The Color of Teaching

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Above: My star (& a Favorite) German student Charlotte Hartman

The National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference is quickly approaching. As of today, I am planning on attending this very important meeting. It was during my second year of teaching that I became interested in the topic of race and independent schools. As many of you know, I spent some time traveling and doing a great deal of research on race and 19th and 20th century independent schools (read here). One of the early criticisms I received during my early years of teaching was this: “As a black teacher in America, it seems that you would have a greater impact on the lives of poor black students if you taught in an urban setting.”

A few years ago while attending the professors of color conference, this particular argument was raised during one of the sessions I attended. I have long contended that teachers of color are important role models to white students, as we shape white students’ images of what people of color can and do achieve. For white students and many students of color, professors of color could be the only people of color they see in professional roles. As noted in a paper I wrote a few years ago:

…non-minority students will benefit from the opportunity to experience minority teachers. Interaction with minority teachers will result in increased familiarity with minorities and in seeing them in professional roles. This can raise aspirations in minority group students and lead to higher expectations for minority group members in others .

However, as I noted to fellow colleagues in my presentation at the 2002 Equity Colloquium in Chicago, the difference between poor black students and wealthy white students are small. Although I teach a lot of highly motivated students, I do encounter white students who lack the appreciation for diversity. To them, attending a very good private school with some of the most qualified faculty members in the nation can be a moot point. I wonder if race and income by many white students limit their appreciation for the importance of diversity.

I have concluded that white students benefit just as much as students of color when it comes to having a minority teacher. Here is what I do not know: Does my teaching of class, race, and gender change the worldview of privileged students? In an e-mail today, I told an old but very important high school friend of mine that I often feel guilty for being a bit of an academic snob; my students see me as an elitists — which is not wholly true, but I see myself as one who champions social justice, as is the case for many black educated professionals. But, as noted by Lisa Arrastia of the Francis W. Parker School, being a person of color in a predominate white school has its challenges. For me, I am far more liberal than I am allowed to be at the affluent conservative school that I teach at. I often wonder how real my classes would be if I could show my true colors. I believe that many of my white students would benefit more. Because I attended a private high school, I have not had a teacher of color since middle school. And because of that, I never had a black instructor to mentor me when I was seeking one.

Lisa Arrastia of the Francis Parker School states that:

At the age of 18, after surviving 12 years of culturally complex and socially confusing independent school education, I decided to declare quietly to myself: I am an Afro-Cuban American Woman. Naming this identity is important to me, because until now it has meant only shame. My tenacious adolescent attempts to hide behind the veil W.E.B. Du Bois described in 1903 are weakening. It is not until 80 years after Du Bois’s pyschosocial revelation that this thin layer of protection and denial is challenged. I am sitting in James Baldwin’s History of the Civil Rights Movement class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Baldwin’s first words are:” Whiteness is a concept.” Five minutes into the class my veil is lifted and I peak out, immediately understanding, on an intellectual and emotional level, the sociohistorical implications of my ethnic identity and therefore my shame around it. On that day, in the presence of one of the most prophetic minds in the United States, I realize that I must find something that I have been missing: My self.

For elite black faculty members, we face a number of challenges outside of teaching white students in private schools. Many of those challenges have more to do with professional opportunities than racial identity — which for me is not an issue.

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16 thoughts on “The Color of Teaching

  1. Diversity is good too, and we should strive for it for democratic reasons. But it is by no means essential to black-student achievement, and we should be more careful to ensure that our rhetoric doesn’t suggest as much.

    I was at the Prof. of Color conference at University of Nebraska in ’04. Your point on privilidge and diversity is very true. I face the same problems at UI.

  2. You should be careful: teaching at an elite school does not necessarily make the teacher elite, especially when you consider the often adverse effects of tenure.

  3. Kristi,

    I agree; it is the faculty and types of students that makes a school elite…not the school. I stand firm in my point; I think it is an important point. Now, maybe I can help CAC with this. It is on my list if they would like my help.

  4. nice post. the “diversity rationale” as it relates to achievement and faculty (for blacks and whites, but even moreso for whites) is disingenous and just plain makes no sense. but we do not always agree.

    kristi – “adverse effects of tenure” I do not get it.

  5. Michael, you can refer to my comments on one of Carson’s earlier posts. I don’t have the energy to type my disagreements with tenure again. I’m not saying that all tenured faculty members are horrible, just that it’s definite that some of them are, and highly possible for even more of them to be.

  6. “I have long contended that teachers of color are important role models to white students, as we shape white students’ images of what people of color can and do achieve. For white students and many students of color, professors of color could be the only people of color they see in professional roles.”

    I really like this quote. Not black or a professor myself, it’s not something that I had given much thought to before, but I completely agree with you.

  7. Yeah, I meant to mention that. I always criticize and then remember what else I meant to say. I guess I should work on that. I grew up at CAC and I must say that I’ve only seen about four black professionals in my entire educational career, including time served at to major state schools. None at Harding, incidentally, and only two at CAC. You did a good job.

  8. Thanks Kristi. I did enjoy my time at CAC. Better yet, I find myself missing CAC more than I should at this point. One of the problems CAC faced when I was there and one that my current school does not (extent here folks), is the diversity of students. HCHS is far more diverse; I figure that has a lot to do with Houston’s role as a bit of an international city.

    There was pressure at CAC being the very first black male teacher. I always thought about that fact, esp. during the early years of learning how to be a teacher. This fact is one that I am still working on.

    LukeD — Your point is part of the reason I wrote this. With the People of Color Conference being close, I thought now was a good time to think about the importance of having diverse teachers. I hope that I am making a big deal out of this for all of the right reasons.

  9. AAAA! Carson, they’re trying to steal you again! Personally, I think people like those of us at HCHS are the ones that need diversity the most. Despite living in an international city, most of us have little to no exposure to diverse ideologies. I’m glad to have had you for a teacher, and although sometimes we tend to think you’re a little over dramatic about it (just teasing) your dedication to African American history and interests has profoundly changed anyone who’s had your class. I don’t think I’d be half as open minded not having taken you for two years. Anyway, I just thought it was interesting what you said in class the other day about wanting to have an Asian professor. I had Dr. Cho for anthropology over the summer, it was interesting to see how the focus on race is outside of HCHS, present but glaringly obvious as the Carson brand.

  10. Lerin,

    I do have a pretty good rant. I think it is important for a student of your abilities to look at schools that offer a lot of diversity — esp. intellectual diversity. I have always found that the really good and bright students seek new different ways to be challanged. The good news is that the world outside of HCHS is more diverse — in a number of ways. Thanks for answering my question on my influence on students’ thought process towards race, class, etc.

    I guess this is why you are tops in your class.

  11. Carson, this is my first year in your class but i can really tell that you are different than most of my teachers at HCHS. Your teaching style is very different from that of any of my teachers, and i enjoy your ideas on the subjects that we cover because it makes me think about things in another way than I normally would. Although I find your class challenging I am great full to have you as a teacher because you can help prepare me for the world.

  12. Thanks Sean! You are off to a great start; better yet, I look forward to evaluating the rest of your work in hopes of getting you to consider the more advanced courses. I think you are handeling the challenge well so far.

  13. Mr. Carson,
    You were one of the first people I met at HCHS when I came to take the test for Pre-Ap Math before my freshman year. I knew immediately after meeting you that I had made a great choice to come to HCHS. I was seeking an academic challenge and was encouraged by your love for teaching and positive attitude. I feel blessed to have you as my teacher this year and enjoy your descriptive teaching style. I also like the way you link different ideas together and linking them with history. I look forward to a great rest of they year.

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