For years, I have taught in schools with black and Latino students from mostly urban backgrounds. I am infuriated and overwhelmed by the countless issues affecting our kids that we as teachers have no control over: racism, poverty, budget cuts, and teacher turnover, to name a few.
I cannot protect our boys from police harassment. I cannot protect our girls from the intersection of silences that consumes them. They are young women in a society that still objectifies their bodies and places limits on the ways in which they can speak out. It is difficult to lend them my voice as a black teacher. I, too, am often silenced in the spaces where I work.
But what I find even more devastating is the amount of coddling and the incredibly low expectations for black and brown students in urban schools.
Honesty Goes a Long Way
My own experiences in public schools guide my current teaching approach in New York City. I recognize that I was able to escape the patterns of violence that consumed the lives of many of my peers because of my education. Supportive teachers were honest about the realities that I would face as a black woman in America.
Rather than pitying me and other students from my community, my teachers recognized what I would need to succeed. They were intentional about communicating the realities of the world that we lived in—one that proves over and over again its disdain for black and brown bodies. They taught in ways that gave me a sense of discipline, as well as pride in who I was.
The “ghetto” and its “street knowledge” also provided me with the deeply critical lens I applied to my academics and equipped me with the strength to navigate this seemingly impossible world. I knew before I could name it that education would provide a path toward my advancement.
So, I am not outraged that my 12th grade students cannot write or read (though that, too, is a problem). I am outraged at an education system and school policies and practices that do not recognize what it will actually take for our black and brown students to thrive.
White Teachers Don’t Demand Enough
I believe that white teachers, and others who do not share the lived experiences of their students, mean well. And I do believe that there are white teachers who are effective at teaching students of color—although research undoubtedly reveals the importance of students of color having teachers of color.
Some teachers remove or lower expectations of excellence because they do not want to further complicate the lives of their students."
Yet, teachers of color like myself are often known for having courses that “give too much work” or are “too challenging” when we hold students to otherwise absent expectations. We are also exhausted, as we are often the only ones willing to have difficult conversations with students about what life will look like for them beyond the safe haven of our school doors.
Whether it is discomfort or ignorance around what it will take for black and brown students to succeed—or a combination of both—many teachers don’t demand enough. I have seen white teachers give students higher grades than what they deserved on assignments, lower standards that they deemed were “too challenging” for students, and pass students to higher grades before they demonstrated the skills necessary to move on.
We should all acknowledge how poverty and systems of oppression cause students of color to enter school far behind their white, wealthy peers. Instead, some teachers remove or lower expectations of excellence because they do not want to further complicate the lives of their students. This thinking is misinformed, misguided, and harmful. It also overlooks the strength and resilience that our students’ backgrounds and experiences build for them.
We Must Wrestle With Discomfort
Yes, we must be empathetic. But instead of pitying our students, it is better to point out the ways that they have already survived to show them they have the skills to be successful. They can use their knowledge and emotional intelligence to excel.
Especially while the teaching force remains mostly white and female, we have to wrestle with some uncomfortable truths. Are your goals for your black and brown students different for your white students, and how can you change that?
Recognize the ways in which you might be lowering expectations for specific students. Realize their hardships point to issues of racism and inequity, whose ugly ramifications crop up in schools. Know that these hardships also create resilience and creativity that we must help students tap into. Many people have learned to turn their struggles into beautiful forms of art, powerful policies, dynamic leadership, and invaluable protests.
Education Is a Powerful Weapon
In a speech decades ago, the late American writer James Baldwin said that as leaders dealing with the “hearts and minds of young people,” we must be prepared to “go for broke.” We have to be willing to dig into some painful, controversial, and ugly stuff if we are to be effective—particularly those of us who teach black students.
Talking about race and introducing texts and works by writers of color is a start, but it’s not enough. We have to be honest about the lives our students might lead if they do not receive high school diplomas or college degrees, or if they lack the skills necessary to be excellent.
We cannot afford to be complicit in our biases. But we also cannot afford to dampen our teaching—not when education is one of the most powerful weapons for change. We bear something great, dear teachers, but if we are unwilling to do this work for our students, then who will?