Teachers not only get to see the wondrous possibilities of the human mind in action, but also witness the underbelly of society. Schools are at once magical places, and microcosms of all that is good and bad in our communities. Teachers are tasked with uplifting students, elevating their minds, and equipping them with the skills they need to reach their potential and become productive members of society. They are also hit over the head daily with systemic racism and barriers to access that exist for their students. It is a constant struggle to make instruction relevant as they witness inequity. They are very much frontline workers.
I count myself fortunate because my teacher training program in Chicago implemented an “urban educator model.” Some of my fellow, white pre-service teachers didn’t understand why this model was necessary since they weren’t planning to teach in the city. This always struck me as an odd response, not only because they chose to attend the school and this program, but also because it seemed to me that all teachers should be knowledgeable about teaching to diverse populations, and are better teachers by having more tools in their box. Learning to teach in a diverse population doesn’t take away from the learning of students in general, much like saying black lives matter doesn’t mean other lives don’t. Plus, you don’t get to pick who your students are, and it is folly to think a student of color will never sit before you in your classroom no matter where you teach.
One of the required courses in the program is human growth and development. Again, I count myself fortunate because my teacher, an African American woman, crafted the course in such a way that one of its objectives was to examine our own racial identity. She challenged our very cores, and her class changed me forever. She was and still is one the most brilliant people I ever met. One of those minds that could process several things simultaneously, always had a probing question that got to the heart of matters, and never made you feel threatened but encouraged you to keep seeking your inner truth. In many ways, she was a model educator, which is exactly what pre-service teachers need to experience. Recently, wondering if she still worked at the university, I Googled her, and found she had retired and was now a professor emeritus. I also learned that she had a 1.9 out of 5 on Rate My Professor, with most commenters complaining about the amount of work and that she took too long to grade papers. Not one commented on course content, and most gave her high marks for rigor oddly. Seems not much has changed in 20 years. It’s tough work examining one’s own privilege, and it’s an easy detour to point out the teacher’s flaws as a rationale for why you struggled in the course.
Despite themselves, I do believe pre-service teachers need to be taught to examine their racial identity, their whiteness, their privilege or lack of, their prejudices, and think about how this power will play out in the classroom with their students. Whether they are teaching in an affluent, majority white school, or a diverse urban environment, teachers hold the power to shape narratives in the magical minds of our youth. If our society is to break the chains of systemic racism, and free marginalized peoples from the barriers that exist, our teachers (no matter their own race) must be able to name it, to see it, point it out, and know how to talk about it.
I have worked in urban, suburban, private and alternative high schools. I would say that the awareness I gained in that human development course guided my teaching from day one, and across all the settings I worked. In fact, I believe this learning laid the groundwork for me to continue my education and growth through the equity and anti-racism training I received in school districts. Furthermore, it was never more important to my teaching than when I worked in an affluent school where the majority of the students were white. Students have questions, they are seekers of truth, they know a fake when they see one, and if I hadn’t been equipped to respond, if I didn’t understand the tensions and dichotomies that exist in our society, I may not have been a bad teacher, but I certainly wouldn’t have been good one either. And who wants to be anything less than good at their job?
As teachers, we are there to serve our students, regardless of color, gender, ethnicity, or culture, and in order to be the best we can and show up for our students, it is fundamental that we understand how our systemic structures support keeping certain people in power and keep barriers up for others. As I said, schools are microcosms of our society and communities, and if the goal of public education is to prepare our youth to live productively in a democracy, how can we do that if we ourselves are not in tune to positive and negative attributes of our democracy? Antiracism and examining one’s own racial identity and prejudices must be mandatory learning for all pre-service teachers.