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Guest Writer: Jheanell Lumsden
Dear Teacher of Color,
You’re about to begin a new school year, and as a teacher of color, you know that our teaching experiences are vastly different from our white counterparts. Each academic year can feel like an even steeper uphill battle, and we may end up even more emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the year, than white teachers. If you’re working at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), a unique set of complex issues for us teachers of color can present itself; but one specific issue that we don’t often discuss is how our emotional taxation can be compounded by an internal dilemma when we work in these spaces. Being a teacher of color and working in a PWI can come with guilt because you feel as if you’re not with the students who need you most. To paint a more intricate picture of the guilt I’m talking about, I’ll take you back to when I was a student-teacher…
…Almost three years ago, I walked into an elementary school classroom in Worcester, MA, where most of the young kids were students of color. Immediately, a young black girl looked at my afro and exclaimed to the girl beside her, “look! she has hair like mine.” Only a couple seconds later, a black male student said, “you look like my sister!” Within 5 minutes, I had made an impact on the students in that classroom. It was a moment of awakening; I became even more aware of the importance of teachers of color in schools where the student population is extremely racially and culturally diverse. As such, since choosing to become a teacher, I knew that I was meant to serve that community. According to the National Center for Education Studies, “…in 2015-16, there were an estimated 3,827,100 public school teachers in the United States. Slightly more than 80 percent of them were white, while less than half of the students were white.” These statistics reinforced the need for teachers like me. I knew there was an absolute dearth of teachers of color, and as such, I was sure that students of color were the group of students that I wanted to work with. However, you plan, and life happens.
Fast forward to 2019, and I’m about to start teaching at a new school in Toronto and it’s a PWI i.e. a school where little to no-one looks like you, (in terms of both the students and/or faculty). So, back to the guilt, I mentioned before. If you’re anything like me, your heart & soul is with working in schools with mostly students of color. However, you’ve found yourself at a PWI, and this may come with guilt or a sense of shame. If you’ve been in this situation before, know that you’re not alone. Many of us have been in this circumstance and have experienced this guilt.
The guilt or shame may start in a number of ways. It may start when you first get the contract, and you’re deciding whether leaving where your heart feels right, is the right decision. Perhaps, it’s heightened by the stark awareness of how different you are at the PWI: in the first couple of months, you get questions from your students like “Miss, how come your hair grew so long, so fast?” when you get braids or wear wigs, or when you get asked questions about where you’re really from, etc. You may start feeling the guilt when you first bring up police brutality against black Americans or the morality of current immigration practices. Despite knowing how essential it is for these topics in ALL classrooms, you see some eyebrows raised, and question whether some of these kids (who have the privilege of never experiencing these things firsthand) really get it. The worst way for the guilt to start is when other teachers of color make you feel self-conscious or badly about working at a PWI, and you even start to feel like a teaching pariah. After the guilt sets in, you think a lot about your past students of color, you start to miss them and feel as if you’ve let them down. You even worry that since you’ve left, they’ll rarely see any teacher who looks like them and that feeling tends to linger. However, this guilt doesn’t have to consume nor define who we are.
Read the rest of this letter for ways to work through the guilt that is sometimes associated with working at a PWI:
- Recognize that all students need us. A lot of white students have never had a teacher of color throughout their entire schooling experience — which is disappointing, but not surprising. While we shouldn’t be the token teacher of color in a PWI, our presence is needed in spaces like these; we often offer a different perspective to the classroom and our voices are just as valuable with these kids too. They need to be exposed to professionals of color and also be exposed to our ideas (especially if they differ from theirs). Find solace in the fact that our presence and visibility is important for everyone. There’s no need to feel guilty because all students need a good education. Once we’re good educators, we’re making an impact (no matter how small).
- Do not compromise your teaching philosophy or values — if you can help it. I consider my classroom to be a revolutionary space, despite who occupies it. Thus, I will always discuss critical issues and make social justice a cornerstone of my classroom. In any school that we work at, our students need to be aware of the world around them (especially as some of our white students may never engage with these topics). Even some students of color may be less conscious than you think, and so they need these conversations as well. While your past students may have been more tuned in, it counts to be the one introducing or reinforcing these topics in a PWI. So, do not dim your voice. Be aware that you carry this power to whichever classroom you’re in and as such recognize that there is little to be ashamed of if you are inciting positive change and awareness through your lessons.
- Teaching isn’t restricted to a classroom; if you have space in your schedule, work with the communities that you really want to in another capacity. Follow your heart and work with kids of color outside of the classroom. Be it volunteering, mentoring, tutoring, curriculum development, go out and serve the students and the population you want to in other ways. Again, don’t feel pressured to do this but know that teaching in a ‘traditional’ sense isn’t the only way we can work with the kids who need us most.
- When I was wallowing in my guilt about leaving a more diverse school for a PWI, a professor told me that teachers change schools all the time. It’s a simple idea but if you think about it, this means that we’re not fixed to one place forever. I thought that teaching at a PWI meant that I’d never get back to a school with a more diverse population. However, if you want to work with students of color again in the classroom, you will. So, don’t be too consumed with guilt because working at a PWI doesn’t have to be forever. Additionally, don’t allow your guilt to prevent you from doing your best for the students at the PWI that you’re currently working at. All students deserve dedicated, caring, and loving educators. So, don’t operate with ‘one foot in’, because that’s unfair to your students, no matter who they are. Give them 100%.
- So, you’re the teacher of color at a PWI and suddenly you find yourself being recruited to hiring committees, discussions about curriculum development, meetings about improving student diversity, etc. It’s almost as if you’ve become the designated spokesperson for diversity. It’s exhausting, and honestly, lazy of the school. However, inciting change is exactly what we teach our students. A professor once told me that a good teacher makes a change in the classroom, but a great teacher makes a change in a school. This initiative shouldn’t fall solely on our shoulders but if you want to improve the diversity of faculty and students at your PWI, do it. Work with the staff in whatever way to get more students and faculty of color in the school (especially if you know it would be beneficial – don’t promote a toxic environment for other people of color), which will improve the school overall.
- Talk about how you feel with other teachers of color even if it’s sometimes difficult for you to do so. Engage in dialogue about the guilt you may be feeling, or your overall experiences of working at PWI. I know it may be hard sometimes because we feel as if other teachers of color may be judging us but it’s important to find solidarity in a community. Just ensure that these interactions are positive and help you address your feelings in a productive way. Overall, if you take all the points listed above into consideration, then no-one can make you feel guilty about where you work.
Working at a PWI isn’t a stab in the back for students of color, even if we sometimes feel like it is. Click To Tweet
I know that navigating this internal struggle is difficult and it’s ongoing. It’s almost impossible to forgive yourself, and it feels like a betrayal to the population of students, that you feel, needs you the most. So, this was an open letter to you, (and me), to reassure you that it’s okay to work in a PWI. If you have guilt, learn to forgive yourself. Don’t punish yourself for it. All students need you. It is important for you to know that as you start the school year and walk into your classroom, which will be filled with kids who don’t look like you, that these kids need you too. They will benefit from your presence, your passion, your proclivity for social justice, and your point-of-view. Working at a PWI isn’t a stab in the back for students of color, even if we sometimes feel like it is.