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).

race gap.jpg

 

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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.

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3 thoughts on “Does My Race Matter in the Classroom?

  1. As Mitchie: the culturally responsive pedagogy you’re mentioning here falls under a student centered pedagogy that I tried to implement in my classes. I shared in one chapter of my book, Holler if You Hear Me, about how I started a reading club with three girls. We read The House on Mango Street and created an audiobook, which became a truly unforgettable experience for me and the girls. I know it’s harder to do something similar in a math class. But what are some ways you can make the class more student-centered? To effectively teach our students, we must try to understand their perspectives, be aware of the challenges they face on a daily basis, and learn about them so that we can adjust our teaching methods accordingly. How can you see that play out in your math class?

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  2. Ok, I see it, but still I wonder if just admitting to white male perspective is enough to earn the trust that you will need in the classroom. math or no math, the connections need to be made. what will be your ice breaker, your trust builder in the math classroom?

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    • Admitting to white privilege is definitely not enough, and neither is committing to not being color blind. One of the best ways to build trust with students is to give them individual attention and get to know them and their interests, but in large classes this can be really difficult. One thing that I know some teachers do on the first day of class is hand out a questionnaire to get students basic info such as email and parent’s names, etc., but they leave a spot to provide any information that the student thinks the teacher must know about them or their identity that they wouldn’t otherwise know. Of course this is just one example and if the students don’t trust me, they may not provide this information.
      Making students a part of the decision making process in the classroom is also essential. I’ll make the time to periodically ask them what they like about the class and what needs to be improved. Other, perhaps more innovative trust builders and ice breakers will be necessary as well but will probably depend on the specific group of students. Hopefully I learn more about making these connections during my student teaching semester.

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