Getting schooled Privilege, curiosity, and teacher education


I'm a 42-year-old White woman, taking a course in Social Contexts in Education. The class is part of my long, slow road to a career change; I have worked in higher education marketing for more than 15 years and hope to (someday) become a high school teacher. The tuition benefit at the University where I work pays for my master's degree, but I must work full time and take courses on the side, as I am able. I'm not even actually enrolled in a degree program yet; I'm a "special student."

Returning to college course work—even at the grad school level—more than 20 years after getting my bachelor's degree is an odd situation to begin with. I'm the oldest student in classroom by a far piece. My classmates seem to have established friendships and shared experiences and vocabulary. Many are busy doing "prac" or "pre-prac" or are already in teaching positions. I'm already questioning my presence:

"what do you think you can do or contribute here? What use will you be? Just go back to your normal job and be happy!"

It's a relief when we are asked to compose a personal narrative project about our own schooling. "This will help me sort out why I'm here!" I think. Even though I do know why I'm in class: to learn how to teach secondary English, and to figure out what I need to know about myself as prospective educator: to learn what I don't know.

In selecting two snapshots from my schooling, I picked periods of time that were particularly vivid to me—when I felt the most curious, the most excited about learning and about the possibilities of education. Because I am a pretty privileged person with a flexibility born from an itinerant childhood, I didn't encounter great struggles or strife in school. I had a hard time with some specific subjects, sure, but probably as it is for many White women who seek to become teachers, I enjoyed school and mostly succeeded.

What's interesting to me looking back at the snapshots I selected—because of their excitement/energy/possibility—is that they were two periods of time that were outside the narrative that existed for most of my schooling: that of the predominantly White suburban school, and a standard English class with dead White guys providing the reading material.

SNAPSHOT 1: orrington

snapshot 2: literature across cultures

...and so what?

In both Orrington Elementary School and Literature across Cultures, the experiences were outside the norm of the rest of my schooling, which was in White suburban schools and in honors English classes (although Orrington is, these days, much more White than when I attended, from a look at its current demographics). And each snapshot occurred only out of happenstance rather than intention: we moved to Evanston because my father got a two-year fellowship and I wound up in Literature across Cultures because I'd already taken St. Louis's 11-grade English course and had a "free" year.

While neither of these experiences introduced real peril, vulnerability, or involved overcoming any hardship or struggle (let's be honest, because of privilege and the safety of whiteness), I do think often about why they are so important to me, and the words I keep returning to are curiosity, engagement, and ongoing learning. In those snapshots I was introduced to a world that was bigger and more complicated than the one I had previously known and it was both exciting and challenging. I would leave the classroom on some days absent-minded because I was still turning over in my head what we had done, what I had learned.

I am motivated to teach in urban schools, and curiosity is a characteristic that might help me in learning more and preparing to work in schools that are different than the ones I went to. Yet at the same time, investigating the real motivations (Am I curious because I think it's exotic? Because I think I'll be some hero? I really hope not, but it is worth checking against.)

Our discussions, readings, and the movies we watched make me think hard about the project of education in society and specifically the role of the teacher in high-poverty and/or urban schools. Can White middle-class teachers be effective teachers in classrooms when they don't share the same culture, reference points, or background as the majority of their students?

"i believe that the most important factor impacting the academic achievement of african american children is not the race or gender of the teacher but the teacher's expectations." —jawanza kunjufu

In Black Students—Middle Class Teachers (2002) Kunjufu states that teacher expectations are the most important determinant impacting academic achievement for Black children. This is a sexy quote for someone like me, who might think increasing expectations and developing more compelling and challenging lessons might be simpler ways to make meaningful contributions to a classroom than changing a lifestyle or excavating decades of racial complacency. And yet, it isn't that simple. Kunjufu expands: "How could a teacher who grew up in a White rural community and was educated in a White environment be effective in the inner cities of America?"

How, indeed? Taking my own, perhaps not-quite-analagous professional experience as an example: I would not, after decades of work in Boston College, presume to go to Harvard or MIT and think that all the work processes, group dynamics, social customs, and accepted behaviors I'm familiar and/or comfortable with at BC would simply replace whatever systems were established at another school (however convenient that might be for me, it would not likely go over well!). If I'm smart, I go there to observe and try to learn what methods work best, what standard and successful practices exist there, so that I might adapt my own behavior, ditch false assumptions, and adjust my own habits.

Kunjufu emphasizes this point as it applies to multicultural teaching, which "requires applying your understanding of another culture to your curriculum and pedagogy. It necessitates respect, tolerance, and a willingness to learn from your students."

In my peripatetic childhood I had to continually learn to code-switch in new environments, though not in the same way as I will need to in going from middle-class Whiteness to an urban school. So I still have a great deal to learn and absorb. What seems clear, however, is that for White teachers to assume their schooling touchstones and long-held references and practices belong in schools in which they have no experience or background in themselves, is a form of schooling colonialism and does not bode well for a successful or meaningful experience for the students or the teacher.

The idea that because urban schools are failing in some (or many) ways means that they need to replicate suburban schools or even worse, prisons, ignores the many stories of success, kinship, and hope that are likely going on in these schools yet no one on the outside pays attention to or has the social capital to widely share.

"teacher education must take seriously the negative impact that whiteness can have on teachers' understanding of children of color and urban schools." —Bree picower (2009)

Bree Picower's 2009 article "The unexamined whiteness of teaching: How white teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies" relates some pretty astonishing anecdotes and statements from White pre-service teachers. These ideas reflect what Picower identifies as "tools of Whiteness" protecting students from challenging thoughts and approaches that might upend their hegemonic understanding of race and dominance. The teachers were afraid of people of color, reluctant to see themselves as benefiting from their White racial identity or see students of color as being marginalized because of their minoritized identities. They had a deficit view of urban neighborhoods and the families and groups that inhabit those spaces. When these pre-service teachers began a multicultural course designed to challenge their prejudices and deficit constructions, the teachers often clung to the "tools of Whiteness" to avoid responsibility, feeling guilt, or recognizing any need to change their perceptions or practices (Picower, 2009).

It is not surprising that one graduate-level course would not do enough to overthrow decades-long beliefs or unchallenged assumptions, which is why Picower advocates for "forms of critical education" that "must be integrated across the curriculum. These types of critical education, such as social justice education, are both fields as well as processes....opportunities for both self-reflection and instruction about historical oppression and current educational inequity should be provided throughout the entire teacher education experience" (2009).

It's enough to make a White middle-class prospective teacher wonder and fear: Is Social Contexts, my curiosity, resistance the status quo, and interest in new ways of teaching enough? (Not likely.) How do I continue to engage these questions even if I am in a course that doesn't actively introduce these challenges and opportunities? While I hear a great deal of talk at BC about social justice education, is it truly woven into each course?

valuing students

"the effectiveness of the teacher can be traced directly back to what that teacher thinks of the student. if the teacher does not value the student, there is no motivation to take risks to engage with the student." —Christopher emdin

In For White Folks who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (2016), Christopher Emdin introduces his concept of reality pedagogy to White folks (and teachers of color who might subscribe to standards and structures of Whiteness in schools) as "an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goal of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf" and that "positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning" (2016).

Given my inexperience in the classroom, I don't pretend to understand all the ways that strategy can manifest in the classroom. Emdin's book offers themed chapters that present various ways of accomplishing what seems to be respectful teaching that honors students' lived experiences and engages students with relevant curricula and methods (such as cyphers and hiphop) attuned to their interests.

Another theme that this book keys in on is how a teacher's presence (or lack therof) in a community during non-school hours is a clear manifestation of the teacher's interest (or lack thereof) in his/her students. As someone with a husband and two young children, I wonder about my ability to be in multiple communities at once, but Emdin points out that many teachers spend time creating lesson plans that don't function well in class; would not that time be better spent out in the community learning about the students you're composing lesson plans for? (2016).

He does have a point. And while some of his language is mysterious to me and the classroom techniques he espouses sound tough to achieve for a newbie, the quote at the top of this section, reminding teachers that valuing students goes hand-in-hand with being willing to take risks in order to help them achieve, strikes me as a key ingredient in culturally responsive teaching.

If the teacher is not willing to take risks in the classroom, then why should the students? If the teacher does not believe in or truly value and respect the students, then why should s/he expect engagement and respect in return?

effective teaching

I return now to my two snapshots. One focused on the context of a classroom; its student population and community-building practices, behavioral characteristics, learning style, and really engaging projects. The other snapshot was concerned with content that surprised me, by being out of the realm of what I'd encountered before. Each was challenging in its own way, each held the promise of learning, and each valued me as learner. This was, of course, all fostered by experienced and sensitive teachers. Whatever their methods were of approaching their diverse classrooms, I didn't pick up on them, which was the goal, most likely.

Emdin cautions that "the teacher must ask what the desired result of the teaching is. You cannot be effective if you have not defined for yourself what effective means" (2016). If I am to teach in an urban classroom (or any classroom, this applies to all hypothetical students), I would desire for my students to feel the same way I felt in my two snapshots—where my curiosity was nurtured, where I was engaged through appropriate challenges and projects, and where the energy in the classroom led to such a desire for more learning that I came back the next day ready to learn more. I do not believe students will feel happy in school all of the time, and I would not really expect them to "love" me as some White teachers seem to want to be loved. But I do believe that if I continue analyze my own experience as a White woman, pursue and actively engage in ongoing culturally responsive teaching programs, and check my blindspots before I veer inadvertently into some place I shouldn't go, I've got a shot at becoming the kind of effective teacher I would expect for my own—and any other —children.

In her powerhouse 2013 essay "Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self and our kids: Counterstories from culturally responsive white teachers?... to culturally responsive white teachers!"—a clarion call to action, Cheryl Matias lays it down and I couldn't say it better myself...

"We—teacher-educators, teachers, and students—are worth wanting each other because we believe in the humanly process of education. We are worth a commitment to racial justice despite the discomfort of unveiling whiteness. And for our students of color, they are worth more than just another nice "White lady." —Cheryl matias


Emdin, C. (2016). For White folks who teach in the hood…and the rest of y’all too: Reality pedagogy and urban education. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kunjufu, J. (2002). Black students—Middle-class teachers. Chicago: African American Images.

Matias, C. E. (2013). "Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self and our kids: Counterstories from culturally responsive white teachers?... to culturally responsive white teachers!" Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 68.

Picower, B. (2009). The unexamined whiteness of teaching: How white teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies. Race and Ethnicity in Education, 12(2), 197-215.


Created with images by mrsdkrebs - "2012-240 #6WordMission" • geralt - "road sign town sign training" • Jordy - "hip hop rap microphone"

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