To put it plainly, teaching in a wealthy suburb does not always translate to teaching in an impoverished section of an inner city. It can be a cultural shift not only in terms of what a school looks like—more supplies, better facilities, etc.—but how the school runs, as well. It’s not guaranteed to be an easy change.
A popular sketch show on Comedy Central has explored that world a couple of times. In “Key and Peele,” comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele dissect cultural presumptions, often using race as a starting point that ends with a deep exploration of social conflicts.
In perhaps their most popular sketch, “Substitute Teacher,” viewed on YouTube over 33 million times, Key plays an inner-city teacher of 20 years who takes on his first classroom in a white, middle-class school. It starts by the teacher’s presumption that “Jacquelyn” is actually pronounced “Jay-quellen,” and spirals downward from there:
In a podcast for The New Yorker recorded Monday, TV critic Emily Nussbaum and author Jelani Cobb dissected the message beneath the sketch.
As Cobb describes, the item at first plays out like a joke about unusual names for black children, itself a subject of much commentary. A couple of weeks ago, in our weekly Friday column, “The Absolute Best School Climate Blogging (This Week),” I highlighted a piece by Jamelle Bouie of The Daily Beast on how to understand black names.
“If names like ‘DeShawn’ and ‘Shanice’ are fair targets for ridicule, then the same should be true for ‘Saxby’ and ‘Tagg,’” Bouie writes, referencing U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, and would-be presidential scion Tagg Romney.
But Key and Peele’s skit goes further.
“He’s unintentionally mispronouncing the names and then thinking that the students are being smart or unruly by correcting on the pronunciation of their names,” Cobb writes. “I thought it was kind of sly commentary on what is education versus what is classroom management.”
Key and Peele followed that up with another one during the season premiere last week. In the follow-up, the teacher doesn’t believe that the students need to leave class early for yearbook photos.
“That might work with other substitute teachers,” the teacher rants. “But I taught in the inner city for over 20 years. Now y’all want to leave my class early so you can meet up at the club.”
The Key and Peele sketches, then, demonstrate the depths of cultural shifts between districts, and the difficult path that teachers must navigate; it’s hard to manage, much less engage, a classroom when you don’t understand the students occupying it.
Such transitions are arguably hardest for substitute teachers, who may have to shift between those cultures on a daily basis, but with the expectation that they can keep order and discipline. Trust in a class full of students—or at least adolescent ones—comes at a premium.
“Key and Peele” airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.