A New Teacher’s Dilemma*

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).



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

19 responses to “A New Teacher’s Dilemma*

  1. Weed isn’t new. In 1975, a student asked me if I smoked weed. I could tell that he thought I did and that he thought I was cool. My answer then is also my advice now for others. I told him that if I said no, he might not believe me. I went on to say that it would be really stupid to say yes as if that information got out, my job would be at risk. I told him that I hoped he understood why this was a question that I really couldn’t answer for these reasons. He did understand and still thought I was cool for a teacher. This wasn’t the last time I faced this question, but this approach worked well for the rest of my career. This approach should work for other questions that teachers shouldn’t answer. Keep up the good work and good luck.

  2. Larry, I see many of your posts merging many complex issues together. I see you tackling two things here at once and it doesn’t work for me. “How much should teachers tell students about their personal lives?” is one very important topic for ALL teachers.

    The racial component, that’s a topic worthy of an advanced course at a higher education institution.

    As a white, Italian American, I ran into a very close issue working with student-athletes on high school football and lacrosse teams. The race issue was not there, but the ‘street cred’ issue was. My ego told me that I wanted these kids to think I was cool and understanding of who they are and what an athlete goes through. But, my professionalism told me to draw a boundary and let the students know when they were asking inappropriate questions and why they are inappropriate (which is essentially what Doug’s post above explains.)

    To me, it is also out of bounds for a teacher/coach to push a personal agenda into the classroom as Elsie contemplated. It’s really not her job to push her personal view of ‘blackness’ onto students. Even if I agree 100% in her approach and view of ‘blackness’, what if other teachers decided to do that in a very unhealthy way? What if other teachers did not see ‘blackness’ as a broad spectrum like Elsie explained? They could provide a huge disservice to their students completely distorting their mindset and doing nothing academically for the student.

    I think the lesson I get from this is that new teachers need to learn where to draw boundaries for both themselves and their students well before they enter into the classroom. They need to understand ways to build personal relationships required for teaching students within the boundaries of a professional educator’s job role. This should help teachers of any race or background.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment. The young teacher, Elsie, wrote up her dilemma. It is her perception, not mine. I see it as a two-fold one. The first part is how much a new teacher should reveal of herself to her student, the boundaries that she must set and abide by. You described how you handled that boundary part of the dilemma. The second part was about identity, hers as an African American middle class teacher working with young black and poor teenagers. That she also valued what her student ought to learn–fighting oppression–added even another value to the conflict she was experiencing. Yes, there is a merging of conflicting values that makes Elsie’s dilemma very complex. Her way of working it out–teach students to avoid binary ways of thinking–may not be what you or I might recommend. It was hers, however. And, surely, as you say,Carmen, young teachers need help in sorting out the values and conflicts that inevitably arise in those early years of teaching.

    • Kate

      “It’s really not her job to push her personal view of ‘blackness’ onto students.”

      I believe it IS her job and, in fact, completely unavoidable for her to influence her students’ views of ‘blackness’. School is a place where students develop their identities both as individuals and members of various groups. It is often the place where their home group identity comes into conflict with other group identities. Whether it happens explicitly or implicitly, the teacher will inevitably be exposing her students to her own view of blackness. By being reflective and sensitive of the issue and by knowing where she wants to draw the line, she can control the image she presents.

      • larrycuban

        The range of opinions about what Elsie should or should not do broadens. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Pingback: A New Teacher's Dilemma* | Larry Cuban on School Reform and … - Angryteach

  4. Bob Calder

    I’m white and I have 71 students, mostly Haitian with a few American black kids and a few hispanic kids. My policy is to answer questions honestly, but refuse to answer questions that are not going to be a productive learning experience for my students or anything that may harm me since I do enough things to myself without that kind of help. The refusal comes with an explicit explanation so they can process the information and reflect of their own inquisitiveness. The reason I’m responding is that explicit talk about this sort of thing was not addressed in the post. I’m all for being open about why I don’t answer certain questions.

    Yesterday I was asked what I had done that was “bad”. I told them that when we do bad things, they are often a source of deep humiliation for us and that I didn’t wish to discuss that sort of thing with them. The group looked at each other and decided they had gone a bit too far. They then changed the subject on their own. In my book, that was a learning moment for them. It gave them insight into why a person would not be proud of behaving like a thug.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for telling us how you respond to students’ personal questions and how you explain openly and honestly the boundaries you set.

  5. I think it is probably more important to be willing to answer questions about your personal life with students who have a lack of meaningful adult relationships in their lives. I think these students are often less willing/capable of learning in a traditional classroom environment until they develop a positive relationship with the teacher and see them as “real.”

    I’m not so sure Elise needs to spend as much time constructing lessons “that allow students to see the dangers in binaries” as she does developing an authentic personality and relationship in the classroom. I think doing that is the most effective way of getting that understanding across: Here is a black person who is not what you expected; deal with your disequilibrium.

    • larrycuban

      If you read the above comments from others on Elsie’s dilemma, It is curious that the advice from these experienced educators, and yourself, on how much she should reveal varies greatly. I do wonder why they vary.Any thoughts?

  6. Cal

    “Wonder why.”

    I can’t tell if you are ordering James to “wonder why”, or if you are wondering why, but in case it’s the second:

    I think it’s because the answer has nothing to do with teaching. Rather, adults who interact with minors have to decide how to share information, and there are as many methods as there are adults. We all navigate this area based on our personalities, our life choices, and those of the minor kids involved. There’s no one answer.

    Elsie has this particular struggle not because she’s a new teacher, but because as a new teacher, she has a particular agenda and is wondering how to interact with kids to best achieve that agenda.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Cal, it was the latter interpretation of “wonder why.” I went back and edited my response. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I agree with Cal. But I also think (in thinking Larry’s “wonder why”) that teachers committed to their student body learn how to best share information with their students (and what to share) as they gain experience. As a teacher who’s always worked in low-income urban schools, I’ve learned that putting up a wall about everything in my personal life often hinders my ability to reach students. On the other hand, I remember working with a teacher from a very affluent school district in New York at a conference who lamented his school’s push to build stronger relationships between students and teachers. He was confused as to why so many teachers at the conference talked about sharing their lives and building relationships. He felt learning went just fine without all of the “fluff.”

    • larrycuban

      Perhaps Cal is correct on the diversity of opinions among teachers about what and how to share (if at all) personal information. Nonetheless, I do feel that novice teachers feel the pinch of the issue far more than experienced ones who have figured out through knowing themselves and trial and error what works best for them.

  8. You hit the nail on the head Larry by noting the variety of responses illustrates the difference between novice and experienced teachers. One reason why I would advise any novice teacher to find an experienced mentor figure they trust in their first school. Many do this naturally as it were anyway.

    As far as Elsie’s specific dilemma goes, it made me smile a little because what I heard was a young teacher who immediately fell for the oldest trick in any child’s book, distraction. If any of my Teach First tutees had posed me Elsie’s dilemma I know my response would have been, “Focus his attention on himself: not on you and remind him that this is all about him thinking and deciding for himself, and then discussing his ideas with his peers. You don’t ask a group of children to discuss something and then discuss it with them yourself unless you tell them that’s what is going to happen. Once you’ve got them on task: your job is to keep them there.”

    • larrycuban

      The diversity of responses to Elsie’s dilemma illustrate not only differences between novice and experienced teachers insofar as relationship to students but also reveals the different beliefs that current and former teachers have about the core tasks of classroom instruction.

  9. Larry,

    Your original question was “What should Elsie do to manage this dilemma?”

    I never argued that it wasn’t a dilemma. I was simply answering your question: there is no one answer, and we can’t really advise Elsie.

    I thought David Labaree had a really good take on this in The Trouble With Ed Schools (and I’m sure you are far more familiar with the book than I am, but I thought the quote made my point more effectively):

    “There are several characteristics of this need to establish an affectionate relationship with students that add profoundly to the difficulty involved in being a good teacher. First, there is no guidebook for how to accomplish this for any teacher in any particular classroom. Like other practitioners in the professions of human improvement, teachers have to work things out on their own….Second, the practice of teaching–with its broadly diffuse relationship with students grounded in part with emotion–throws the teacher into an extraordinarily complex role that in awkward fashion puts together characteristics of primary and secondary relationships.”

    He goes on to discuss the temptation to become a buddy, and so on, and also very aptly likens teaching to acting, which is the same analogy I use to describe it, so no doubt that’s why I approve. But he also talks about how difficult it is, and how each teacher must find a way to create a role that’s authentically grounded in his or her own personality.

    That’s why I don’t think there’s any one answer, even though I agree it’s something that young teachers might struggle with.

    • larrycuban

      Your first three sentences implied that you had written an earlier comment. If so, I had not seen it. Could you re-send it.

      Thanks for the David Labaree quote. Teaching does combine characteristics of family and work. That teaching is also a performance, for me, is on target.

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