Before I type a single word, let me start by waving the white flag–pun fully intended. I am sure I will offend some of you. I probably already did just by assaulting your precious, naive eyes with my honest title. Honey, take a seat…in the back or front of the bus. Doesn’t matter. You’ve already decided you won’t like what you are about to read. I can handle that.
This post is not only for white teachers. It is not only about black students. It is, however, written by black students with white teachers in mind. The information discussed encompasses topics that apply across racial boundaries and defy ethnic profiles. It is primarily directed toward high school teachers whose classrooms are in an inner city. These classes are filled with students who are below the poverty line and whose ability to street hustle keeps them alive. If this is not your student roster, this isn’t for you. However, some of the insight contained within may still be helpful as it comes from honest student perspective.
I have held a lot of titles in my short 35 years of life. I have been a server, a hostess, a newspaper deliverer, a nanny, a writer, an editor, a rock climbing and adventure guide, an outdoor gear sales rep, a PR and marketing specialist, and a manager for a boys’ group home. The last thing I imagined myself being was a teacher. I was not made to scour Pinterest for bulletin board designs and dawn denim jumpers with embroidered buses and apples on them, even if it means two full months of paid vacation. Nope. Not me.
Guess what? It’s still not.
However, after an unexpected job loss left me teaching inclusion classes in rural farm town Virginia, heading up career-driven AP courses and homeschool co-op college prep classes, nothing prepared me for the hardest, most humbling career path God would lead me down. Today I teach at a second chance high school in urban, graffitied, inner city Ohio. I spent six years during college living in the highest crime rate area of Cincinnati, but somehow I still didn’t fully grasp the lifestyle I was surrounded by each day until I taught its tenants.
It is brutal. It is heartbreaking. It is survival mode.
I entered the classroom with a smile and vision for the year, after all, my gift is relating–not teaching. I was unprepared. Even what I thought I knew from managing the group home was stripped to the bone with their raw and wrecked reality. As residential facility manager, I was judge, jury, and executioner for my residents, per their court order. In the classroom, however, I was naked, bare, and without backup on the frontlines. As one of only four white staff members, I assumed I would be a target. I prepped myself for comebacks that I would undoubtedly need.
I was painfully, heart-numbingly wrong.
The teaching became secondary almost instantaneously. When your students battle racism, police brutality, felony charges, holding down two jobs to pay the rent, waking up sleepy-eyed younger siblings for elementary, carrying a knife for protection on the city bus just to make it to school…hungry, your core content is irrelevant. Your short stories can’t compete with their day-to-day; and you shouldn’t try.
I have done a lot of praying, a lot of crying, and a lot of reflecting since accepting this position. It is hard. It is exhausting. And it is brutal survival. But I would take these young people home in a hot minute. They aren’t who you think they are. These are my students and they are so much more. Do not be so ignorant as to limit my students because of their tattoos, their charges, or their inability to read at their grade level (this, of course, doesn’t apply to all of my students, but to the majority).
My warriors are overcomers. They have fought a hard and well-worn battle just to make it to your door this morning. The last thing my young people need is the patronizing, self-promoting pretend humility of someone who, by all outward appearances, will be condescending and judgmental within seconds of seeing them. You are the one who would likely lock your doors when passing them downtown or follow them, peering through the magazine rack at the store because you assume they might take something without paying. My students know you…at least they think they do.
Even if this is absolutely, undeniably not you, our students don’t know that. And, as life would have it, we shouldn’t blame them for the biases their lives have shaped as a means of protection.
Do me a favor. Do us all a favor. Surprise these brilliant young people–in an awesome way.
Disclaimer: This isn’t for the Mickey-themed Pinterest teacher with glittery stars and candy for correct answers. Honey, do your part, but save it for the suburbs, babe. This isn’t your show. This is for those who feel called, or led, or who find themselves teaching in areas that are hard and hungry and that struggle–with reading, with economy, with joblessness and poverty. These classrooms more closely resemble war zones. This is not for the faint of heart.
This is not even for those of you whose classrooms have a spot or speckle of color other than white. This isn’t for you. My own high school had about three black families and one Hispanic family and they were awesome, but this wouldn’t apply to them or their teachers.
My advice is not even mine. It comes directly from the mouths of my students. This list was born out of genuine discussion and well thought out conversation. My students mean this to be helpful. These young people want you to want to relate to them. So this is their list. All I did was take their words, dust them off, shine them up, and put them together for you, wrapped with a bow of humor in a valiant effort to soften the blow. Brace yourselves because this might get bumpy, but I sincerely pray you’ll be better for it.
Stop Trying to Talk Like Us-It’s Embarrassing
For real, this is painful. We can’t all be Eminem. And thank baby Jesus on Sunday morning for that gift! Maybe you actually like LuDafoe’s egregious abuse of the “F” word, but I don’t and it is painfully obvious when I walk in happily rocking my Chaco sandals and LulaRoe leggings. Spoiler alert: My students already know!
When white teachers attempt to relate to students of color with an attempt to use culturally relevant terminology or slang, the students aren’t laughing with you, they’re laughing at you; and rightfully so. Just stop it. It’s okay if you listen to the Avett Brothers or jam to Garth or proudly sing every lyric to Big Willy Style on your ride home. Just stop trying to be something you aren’t. Trust me on this. My kids will respect you for it.
Two of the brightest, most hilarious students I’ve ever taught despised rap and, instead, favored early 90s country. Their Wranglers, boots, and shiny belt buckles confused the minds of those who held prejudged expectations of them, based on skin color. One of these boys is now on the Professional Bull Riding circuit and he is living his dream while the other tends cattle and works on a horse ranch. It is awesome.
Who says we have to “act white” or “act black”? That is like saying your favorite flavor of Kool-Aid is red. That isn’t a flavor, honey. Whoever put people groups in tiny, glimmering boxes of what is expected of them because of their race probably died a sad and miserable existence. It just isn’t truth. Just be authentic.
Stop Acting Like You Understand Our Struggles. You Can’t and That’s OK.
Right now, as I type this, I have students who are homeless, who are pregnant teenagers, who have suffered through multiple abortions after family sexual abuse, who are dying of terminal illnesses, who watched their parents overdose, who have survived unimaginable torture, who have been sex trafficked, whose parents drink themselves angry every single night, who have never met their family members because they are serving life sentences, and who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Many of my students rely on the school breakfasts and lunches as the only times they will eat during the week. My students smuggle ketchup packets so their younger siblings can “eat” dinner. This is no joke. We currently operate out of family sized bottles of ketchup in the cafeteria because the packets wouldn’t last.
If you were born in middle class America, as most of my readers were, you just cannot understand this level of poverty. What my students want to make clear is that that’s okay. My kids don’t need you to have been through their pain to appreciate, respect, and love them through it. You don’t have to be a hero to meet these awesome kids where they are now.
To my students, we are basically Drake. He rhymes about how he “started from the bottom, now I’m here,” but this man starred on a Canadian teen melodrama before ever signing to a major record label. We can spit game at my kids all we want about our poor, pitiful lives on a teacher’s salary, but that is a bank roll to their family. Unless my students are using their mathematical prowess for a less than legal side hustle, they don’t see consistent cash flow. My warriors understand eviction notices and utilities being cut off. These mighty students understand sharing a mattress on the floor with siblings and pretending not to want seconds so someone else can eat what’s left.
The bottom line is stop pretending. My students can see through the facade and you are a lot more effective without it.
Stop Saying You Don’t See Color. You Aren’t Blind, But You Do Sound Ignorant.
The ultimate faux pas of the stereotypical white teacher in inner city classrooms is telling their students with glee, “Oh, I don’t see color.” Really? This is both ignorant and confusing.
Believe me, they get your painful attempt at a metaphorical understanding of their culture, but you do see that they are brown, or beige, or black, or bronze versus your own pale shade of peach, right? I mean, I am just making sure.
My students have lived a life jaded by the media, pop culture, or even the lines their grandparents, mamas, and aunts have told them about their own upbringing around white people. They have biases just like we do and that’s okay. The way we self-correct isn’t to pretend we are blind to what is glaringly obvious. This only feeds into the problem.
We need to be honest, open, and willing to listen. This communication line is the only possible means to begin mending open wounds caused by a lineage of distrust and injustice. We can’t fix it. We aren’t miracle workers. But we can listen, attempt to understand, and be honest when we fall short.
Do you have any idea how powerful the lesson I facilitate on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. vs Malcom X is to a classroom full of former felonious seventeen year old students? There aren’t words. These young people are on the edge of their seats, brimming with genius commentary and real life testimony. And do you know what happens when I am honest about how it makes me–a white 35 year old married teacher and mother of two–feel? It is arguably the most powerful moment in my classroom all year. It is why I do this. It is raw and it is real and it is bone chillingly vulnerable.
I will never be the same person after teaching these champions and I am eternally grateful for that gift.
Stop Blowing Sunshine. We See Through It.
One of my absolute favorite things about my students is that they don’t hold back. They can see through an adult’s BS from a mile away. If you are here just for a paycheck, they know. It is laughable to them. (Unrelated, I am confused by this concept as well, because the pay is hilarious for the work required. But I digress.)
So many teachers think they can win over a tough crowd by pumping them full of fluffy, un-realities. These aren’t kids who know a life of after school dances and participation trophies. My students know jobs and street hustle. Get on their level and relate. Go to my students’ sporting events. Cheer my kids on at try-outs. Eat where they serve food. For the love of Booker T., stand up for my young people!
They see you. I promise.
Stop Being Afraid To Offend Us And Get Control Of Your Class. It Makes You Look Weak, Not Us.
“Oh no she did NOT!”
Eh-hem. “Yes ma’am. I most certainly did.”
Out of the mouths of babes. Hand to God, this came directly from my students–a lot of them.
“Mrs. B it’s just like they are scared of us and some kids see that as weak. You can’t get that back,” one trusted student said, nearly afraid of how I might react.
Classroom management is tricky business no matter the grade, the school, or the area. For instance, regardless of race, religion, sexual preference or otherwise, I would absolutely be found crying and sweating in the fetal position on the floor if I were left unattended in an elementary classroom. It’s not my spiritual gift. I know my limits. Amen and amen.
However, some teachers go into this field with the most wonderful of intentions and emerge at the end of the first semester frazzled, jaded, and completely over it. If intentions paid the bills, I’d be rich beyond measure. The teaching profession, as a whole, has a tendency to create cynical monsters (in my humble opinion). You must keep special watch over yourself to remain sure that you don’t fall victim to the mind-numbing chatter that tends to take place in every staff meeting, department holiday celebration, and after-hours grading session. Many teachers could be licensed in complaining.
That said, if I have learned one thing from some of the solid and wonderful co-facilitators and leadership I have been fortunate enough to serve alongside, it is that you have the permission to simply smile and nod at the naysayers, close your classroom door, and do what is best for your kids. You know them better than anyone else. You spend countless hours with them. You know their hobbies, their love life, their struggles and hardships. You know who is being bullied, who has an IEP, and whose parents are going through a messy divorce. Own your place in their lives. My students need that. They are desperate for it. Trust me on this.
We cannot be afraid of our students, no matter their race or prior charges, who they were the grade before you got them, what little symbol is beside their name in the attendance roster, or how many times they have failed state testing. If I judged my students based on any one of those aforementioned qualifications, I would have exactly zero kids in class.
Here is what my students want from us:
Be Consistent-If you repeatedly (or even once, really) fail to follow through with what you say you are going to do, be it grading or calling home or bringing in a treat for the class, you will have lost these awesome kids. This is the behavior my young people are used to and what may seem minor to you will resonate with them and it will be difficult to win them back.
Be REAL-Whoever you are, be that. If you are a natural encourager, encourage them. If you are witty and sarcastic, make them laugh. (Just make sure you’ve built solid rapport first.) If you love to bake, bring them cookies. If you hate poetry, but have to teach it in your English 11 curriculum (completely hypothetical), let them know. They can see you’re faking it anyway.
Be Kind-Regardless of the situation, any aggression or hostility is less likely about you and more likely about what they have going on. Try to loosen up and take less personally. Treat them fairly and with respect. Those who act out the most fall into one of two categories. They either need the most love or they trust you enough to lash out, letting you see them at their worst.
I assure you that my increased test scores and student reading levels have nothing to do with me. I have no magical powers. I didn’t take the tests for my students. In fact, I tell them from day 1 that the tests are nonsense and literally no one will ever look at them again. Just pass them, graduate, and move on. My job is to make my kids decent human beings who believe in their gifts and use them for jobs they are proud to do. I assure my students that I do not care if they are a CEO or a trash man, if they show up on time and smile throughout their day, they are making me proud every single second. And, come hell or high water, I do exactly what I say I will do.
Do you understand that many of my students have never experienced the simple feeling of having someone set an expectation for them and have the permission to expect that it will be achieved? No one has believed in my students through their struggles, cheered for them in their victories, allowed them to fail humbly, or supported them with consistency and follow-through? Some of my kids have played football since little league and a parent or family member has never attended a single game.
Of course, I could never encompass everybody here, regardless of ethnicity, color, race or religion, but, in my humble opinion, this is what my students see as the face of white privilege. We were given the humble platform to change their minds. This is a gift we should not accept lightly.
I have my own challenges because I am female, I parent a child with disabilities, and I am overweight. But it is insulting to compare that to what my students have already faced in 14, 15, or 18 years of life. So I will cheer on. I will be their support; their lifeline if they need one that day.
“Ma’am, why do you have a picture of that boy on your shirt?” Innocent football spectator points to black student’s picture on my homemade #1 fan t-shirt.
“Can’t you see? That’s my boy!” I smile back proudly.
About the Author: Brynn Burger is a wife, a mama, a teacher, and a lover of all things outdoors. I live tiny, love big, and laugh always. I write because it is cheaper than therapy and everyone needs that one funny girlfriend to cut up with at 3 a.m. when your yoga pants are covered in spit up and you just found your coffee in the microwave from yesterday. Check out more at The Mama On The Rocks. You’re welcome.
This piece was originally published on The Mama On The Rocks and was re-posted here with the author’s permission.