As educators, we believe that all students deserve access to a high-quality education to promote future opportunities in life. However, if we do not embrace critical thought in our pedagogy, we will continue to perpetuate systems that advantage some students over others. My intention is not to have you read this as just another essay about race. Instead, I hope to provide an argument for educators to challenge the status quo of the classroom every day to achieve our desired goal of reaching all students.
As an African-American male, my first teaching assignment was in a predominantly white school. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time teaching there, I wondered why I never received training on how to teach white children. Certainly, the white children in my class did not look like me nor did they share my background. Still, I was expected to teach them and teach them well. There was no professional development on how to reach the white students I was then teaching, yet our profession is steeped in professional development on how to reach “culturally diverse” students.
Of course, I had no problem teaching them without additional training on diversity or cultural competence. After all, my experiences with the culturally dominant ideals in my own educational journey prepared me for that task. That is just one example of how schools operate to the advantage of some students and not others: Schools are built around American ideals—that is, the values and sensibilities of white culture.
Some may dispute the notion that white ideals—or hidden privilege—pervade our education system, but I have experienced it firsthand. As an elementary school teacher, I remember being annoyed with a social studies textbook that eloquently and painstakingly described the “triangle trade” and traders who sold people and goods in the New World, but was silent on the human realities of this brutal system. What was missing was the depravity of slavery, the lives lost on the journey, and the sting of the whip. What was missing was the devastation experienced by the people who lived in the Americas prior to Europeans ravaging their way of life. Even more troubling was the lack of humanity bestowed on these “others” in history.
I remember my students being awestruck that slaves even had names when I read excerpts from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, a formerly enslaved abolitionist from the 18th century. I was heartbroken when a student asked why slaves would continue to have children when they were treated so poorly. All students are able to think critically and challenge the white-centric narrative that is so inescapable in our schools and textbooks, but they must be given the opportunity.
I was myself recently confronted with how blinding hidden privilege can be. I wasn’t able to understand why some people in our society refuse to acknowledge the concept of privilege until I was confronted with the recognition of my own male privilege.
During an adjunct teaching course, I encouraged my college students, most of whom were women, to share their life experiences. I was horrified by what they had to say. Students explained their struggles with their body image, their sense of feeling unsafe walking in public, and how they were constantly harassed. Some even spoke of being assaulted by men. My initial reaction was defensiveness, as I tried to explain away those painful events. I thought, if they didn’t dress a certain way and if they were more modest, those things wouldn’t have happened to them. Fortunately, I kept this to myself and instead reflected on what they said so I could get a better understanding of how they might have felt.
Schools are built around American ideals—that is, the values and sensibilities of white culture."
In the course of that private reflection, I was able to make meaningful connections to gender and race while reading the work of critical theorists who helped me develop my critical thinking, which I later used in my own instructional practices. Such luminaries of critical pedagogy as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Antonia Darder have something to offer every educator, not just those who teach in “culturally diverse” classrooms. As a man, I had to come to the realization that I enjoyed certain privileges at the expense of women being degraded, objectified, and exploited. That was not an easy revelation, but the truth often hurts. Upon this realization, I started to become more observant of the structures that serve to oppress women in society.
I continued to listen to my students, but with a more open mind. I tried my hardest to listen to understand instead of looking to explain away their stories and histories. After all, who would know more about the experience of women than women?
It is in this listening to understand that I believe holds promise for our profession and the future of our students. As educators, we must reflect on what we accept as truths without truly applying critical thinking. We must work to challenge those truths. Ask yourself how teachers in your school would answer these questions:
• Does your school recognize student differences or does your school treat everyone the same? In other words, does your school enforce equality at the expense of equity?
• Are students challenged to think critically about events in history or are they taught to embrace a romanticized version of historical events?
• Do the teachers reflect on their pedagogy and modify their pedagogy based on the learning styles of all their students?
• Are the teachers aware of their students’ cultures beyond stereotypes and of their students on an individual level?
Now, ask yourself how the students in your school would answer those questions. It is not enough to host a culture day or incorporate “ethnic” music in the classroom. Before our students will understand us, we must first walk in their shoes to understand them, regardless of the racial, cultural, or gender barriers that divide us. We must shed our preconceived notions and embrace a willingness to listen, observe, embrace hard truths, and reflect before we can even start to make meaningful changes that will have a lasting impact on the lives of all our students. That is my goal for this year, and I hope you will join me on this journey.