In her first year of teaching English in a middle school where 90 percent of the students were minority, Elsie had planned a lesson that had students rotating through five stations answering different reading comprehension questions at each one. She floated around from station to station answering questions, clearing up any confusions, and making sure that the students were on task.
At one of the stations, Elsie had written the question: “If and when is it appropriate to lie.” The students at that station were talking about the question when Elsie arrived. Damion, one of the African American students in the group, asked Elsie–who is also African American–if she smoked weed.
“It was obvious that he and several other students expected the answer to be yes,” Elsie had written in describing her dilemma. She said honestly: “no.” She felt, however, that the students thought she was lying. She tried to convince them that she was telling the truth.
The young teacher now saw that she was in a struggle over conflicting values in her new role as a teacher. She had wanted to be a role model–a black woman who had achieved success in school and had not compromised her identity as an African American in doing so. But she had to earn her students’ trust, most of whom were from low-income families yet she was very frustrated by their disbelief of her answer to Damion’s question.
She thought her students held a view of blackness as a culture associated with drugs. Being African American to them meant “doing drugs.” Not “doing drugs” called into question how black one can be.
She was caught in a two-fold dilemma. How much should teachers tell students about their personal lives? In answering Damion’s question honestly had she unintentionally invited him to ask more personal questions? How much personal information is too much? Should she have ignored his question and kept students focused on the station task? This is the first part of Elsie’s dilemma.
The second part concerned her role in challenging her students’ view of race and what “being black” could mean. She was aware of the social class differences between her and students. In her writing up her dilemma, Elsie said: “How do I push back on students’ narrow-minded/stereotypical definition of blackness, not tell them how to think, but encourage them to think and question, without damaging their self-concept?”
She wrestled with wanting to support them in developing healthy racial identities yet she also grappled with understanding how her racial identity fit into who she was and wanted to be as a teacher. She wrote:
“Because I am black, my black students have ideas about how I should be. When my words and actions do not match their ideas they reject me as ‘real.’ This creates a problem with students believing that I understand what they are going through inside and outside of school. This disconnect hinders my ability to reach students, to create meaningful relationships and experiences that lead to increased knowledge of self and the world at large, and a drive to take action against oppressive forces.”
What should Elsie do to manage this dilemma? “What I have to do is construct lessons that allow students to see the dangers in binaries, to understand that blackness lives on an ever expanding spectrum.” Elsie recognized that this work “is deeply personal and political … [but] authentic teaching and learning [would] not take place until students and myself take it on.”
The dilemma of identity–Who am I as a teacher?–pinches novice teachers regardless of whether they are raw Teach for America recruits or credentialed through university teacher education programs. Teachers of color seeking out posts in low-income, largely minority schools often run into situations as Elsie did. Curious teenagers often question the authenticity of their African American or Latino teachers as members of their group. Being a novice and being a teacher of color collide as issues of authority and authenticity become grist for the interactions in and out of class, coloring how teachers teach and what students learn.
Researcher Betty Achinstein found these tensions and dilemmas when she investigated novice teachers of color. As one Latina teacher told Achinstein:
“Be prepared to have your race be called in question. Be prepared to have your identity be called into question. . . .. I think that’s the hardest part about being a teacher of color at [my school] because I went in, and I know who I am, and I formed my identity. But just because you know who you are doesn’t mean the students are going to accept it. They’re going to play with it. They’re going to tweak it.”
Helping new teachers of color prepare for dilemmas may ease the angst of the inevitable tensions they will face but those tools will neither prevent nor erase the dilemmas.
*The dilemma that Elsie described, I adapted from Anna Richert, What Should I do? Confronting Dilemmas of Teaching in Urban Schools (Teachers College Press, 2012).