First Person

Race Against Time: A Teacher’s Constant Struggle

Classroom management decisions are all about timing, and time waits for no one — not even a white teacher striving to capture the sophisticated racial commentary her students are never shy to espouse. I am often forced to choose between my established parameters — learning objectives and the rules of my classroom — and a teachable moment that, if done right, my students will remember long after those parameters have stopped mattering.

In my second period 10th-grade world literature class, which tends to be the most precocious and defiant of my three classes, a restless energy fills the air. We are concluding a human rights unit in which students focused on how survivors of human rights violations demonstrated courage, and I’m trying to psych them up to write the final project: an essay about someone they know who demonstrates great courage. As we are brainstorming potential people we could interview, a student named Joseph blurts out, “I want to interview you, Ms. Lustick! You got the courage to come in and teach us black kids every day.” I wait a beat, for a burst of laughter or some other response, but rest of the class waits silently for my reply.

When a student calls out, two sides of a teacher’s brain light up. The content-driven side of my brain gets excited: wow! That student made a fascinating point! I’d really like to hear more! I bet other people do too!  Listen to the content-driven side of your brain and students will learn very quickly how easy it is to get you off track. So a teacher quickly learns to beef up the management-driven side of her brain. The management-driven side of my brain can hear a student call out just about anything and it will compel me to do one of two things: repeat, flatly, that I’m only calling on students with their hands raised, or show this by flat-out ignoring the comment in favor of a student whose hand is up. It’s usually this latter strategy that I employ. It’s less disruptive to the lesson, while sending the same message: I will take your comment as soon as you raise your hand. I always feel it’s the more impartial and professional of the two strategies. It says, “I don’t discriminate against specific students or their opinions; I simply only acknowledge those with their hands raised.”

But there’s a layer to this particular comment that complicates that. It is so personal and racially charged that ignoring it could look like it is being done out of fear, or out of embarrassment at the answer. Because to be entirely honest, I do think I have courage. My students challenge me every day to prove to them that I see and care about them for who they are, and if I’m not willing to prove that in every fiber of my persona, everything else I’ve planned will probably be a waste. Joseph senses some of this, I’m sure, but not the nuances. To pretend what he’s saying is ridiculous or not worth hearing would be fake of me, and my students can’t stand it when I am fake.

So I’m left with an impossible decision: Should I respond to his comment, showing I can engage in a racial discussion but forgoing part or all of my lesson? Or should I ignore him in favor of a student with his hand raised, allowing the learning to continue? In a split second, I know I must make the latter decision and speak with Joseph later. I’ll know whether I made the right decision at the exact moment it is too late: When I call on another student, I almost flinch in anticipation of raucous laughter and exclamations of “Yo, Joseph, she violated you man! She totally ignored you. Oooooh…”

But no — there is just silence, with the exception of Thomas asking if they have to turn the interview notes in with their papers. “Yes,” I respond. “You have to show your own process.” Phew, over the hurdle. Class continues, and the two sides of my brain are back in action as one.

I speak privately with Joseph later about his comment, asking him all the questions I wanted to ask him in class. He says he didn’t even mean to say the word “black”; it just came out. What he meant by it was “kids acting like this”: He gestures around as the rest of the class talks, laughs, and otherwise wastes time instead of working on their essays.

“Poor behavioral choices?” I prompt. He nods. I’ve heard other black students complain about “black people” when they really mean to complain about irresponsible or disrespectful behavior. I want to ask Joseph why this is, whether it’s a mere joke, and whether he agrees with me that perpetuating negative stereotypes, in jest or not, is an example of internalized oppression.

“So why didn’t you say that?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he insists. He doesn’t seem interested in engaging in the topic anymore. I’ve given him the space to have this conversation, and now it is he who is shying away. I wonder what it will take for me and my students to be able to have the kinds of conversations we so clearly want and need to have, still play our roles as teacher and students, and still get our work done.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk