I came into the teaching profession aware that my White middle class experience would impact how I taught. I earned my teaching credential and masters degree from a program focused on social justice. There, I’d read and discussed books such as Teaching Other People’s Children and Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, so I understood, in theory, the blindness and biases I would need to overcome.
In a children’s literature class, we’d gone to publishing houses owned by people of color and I’d learned the importance of stocking my classroom shelves with books that affirmed and expanded upon my students’ experiences. In another class, we analyzed the hidden narrative of colonialism in Where the Wild Things Are and the stereotypes in Too Many Tamales, so I knew that to negate harmful messages I’d needed a critical lens.
Because of my training, I entered the classroom armed with good intentions but without much in the way of practical teaching skills.
I did what most teachers do– I attempted to learn on the job. My first school was a high-performing, low income school, with racial diversity that made every class photo look like a carefully planned casting call. By most definitions, it was a good school with good test scores and I quickly earned a reputation as a good teacher. But even in this seemingly safe and supportive environment, the racist thinking I had been warned about crept in.
It’s not that I didn’t keep reading about culturally responsive pedagogy. And it’s not that I didn’t try to refine my practice. In fact, after reading about White microaggressions and how bias influences the discipline of Black boys, I set up a video recorder in my classroom and invited the parents of my Black boys to help me analyze the footage I collected. But my self-reflection did not result in equitable outcomes for my students. In fact, I now wonder if diving so deep to hunt for racism distracted me from the problems resting on the surface.
A few years into teaching fourth grade, without ever being aware of it, I came to accept the achievement gap as a simple fact of school data. The students in my fourth grade classroom who needed reading intervention were reliably children of color who were poor. Every year, they went down the hall for some extra reading help and I did all I knew how to do in the classroom. I read to my students, matched them with books they loved, facilitated rich class discussions, and I had them write, rewrite, and write some more. All the practice did result in gains, but children who came to my class behind in reading left my class only slightly less behind, I never closed the gap.
I didn’t understand that my students were struggling not because of problems within themselves, but because of the instruction they had (or hadn’t) received. I didn’t know about the assessments that would have identified the root causes of their reading difficulties, and I didn’t have access to research-aligned interventions. The daily experience of seeing students of color struggling while their White and Asian classmates excelled should have set off alarm bells, but it didn’t. Instead, my mind rang with cognitive dissonance- I accepted academic performance that broke along racial lines while believing that I held high expectations for all students.
Explaining Away Inequity
I was not consciously aware of how classist and racist ideas permeated conversations with my colleagues. Classism was cloaked in seemingly harmless phrases like, “His parents don’t read to him,” “Education is just not that family’s priority,” and “They are from out of the [school] district.” Before long, I fell inline with school staff who accepted that the chairs in the reading intervention room and those outside the principal’s office were nearly always occupied by kids of color.
“Racism is not a fixed category. It’s not what you are, but rather what you are doing and to whom.”Ibram X. Kendi
In an interview Ibram X. Kendi defines racism as “a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist beliefs,” and he explains that when faced with evidence of inequitable outcomes, a person can respond to the disparity one of two ways:
- Supporting the data with racist ideas
- Focusing on the racist policies causing inequitable outcomes
My mind flashed to the academic achievement gap.
When confronted with concrete evidence of inequity, educators often justify the status quo. We explain why, due to issues outside of our control, we can not help students who need more help. We ignore schools that are already doing what we call the “impossible.” We minimize the importance of the data we collect, even though it confirms disparities we see and hear in our classrooms. We discuss poverty and test-bias in our “progressive” circles, but we don’t often make progress.
Rather than defend inequality, we need to dismantle the policies causing the achievement gap.
A recent article in the Washington Post seemed to speak directly to me:
I, like so many others, was spurred into deep self-reflection by current events, but I know that good intentions and antiracist theory can’t inoculate me against the racism that riddles our educational system. Facing and fixing the policies that create and perpetuate the achievement gap is the work of an antiracist educator.