In the post below I am purposely vague about the school I used to work at and my new school.
It is difficult to articulate how truly excited I am to be a part of my new school community. The last few months of my old job were rough to say the least. At my old school, I felt like I never actually fit in. I felt like I was an outsider coming into the school, or that I was a foreigner and did not belong. Many people would think by looking at pictures of my students or through knowledge of the demographics of my old school (100% African American students), that it had to due with the color of my skin. However, I don’t feel like that was really the biggest issue for me with my old school. And actually there were plenty of white teachers at my old school. But something that I felt we lacked, that really started to get to me the last few months, was a strong sense of community. The students did not have great school pride, and the teachers, counselors, etc., some of which who are my good friends, did not really get along as a whole. Our staff was very divided. A lot of this had to do with having so many TFA corps members or alumni and DC Teaching Fellows who all had similar training, versus veteran teachers who had been in DCPS for a while and had learned through an extremely different system. It had to do also with an age gap. Many teachers at the school were younger, as mentioned before, but there were still many middle age teachers and those who older than that. In addition, there were 2 sides of the building, which had very different rules, expectations and leadership. However, most importantly, and the strongest divide, I believe was across racial lines. And after coming to my new school, a school community which serves a very diverse student population (still majority African American students, but many Hispanic students as well), and has a very diverse staff, I have come to believe that this divide came from our silence about race. How can you leave such a huge elephant in the room without acknowledging its presence?
Happily, at my new school, we spent 2.5 days out of the 5 days of new staff training having real, authentic conversations about race, our own racial identities, and how institutionalized racism affects our school systems overall in the US and specifically here in DC. I have to admit that since I grew up in a predominantly white community around mostly middle class families, discussions around race have not been discussions I have had often. Not with friends, not with family, and definitely not in a work setting. Moreover, after high school I then moved on to attending a college that is considered a predominately white institution, or PWI, where these demographics did not change much. Then I joined Teach For America, where I knew I would be serving students who were predominately students of color and did not look like me, and the truth was that I was worried about how I would be perceived to them, and my students would question my motives about teaching in their school. So here I was, a white girl who had never engaged in true discussions about race. So of course in TFA we had discussions around race that fell under the category of DCA or Diversity, Community, and Achievement, but I always found these conversations to stay very surface level and even become combative and offensive to many at times. So I will say that I have been nothing less than impressed at how my new school has so quickly engaged its new members, as well as created a culture of safety, trust and respect. This environment has helped the majority of us new members open up and really delve into the topic of race very deeply. We were asked to complete outside reading assignments, look at powerpoints, take tests, watch videos and much more outside of the sessions, but inside the sessions we have been asked to really do three things: 1) Open ourselves up and be trusting 2) Speak about our opinions, our experiences and our feelings, and most importantly, 3) Listen. Not just to listen for the sake of listening, but to listen because you care about what the person is saying (which we as a culture in the US do not do well). If you are interested in the topic of race and are curious about what we talked about, try reading the following article, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life, watching this TED talk, or try taking a few quick quizzes here to discover your own biases. Though this is just a small snapshot of the things I have experienced this week, I found all of these resources that we used this week incredibly interesting and eye-opening.
Being a person of the dominant culture in the US, I not only did not talk about race pretty much ever until recently, I had obviously not yet determined what my racial identity was. I attribute this to the fact that often people of the dominant culture, aka white people, sometimes think that race does not apply to them. One of my colleagues this week described it very well by saying that “I’ve always thought that being white was kind of like being the absence of color, or having no race or racial identity.” Moreover, many of us use various white detours, or strategies to escape talking about race or escape the reality that we too may have contributed to institutional racism in many ways. However, as urban educators it is our job, and our absolute necessity, to speak to students about race and to realize that race is something that affects everyone in its own way. In order to do this, we as educators need to understand where we ourselves stand in the large puzzle that is race and be aware of our own self or racial identity. I can’t say that I’m 100% self-aware of my racial identity yet. It is a process that will take a long, long time. However, through talking through and about a lot of things this week, and hearing other people open up and do the same, I can say that I am much more comfortable talking about race to others than I was even 3 days ago, and I think I am better (not well) equipped to deal with these discussions that most likely will arise in my classroom for years to come while teaching a diverse student population. And that is definitely excellent progress for me. Unfortunately though, I have not yet determined how my own racial identity can be used as a strength in my classroom, and I am hoping to continue thinking about this for a while.