for my kids essentially meant fighting against these people. It was a battle I was unprepared for when I first started teaching in 2007. Though it is a battle I expect to fight for the rest of my life, the new hope is to one day do it within an institution that is willing to take on the fight with me. This would save me from a career of holding my tongue until I get to half-priced drinks with other teachers of color who have learned that silence is the only way to stay in the ring.