I spent the first seven years of my career in education working on the Upper East Side, in New York City, at a small thematic public high school. The teaching staff was almost entirely white and the student body was almost entirely non-white. Though we had a strong sense of community, we never talked about race or the systemic racism that our students lived and breathed every day as they walked the avenue blocks to school. Flash forward more than a decade. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—and so many others—have resulted in a long overdue focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. For months now, I have been sitting in my suburban town in Connecticut, still in a position of privilege, reflecting on my former role as a White teacher in a room filled with Black and Brown students. I wasn’t prepared for the conclusion I would reach.
Reflection in the Time of Quarantine
During quarantine, I couldn’t stop thinking about my time in the classroom in a diverse community and how my race (and the race of my students) was never part of my conversations with my colleagues. I couldn’t just sit alone with this discomfort; I needed to talk about it with the people who were with me in that school, during that time. So I sent an email to the few colleagues I was still connected with via social media.
As soon as I pressed send, I felt a creeping anxiety. Would my former colleagues understand the discomfort or be willing to discuss it? Was my email too much? Would anyone respond? This anxiety was all for naught. Within a few hours, I got several responses. Almost all the recipients wanted to connect and to start a conversation we should’ve started in 2005.
In total, five of us joined the call: all women, all White. We started the conversation by answering a question: “Why did I decide to come?” While the answers varied, there was a trend. We wanted to talk about issues of race because we needed to talk about them, perhaps as a kind of confession. Not having this conversation before had been a mistake.
We talked for over two hours, sharing both success stories from our time together and the moments that (still!) keep us up at night. Like the time a student called me out for losing my patience with her for putting her head down on her desk during a lesson on the Holocaust. I had never reacted to this gesture so strongly before. Why was I so upset now? A keen observer, this student said to me, “You only care because this is about your culture.” This was hard to hear, but of course she was right.
I hadn’t explicitly or consciously thought about this memory prior to the conversation with my former colleagues. And I hadn’t known the wound was still smarting. Hindsight is 20/20; I can easily think of different and more productive ways to respond to that student. But at the time, I just stood quietly in the hallway as my student walked out of my classroom.
Asking the Hard Question
As White teachers in a diverse community, why didn’t we talk about race? My colleagues and I didn’t have any answers, only conjecture. As I continue to sit in a position of privilege—as a White woman in our society; as a school coach who gets to visit a school, stay for a while, and eventually leave—I’m now more aware of and upfront about my privilege. I can’t (and won’t) let myself forget that I held one of the most sacred positions of power one can hold, as a teacher of children, and I didn’t do enough to name and monitor that privilege in my classroom. While not color blind to my student’s race, I didn’t recognize how my own race and ideas about education impacted them. I was completely ignorant of the fact that some of my ideas were entrenched in a culture of white supremacy. For example, I never thought about how the way I used grades, planned curriculum, or set classroom policies could marginalize my students. By not learning when or how to talk and think about race with my colleagues, I could never be the teacher my students needed.
In Painful Realizations, We Find Opportunities for Change
I keep circling back to an idea, or perhaps a feeling: that the school community we fostered was incredibly close. But given all that I’ve learned since then, I had to ask: Was I wrong? Was this feeling just a mirage of my twenties? I needed my colleagues to weigh in. There was a pause in the conversation before one woman spoke up. “We really loved the kids. It was special. We loved them and loved teaching them.” I agreed. We all agreed. That was why we arrived to school early. We stayed late. We went to students’ plays and to their games. We worked very hard for our students. But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I need to admit that it wasn’t enough—because it was ultimately for me. It made me feel good to listen to kids make connections from books to their own lives. It made me feel good to watch the light bulb go off when students mastered a new concept or idea. It made me feel good to be a person who cared about them. The job I wasn’t doing: exciting, motivating, and engaging my students for themselves and on their own terms. After talking to my colleagues all these years later, I realized that if I really loved my students, I needed to do so much more to truly see them. I needed to plan lessons with them, and make explicit connections between the material and their world by creating authentic assessments. I needed to raise up the voices of their communities in the literature we read. I needed to create classroom agreements as a community, not as my policies that they were expected to adhere to. I needed to recognize my own blind spots and do the work to open my eyes, because if I’ve learned anything after almost twenty years in education, it’s that the learning never ends—especially the work of educational equity.
In the end, my conclusion is this: Loving your students is the first step, but it can’t be the only step. Every time I enter a school or classroom now, as a coach instead of a teacher, I feel myself taking that first step. I feel love for students I don’t even know. This next generation of doers, thinkers, change-makers. It is love for these students, for all students, that I learned on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; this love also motivates me to take the harder steps to come. What do we do for people we love? We fight for them. We change for them.