Approximately 82% of U.S. teachers identify as white and middle-class (NCES, 2014). I am part of this very large percentage that makes up the teaching force in our public schools. I was not aware of this statistic while teaching in Boston Public Schools, but it is important demographic information to consider. It suggests that our schools are not culturally neutral, and can place many students at a disadvantage if they represent different ethnic, cultural or linguistic backgrounds. I think about this statistic a lot, as I teach our pre-service teachers, especially since the majority of my pre-service teachers also fit this large statistic.
Many of my pre-service teachers resist the idea that their background would ever influence how they would treat a student. They claim that they will give all students an equal opportunity to experience success. I try to explain to them, that I felt the same way, but sometimes our attitudes and actions are unconscious. Recently, I shared this story with my pre-service teachers as an example.
One of my students, we will call him Anthony, presented the most challenging behaviors in my 3rd grade classroom. In fact, I was warned on my first day that he was on a long waiting list to be transferred to a special behavior management school – the teachers at the school had already tried every intervention and nothing worked with him. I was advised to try and keep him in line as much as possible, but ultimately, just to make sure he did not harm any of the other students. Don’t get me wrong, I adored Anthony on a personal level. He was energetic and had a fantastic sense of humor. He could be very caring and was incredibly intelligent when his energies were focused on a task. However, our relationship in the classroom was a constant power struggle.
For example, every day we would have circle time on the rug. I would invite the class to join me and Anthony would always remain at his desk. Each time I would say, “Okay, Anthony, you have a choice – either you choose to join us on the rug and participate in today’s activities or you choose to remain at your desk and not participate.” He would say, “Fine. I choose to sit at my desk.” I would say, “Okay, so your choice is to stay at your desk, and not participate in the classroom learning.” He said, “Yes.” I always used a tone to let him know that I was not pleased with his behavior– but he always remained at his desk.
After two weeks of the same routine, I started venting to another teacher with whom I had a close relationship. I walked her through the daily dialogue and lack of success with the student. She asked if she could watch this interaction, to see if she could add any insight. I really valued her perspective, because she grew up in Boston, attended Boston Public Schools and had strong ties with families and the community. The following day, she came to my classroom and witnessed the daily event. As she left the classroom she mouthed to me, “We will talk later.”
After school, I found her and said, “Did you see that? Seriously, what am I supposed to do with him?” She started laughing and said, “Kyle, you idiot – this is not his fault, it is your fault.” I was a little shocked and a little hurt by her reaction. She was supposed to be on my side. She followed up by saying, “Maybe when you were growing up in your household, the idea of “making a choice” meant there was a right or wrong response. In my household, I was not given options like that. If my mom wanted me to do something, she told me exactly what to do – there was no confusion. There was none of this “choice” talk. You and your middle-class, white girl language!” – she said jokingly. At first I was resistant to the idea that I could be contributing to this issue – however, after processing what she said I realized I had made a mistake. Unintentionally, I was communicating to Anthony that he had choices – when really he only had one choice without a consequence. I realized my personal background and upbringing was unconsciously harming this student’s success in my classroom.
I stopped using the word “choice” with Anthony and was very direct with my expectations. Anthony began joining the class on the rug. Did he become my model student? No, but things improved greatly as I began to analyze my own culturally-driven behaviors and continued to brainstorm with other school personnel.
I tell my students that teaching can be a very humbling experience, and you need to constantly engage in reflection. This is especially relevant to early childhood, when students first enter formal education and may experience culture shock. Students may be faced with different expectations, mannerisms, language use and demands. As teachers, it is our responsibility to examine the power of cultural capital in our schools and recognize that schools are not culturally neutral zones. In an ideal world, we would have a more diverse population of teachers – until then, we must critically reflect on our practices.