There are several reasons attributed to the poor academic performance of black students in American high schools. One of those that is difficult to measure is the ability of white teachers to connect with black students. This connection is often cited as a problem in schools where the majority of the teachers are middle aged white women and the students are predominantly black. Those who say that more black male teachers are needed in order to serve as role models and to connect with young black males rely on this connection argument. I do not dispute the validity of that argument; however, the other side requires some attention. What are some of the conditions that prevent well intentioned white female teachers from connecting with black students, black male students in particular? This examination is important because the teacher/student demographic balance is unlikely to change in the short term and despite what the movies would have us believe, white women face considerable challenges connecting with black students and are often unsuccessful.
It is important to focus on the sub-set of white teachers who are competent and sincere in their belief in the ability of black students. They face two fundamental challenges. One is that the segregation in most urban centers is so complete that there is a decreasing set of common assumptions about education shared between white teachers and black students. The second is that well intentioned teachers are afraid of directly addressing some of the problems they see for fear of being labeled racist. These conditions place many well meaning white teachers in the center of a personal crisis of professional commitment and moral and ethical responsibility. It is precisely their sincerity, their belief in students’ ability to learn and their love of learning that make their burden such a difficult one to bear.
I witnessed an incident in the hallway of an
I could not hear what the teacher said to the student to try to calm him down but his response was loud and clear. Full of anger he yelled out, “I’m tired of this mothafuckin’ school!” She said something else softly to which he responded, “Fuck that!” and yanked his arm from hers and stormed off. She did not appear to be the object of his anger because in her face you could see compassion laced with fear.
Situations such as these, when emotions are so charged, highlight the degree of separation between the white teacher and the black student. Soothing the raw emotions of a teenager is never easy or guaranteed, but it requires relying on a shared set of assumptions. It may be the assumption that the parents of the student would be in the school at a moment’s notice if the teacher calls to report trouble. It may be that education is paramount in the student’s life as a means to college and beyond. It may also be the assumption that the student trusts the teacher and the school to have his best interests in mind. In the typical white middle class suburban milieu all of these assumptions hold. In the minds of many black students, they do not. This by itself is nothing new. The problem is that the degree of segregation between Air-Force Ones and matching sweater sets is so complete that the teacher has little insight into what the alternative assumption set might be. Similarly, the student cannot relate to the reality behind the assumptions of the teacher. The difficulty and challenge for the teacher is clear. She possesses the desire to help and teach the student but is constrained by a lack of understanding that is imposed by complete social isolation.
Some will argue that there are several successful teachers that are effective across dramatic social and class differences with their students. That is a fact. The persistent pattern of underachievement among black students suggests that those teachers are the exception. The several others, who are well intentioned but ineffective, are bearing the painful burden of seeing students they care deeply about failing and their life paths leading into the fog.
This discordant set of assumptions is exacerbated by the fear of being labeled a racist. This particular problem is clear in a school as diverse as this one. The academic and social patterns that are associated with the various groups of students are easy to identify. You need only walk down the halls of the school to see them. It is easy to recognize the differences in clothing styles, speech patterns, body language, family engagement, deference to authority and academic performance. The problem arises when it is time to put public words to these obvious characteristics and the patterns they imply. In doing so, teachers feel the threat of being called a racist. Several of the teachers I spoke with expressed these concerns directly. By simply describing the patterns of behavior, academic performance and the correlation with race, they felt they were subjecting themselves to the accusations of racism from students and their families. Their reluctance to even describe the patterns of behavior certainly limits their ability to act to correct those behaviors that warrant correction.
Their fear is not unwarranted. One of the teachers, a young white woman who is involved in school discipline, described an intervention meeting with a black student and his mother. During the meeting the teacher was explaining what the boy did, the consequences of his behavior and what she thought the mother might do to prevent it happening again. Given the intentions of the teacher and her demonstrated belief in all students’ ability to learn, I am convinced that the spirit of this meeting would have been most respectful and concerned. The boy’s mother responded by saying, “You white bitch! Don’t you tell me how to raise my child.” The implications of racism and condescension could not be more clear from that response. The teacher said to me that, that sort of response was not unusual. She was also trying not to let it stop her from engaging with many of the black male students who make up the lion’s share of the disciplinary problems in the school. Despite her determination, it would be understandable for her to simply stop engaging with black students who are misbehaving for fear of being accused in this way. She is human after all. If the teacher was to choose the path of disengagement to protect herself, she would be turning her back on black students burdened with the knowledge that she is failing to connect with her students - there is no greater failure for a teacher.
The solution to this problem faced by well meaning white teachers is not easy. It parallels the solution that they often suggest for their black students – a bitter pill to swallow for sure. Students that come from difficult family, social and economic circumstances are told to dig deep within themselves. They are told to be courageous. They are told that despite having little or no external encouragement or positive examples, they must persist because so much is at stake. Similarly, these white teachers must dig deep. They must be courageous. They must not be constrained by libelous claims of racism and more importantly not submit to the invitations to be prejudiced. It is on the other side of these demons that the seeds of connection lie.