By Andrew Pillow
When I joined Teach for America they sold me on teaching students who were just like me. Meaning teaching younger black males. This really appealed to me. As a rising college senior, I felt like I hadn’t really done much in the way of giving back. TFA assured me all through my recruitment and training that I would have a “profound additional impact” based on my ethnic background. So, when I joined I was excited as I somewhat arrogantly thought the students I taught would identify with me and we would hit it off. I was wrong.
What I had failed to realize is there was a big difference between my upbringing and that of my students… and they knew it. My students didn’t see me the same way they saw the other adults in their life. My suburban slang and musical choices immediately signaled something to them that said “we aren’t the same.” And they were right.
I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but most of my students were on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum and lived in a rough neighborhood. On the other hand, I grew up in a suburban area and although I wouldn’t ever describe my family as wealthy, I did have two college-educated parents and never wanted for anything. My students were facing challenges every day that I had never experienced even once.
When I struggled to connect with my students I assumed that one of my colleagues who grew up more like our students was having a better go around. She wasn’t. In spite of similar life circumstances and experiences she, too, was struggling to manage a classroom; she was struggling to build investment in her class systems.
You know who wasn’t? The white teacher down the hall from me. This teacher had it together from day one. Students often told me they wished they were in “that class.” That teacher was loved and making the “profound additional impact” that I thought I was supposed to have.
In the inner city teaching movies make it look so easy. You tell them “hip-hop is really just poetry” and then it’s all downhill from there. You find some bright student named “Jamal” who is really smart, but embarrassed to excel in front of his friends and together you grow as people. You both have a good cry as he walks across the stage at the end of the year after he tells you, “you made me love learning.”
That’s when I realized: There is more to being an inner-city teacher than “identifying with the students.” It sounds simple, but I had given myself a messiah complex… you know that fancy term we use to describe liberal-minded white teachers? Black teachers can have it too. I know I did and I wasn’t alone.
Looking back on this time, I really wasn’t a good teacher in any regard. My systems were a mess. My management was inconsistent. My lessons were under planned. I had to get all of that together. As I became a better Xs and Os teacher, I became a better “black” teacher too. I realized that it was possible to have that “profound additional impact” TFA said I would. The key word is “additional” which means I have to have an impact first. I had to be a good teacher before I could bond with my students on that level.
Fast forward to my 7th year – I’m not a perfect teacher, but I am doing what I thought I would be doing. I am making the connections with the students I thought I would be making connections with. Ironically, I find myself having to tell people that my classroom and relationship success isn’t due to my “natural ability to relate” to my students.
This isn’t a blog post saying my race doesn’t matter. It definitely does, but shared ethnicity with your students is not an automatic win condition. Our students are not monoliths nor are they one dimensional. You can’t just walk yourself into their lives, not even if you are black. Aspiring teachers trying to make a difference would be wise to remember that.