I Wish My Teacher Knew...
Prompted by a post I saw on Facebook a couple days ago, I did a journal-writing exercise with my juniors over the past couple of days where their writing prompt was simply to finish the sentence “I wish my teacher knew…” And though I knew that this little experiment could potentially backfire, I decided to undertake the challenge of really listening to my students and hearing what they had to say. I must admit that some of the answers I heard were much more insightful than expected and quite helpful. I recommend this exercise for any teacher who is unafraid of hearing the truth about themselves from young minds. Tell your students to take it seriously and remember that their opinions and feelings are valid. Reevaluate the way you teach, think, and present information to them because this exercise will show you that they notice.
Many of my students wrote about complaints regarding long homework assignments and writing expectations. A few of my students wrote things like: ”I wish my teacher knew that I learn differently, and that just because I don’t always ‘get it’ in the way she teaches it, doesn’t mean that I am a failure or that I am dumb.” This was one of the most disappointing things to hear, even after my students reassured me that it did not apply to me. Entering my Ph.D. studies in Special Education, it is my goal to make sure that the needs of students who learn differently, have learning disabilities, or simply need a bit more time are met. Nothing is worse than feeling like your teacher questions your intelligence when you simply don’t understand something. Hearing that some of my students felt like their past teachers thought they were dumb really made me understand the importance of varying my teaching style, making sure that every student somehow gets it, and checking for understanding.
I would say the comment that most struck me was “I wish my teacher knew how silly she sounds when she advocates opinions from a victimized female black perspective, e.g. black history month, racial interactions in literature, race in current events, gender interactions in literature, the definition of sexism, the black struggle, etc. I wish she appreciated how it perpetuates the white-guilt-social-justice-liberalism that penetrates [this community].”
It caught me not only by surprise, but completely off guard. I allowed him to finish reading his response as the rest of the class eagerly watched my attentive expression sit motionless on my face for a moment, then slowly transform into a content smile. Keeping in mind that this was coming from a white male teenager, I first wanted to make sure that I phrased my response strategically and calmly while turning this into a learning moment. I said something to the effect of:
“Thank you for the honesty in your response. I always encourage my students to be honest in our discussions, and I value all of your opinions. That being said, I must say that I do not ever advocate opinions from a ‘victimized female black perspective’. I am a black female, but I am far from a victim. The same way that I allow you to share your honesty and opinions, I have been honest about the fact that we tend to overlook the significance of racial interactions in American literature, which contributes to the time periods and plot lines that we are studying. We have talked about sexism in “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Great Gatsby” because it is a major part of character development in each novel. As for the ‘black struggle’, which I don’t expect you to know much about due to inexperience, inability to relate, and the assumption that black women like me are victimizing themselves, I have yet to use the term in this classroom before now. I have spoken from my own experience, stated facts, and encouraged all of my students to look beyond the little circle of boarding school and small town New England to see the truths and other perspectives of what is going on elsewhere in our country today. I never intended for that to come off as sounding like a victim. I intended to share my knowledge for the sake of your learning, as every teacher should.
As for perpetuating white guilt, that has never been the motive for anything that I have taught you. I have used historical facts and personal experiences- real things that have happened- to show examples of situations that take place in the reading. We have talked about slavery, racism, and its effects on characters and societies that we are studying for educational purposes. I am never here to judge, criticize, or make you feel guilty for having your opinions or different experiences, but I expect you to be open to learn about and discuss other perspectives on the matters- particularly perspectives to which you may rarely be exposed. Nothing about that is ‘silly’ or describes the perspective of a ‘victim’.”
Side note: I made it a point to go a step further and speak to that student after class a few days later. I know what I said in class was heard, but I wanted to make sure that it was understood. I did not want a debate to take place, and although I feel like he may have been trying to instigate something of the sort, I did not want him to feel shut down through my concise response. We had a discussion where I reminded him of our differences in race, culture, age, and experience, and how I use mine to inform my teaching. I let him know that my expectation is not that he agree with anything I teach, but that he at least consider it, do a little more research before considering my point of view “silly”, and then respond from an educated and informed perspective for me to equally consider. He apologized for using “silly” as he agreed that it was a poor choice of words, and in our discussion I stressed the importance of delivery to prevent offending or otherwise negatively impacting his audience. He also said that he was not specifically referring to me when he used “victim”, but that I “validated the victim perspective”.
Though I was not offended, I brought to his attention that we are both unsure of how his words affected other people in the room. As for my perspective, I view every student’s thoughts as valid- whether that be a victim, an oppressor, or an innocent bystander. You have the right to your own thoughts, ideas, and opinions, but expressing that perspective in a way that can be offensive or make other students feel unsafe or unwelcomed is unacceptable in my classroom. Practicing English also includes the practice of eloquence and public speaking, so I consider it an additional facet to the beauty of the language and personal expression to have students become more mindful of their words, intent, and delivery.
This was such a learning experience for me because although it took place in a small classroom, it happened. I think that this interaction would have been less likely had I been in some other kind of educational environment- such as one in a significantly more diverse, urban, public school setting- I feel like I was in the right place at the right time.
This student was prompted by the fact that I have been doing something completely unfamiliar to him- pointing out the racial and cultural importance of black people in our American Literature class. We have read “The Scarlet Letter”- a novel that included no black characters, “Benito Cereno”- a novel about a ship taken over by African slaves, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”- a novel where the word “nigger” is extremely visible, and caused my students to squirm every time we read aloud in class, and now “The Great Gatsby”- a novel where I simply asked students why they think Fitzgerald noted the oddity of the image of a white chauffeur driving a couple of black patrons through New York City. I informed students that during “the Roaring 20s”, there was also a little thing going on called “The Harlem Renaissance”- something many would have completely missed without the supplemental reading materials I provided because, unlike them, whenever I read this novel, I always asked myself “where were the black people?”
This student’s response is exactly why “The Black Educator” exists. I have not created a blog or diary of my experiences to show that people like me are victims of society, but to empower educators who are experiencing these types of encounters every single day. You don’t have to get defensive in addressing these types of comments, but it is a reminder of the ignorance that others have when it comes to what we experience in recognizing our differences and including them in the education of our students. It is uncomfortable, unpopular, and disconcerting, but also a reminder that what we do impacts, influences, and informs students to consider what they do not know.