When I found my way into teaching I feel in love. I feel in love with the content, the challenges, and the students. This was before I was married, before I had kids. My students were my first kids and I loved them. We were at a Title I school. We were a 1 star school, eventually being labeled a turnaround school. The kind of school where the district pays subs extra because no one wants to come there. The kind of school where most of the kids are Black and brown, where fights happen regularly, and a good number of kids pick up backpacks of food for the weekend. These seemed to be the forgotten kids, or maybe better stated the ignored.
When people learned that I was teacher they were complimentary “Oh that’s great” “We need more young, Black teachers.” But I knew that praise was short lived. Inevitably, the next question was “What grade do you teach?” The response was often the same, “Middle school? Why?” dripping with contempt and disbelief. Some people crossed themselves and offered to pray for me. It only got even more annoying when people learned where I taught. “Oh wow!” “Better be safe” “So when can you move to another school?” Every time the responses and comments grated on me. How dare people judge my school and my students, especially without knowing them?
Having grown up in a single parent home I knew all to well the stereotypes and statistics that abound, but also that with the right support those things could be overcome. . As a public school kid I got where my students were coming from. I grew up in a similar neighborhood and went to similar schools; the high school they were zoned for was the rival of the high school I graduated from just a few years earlier. We bonded, we learned, we grew together. I pushed my students and refused to let them slack off or not work to their potential. I refused to listen to the gossip or comments about my students. I knew what they were capable of and what they could do if given a chance.
That first year I taught ESL reading and English, two classes that I co-taught with a special education teacher (a mix of general education and special education students) and 7th grade. It was a whirlwind year, but I felt at home. Over the next few years I taught 7th grade, a couple of 6th grade classes, and then moved up to 8th grade, but I was itching to move to high school.
Despite trying my best I couldn’t land a high school job in my district, but I did get offered a position at a local, private school. A job I wanted and that was a great decision for my growing family seeing as I was 6 months pregnant with my second child, but what about my other family? I had been prepared to leave them for a high school job, but this felt different. The guilt was real. This school was the antithesis to my current school and everything I had known as a student or a teacher. It was private, Catholic, wealthy. And white.
I laid in bed sobbing, sure some of it may have been pregnancy hormones, but it was also the reality that I was about to turn my back on kids who had already been abandoned by so many people and systems. This wasn’t about me being a savior for these kids. It was about me leaving my kids behind and worrying that the next teacher might not see past their exteriors and the personas they projected. It was the guilt I felt as a Black woman, with a Black son, carrying a Black daughter leaving a Black and brown school to teach in an ivory tower.
How could I turn my back on them?
How could I leave my community and kids who looked like me?
My husband asked me what my hesitation was on accepting the new job. As I fought to articulate my feelings he posed two questions I wasn’t expecting, “What about the Black kids at the new school? Don’t they deserve to have a Black teacher too?”
I will admit I never even thought about the Black kids at this school. Is it because I didn’t think they had any Black students? Of course not. My husband graduated from said school some ten years earlier. So why hadn’t I thought about the Black kids at my new school and how I could benefit them?
Because that’s how society conditions us. There are a variety of ways in which we are assimilated and as in my case we don’t always notice it. We don’t often talk about Black success stories unless they start with slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, or poverty. The books, movies, and music that are praised often reinforce a particular narrative. Educational materials tend to focus on relativity, not complexity when the conversation focuses on Black and brown students. Without even realizing it, I had internalized this concept. Despite my own experiences and intimate knowledge of the variations of being Black, here I was limiting my view of Black students and what they would need and where they would be. I had fallen victim to the single story narrative so often peddled by mainstream culture and academia. The poor, low achieving Black student (or school) is such a trope and yet it permeates so much of what we do. I knew better. I graduated at the top of my class, with honors. I went to a four-year university and graduated in four years (technically four and a half, but within the four calendar years), but I still fell into the trap.
Spoiler alert: I switched schools. That was 8 years ago. What I’ve learned in that time is that we need to continue to broaden the ways in which we define Blackness, but also all marginalized groups. My concerns about switching schools helped me realize the many explicit and implicit ways in which our opinions are influenced. My teaching has changed, but so have my parenting and my way of being. I pay more attention to how I represent all groups in my classroom and my home. I honor that there is no one-way to be anything and thus there must be room for people to represent who they are in all the ways they can and want.
I still feel a pang of guilt for leaving, but I also feel immense pride for all the lives I’ve touched both at the public and private school because representation matters and my husband was right, as he so often is, every student deserves to see themselves valued in their classroom.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.
Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Lynsey Burkins (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).