Our Divided Classrooms

If a child’s teacher is of the same race, does their learning improve? A Think & Drink event explores the culture gap in Washington State schools.

The tensions that flow through America’s social divisions can often play out between teachers and their students, and these divisions are particularly acute in Washington State. The vast majority of teachers in the state’s K-12 schools are White (90%) and female (80%)—yet the student body is only 56% White.

At a recent Humanities Washington Think & Drink event in Seattle, both educators and the public shared their experiences navigating issues of race, gender, and identity in Washington State’s classrooms. The panel included Daudi Abe, Seattle Central College professor and journalist; and Kristin Leong, education activist, former teacher, and founder of RollCallProject.com. The event was moderated by KUOW’s Jamala Henderson and held at Naked City Brewery and Taphouse in Seattle.

These excerpts are part of a 90-minute conversation and have been edited for length and clarity. Watch the entire conversation here.

Daudi Abe on why a White teacher he worked with was so effective with students of color:

“She was not intimidated. She was using culturally relevant instructional techniques in her curriculum and was able to tie them in with the students’ lives. And she let them know, in no uncertain terms, that she was invested in and expected success from all of those students. [I thanked her later] for providing a model, and blowing up the idea that you have to look like the students you are teaching in order to be effective. Because that’s not the case . . . Being a person of color in no way automatically qualifies you for being an effective teacher for students of color.”

Kristin Leong on the importance of role models:

“This is the age where kids are really coming into themselves and figuring out who they want to be, or who they don’t want to be . . . The majority of the time, the adults in their lives are the teachers they’re with at school. A lot of kids see their teachers more than they see their parents. If you’re trying to figure out who you are, and the only models that you have in real life are a homogenous group of a certain gender, or a certain race, or that don’t look like you or your parents, that don’t look like anyone else you hang out with—that’s very limiting. Where are they seeing role models? Where are they figuring out who they want to be?”

“Being a person of color in no way automatically qualifies you for being an effective teacher for students of color.”

Kristin Leong on the importance of White teachers supporting teachers of color:

“It’s tiring if you are one of the few teachers of color in your building . . . It got tiring always being the one saying, ‘Why is the sixth grade curriculum only books written by White men with a protagonist that is a White, heterosexual boy?’ . . . It’s tiring to have to be that voice all the time. Which is why we need more conversations . . . We need White teachers to be a part of this conversation. We need White teachers raising their hands and saying, ‘Why is the sixth grade curriculum just all White boys?’ We need everybody having those conversations to support our teachers of color so they’re not burning out, so that they’re not the only ones bringing it up every time. We need straight teachers advocating for LGBTQ voices in the curriculum . . . Allies are really important, especially when over 80% of [Washington State public school] teachers are White.”

Daudi Abe on conditions for teachers of color:

“Being a K-12 teacher is no joke—even if all conditions are perfect—and then you add in these additional socio-political dynamics. It’s surprising we have as many teachers of color as we do.”

Daudi Abe on the fear of being labeled racist:

“A lot of times discussion is stifled because these days the worst thing you can call a White person is not a ‘honky’ or a ‘cracker,’ but ‘racist.’ I think that stifles conversation before it even has a chance to get started. If you are a person who is not used to having these types of conversations, it can be like jumping into a frozen pond. . . . In a lot of ways our failure to prepare incoming teachers with the necessary tool belt to address and have these conversations with their students is one of the biggest issues.”

Daudi Abe on privilege:

“The number of teachers of color is worryingly low, comparatively speaking, to the number of police cadets of color. . . . People of color have to ask themselves the question, ‘Am I a person of color who’s a police officer—or am I a police officer who is a person of color?’ And there’s a distinction between the two. I think that’s something that’s often lost on White police officers and teachers: they don’t have to ask that question. If you want to talk about privilege, that is privilege right there. Not having to be burdened with that internal conversation and that dialogue and wondering, ‘Are you a contributor to the problem or are you someone who is trying to help counteract what’s happening?’”

Kristin Leong on making schools a safe place for mistakes: 

“The kids are ready. The kids are more ready than us to be having these conversations. Not just about race, but also about gender and sexual orientation. The kids are more ready for this than we are. But yes, teachers need tools to talk about it. They need to know the difference between Asian and Oriental, Latino and Hispanic, Black and African-American. Teachers need tools and lesson plans to analyze cartoons and to have a list of resources to bring into their non-fiction reading list. But before that whole tool kit comes in, I really think teachers and administrators need more help with just learning how to make classrooms and staff meetings safe places to make mistakes. Because if you’re going to talk about race, if you’re going to talk about identity, there’s going to be mistakes made. . . . There’s going to be feelings hurt sometimes. There’s going to be awkwardness sometimes. . . . Our schools have to be safe places for making mistakes and they have to be safe places to be able to back up and say, ‘I should have phrased that differently. Let’s try again.’ And to have that conversation keep going so that people have the skills to keep listening and keep engaging.”

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