Does My Race Matter in the Classroom?

Yes, it does. As a teacher and as a student. As a student, I come in to a discussion with certain ideas and experiences based on my own racial identity and privilege. As a teacher, I am an authority figure and possibly a role model for my students, so how I navigate race relations in my classroom is very important. Especially in a classroom with many students of color, I have to be aware of what my position as a white male teacher and what it says to my students. Should I avoid talking about race so that I don’t accidentally offend, or do I talk about race to show how tolerant and accepting I am? I can’t pretend to have any lived experience of racial discrimination or know what it’s like to be a racial minority , but I can treat race in a sensitive, informed way. The blog Everyday Feminism posted “10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers Bring Racism Into Our Schools” which breaks down how the best intentions can go wrong. The best way to bring race in to the classroom is through cultural responsive pedagogy, which actually benefits teachers and students of all races. The Everyday Feminism post briefly breaks down the necessity and challenges associated with cultural responsive pedagogy, or teaching:

In my work with teachers, I sometimes meet teachers who claim that they “don’t see Color,” both in naïve attempts to be “progressive” but also in an ill-advised attempt to avoid tracking students based on race/ethnicity.

But our students don’t need a “race neutral” approach to their education….

Culturally responsive teaching is not just a box that we can check with simple changes to curriculum. Instead, it is a pedagogical shift that all teachers must work to cultivate over the course of a career, one that works its way into every aspect of how we teach.

Basically, as a teacher I can’t say, “Okay we’re going to start our cultural responsive unit now” or, “Wow, I was really culturally responsive today. Good for me!” I have to abide by all 10 items on the list and more. I have to let my student’s voices be heard, and I have to make sure that the white perspective is not equated with the correct perspective. I need to not just teach white history and literature, but Black, Latino, Asian and other histories and literatures as well. This can come in to conflict with things such as common core and other curriculum standards that dictate what must be taught. However, it is the responsibility of the teacher to be culturally responsive and put responsible teaching above standardized tests and curriculum standards. Of course, teachers have to worry about their student’s test scores and job security, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Luckily, I plan to teach math so I don’t have to worry about any of this, right? Math doesn’t discriminate; factoring polynomials isn’t inherently racist. However, race cannot be removed from the classroom. There is a significant gap in mathematical achievement between white and black students (see graph).

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Why don’t people like math?? Source: pinterest

As a math teacher, it is my responsibility to address this gap and make sure my students all are able to understand the material and achieve at a high level. I also have to realize that some Black students who struggle in math aren’t inherently less intelligent or not “meant for math.” This may just be how others have viewed them and they therefore don’t have the mathematical foundations they need to succeed. Regardless of race, I cannot give up on students who are “bad” at math. Rather, they need more attention, motivation, and perhaps a different teaching style to help them succeed. I can’t let students think that “math isn’t for me” or that math is something white people do, which can be difficult as a white math teacher. I feel that I have to show students that there is power to knowledge and problem solving that is valuable to all races. I am not entirely sure how I will achieve this, but the first step is to be aware of how race and math interact.

Basically, I want to collaborate with my students in the classroom and not be the “White savior” who has knowledge to give to students. I want students to feel empowered and realize that their race is part of their identity, but does not determine their potential to understand math, or any other subject. Additionally, my position as a math teacher does not excuse me from talking about race. My race is seen by my students and is part of my identity. Race may not be an explicit part of the curriculum, but I know it will always be present.

Thinking About My Own Education

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When I think about my own education, I don’t always consider the barriers that I was not faced with, such as poverty and institutional racism. Source: susanohanian.org

 

I have spent most of my college career talking about inequality in education. Many urban schools are underfunded, rural schools are under attended, students of color are less successful than their white peers. Thinking about Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991), there are schools in America that are physically falling apart. Inequality in education is a reality for many people but, fortunately, since I went to a good high school, I don’t have to worry about it. My school was well funded, had great teachers and lots of extracurricular opportunities, so those other, failing schools aren’t my problem, right?

Actually, inequality in any form is everyone’s problem; even people who are seemingly unaffected by it are part of institutional structures that perpetuate inequality. For example, public schools are segregated. My high school was at least 95 percent white, and one of the wealthiest, highest achieving public high schools in the Albany area. Directly adjacent to my school district was the Albany City School District which has many students of color and is one of the lowest achieving high schools in New York State by standardized test scores. Had the two schools integrated and bused across district lines, both schools could benefit. Yet, if this were proposed, parents and students in my school district would likely vote it down. Why would we allow students from the failing district in to our’s? Won’t they just bring down our test scores and the quality of our schools? In reality, there’s a lot more behind this hypothetical discussion than a bad school and a good school. There’s institutional racism and classism which have led to the lowest achieving schools being attended by students of color and lower class students. Not to mention school funding which is heavily based on home value. In reality, school integration is a very contentious issue but potentially beneficial for all.

An episode of the podcast This American Life explores this issue more in depth, but my point is that I am part of school inequality whether I realize it or not. I am part of a system that ensures that suburban schools are better funded than urban schools. Until I was forced to face this reality in my Colgate Educational Studies courses, I was content with the state of public education since it served me so well. I didn’t realize my position in perpetuating inequality. No, I didn’t directly prevent anyone from having a good education, but I have a duty to realize my privilege. As someone who wants to be a teacher, particularly in a high-needs environment, I need to understand the inequalities my students face. Just because the public school system benefitted me, doesn’t mean it benefits everyone.