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White Teachers, Black Students: An "Awkward Disconnect"

Okun11085_2 The latest installment from Chicago teacher Will Okun is out, this one focused on the awkwardness of being a white teacher in a predominantly black school.  In the post, Okun describes asking his colleagues and students if there's a difference between having white or black teachers.  The responses include those that think white teachers are too lenient on black students, as well as those who think there's no real difference based on race. Himself a teacher, Okun writes that he is not one of those:  "I am saddened to consider that my race potentially limits my effectiveness in the classroom. But truth be told, I can feel an awkward disconnect between the students and me on an almost daily basis."


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If you feel awkward that's just telling me that you are following one of teaching's prime rules - always try to be brutally honest with yourself. The kids smell B.S.

When I came to the inner city classroom after years of immediate experience on the streets, I carefully watched every adult (not just teachers) and especially coaches who knew the kids where they lived, and I tried not to make conclusions. My first year, a Black Muslim told me that I was the coolest White man he had ever seen because I would talk with him about the New York Review of Books. I respected his brain. "'They' just think a Black Man is fit for standardized tests. They are just training us for prison."

I don't know how its done with elementary kids where I guess you must remain strong, but with high school kids I've never been reluctant to cry with them. Only some of the freshmen and sophomores are taken aback, and after the word gets around that "D.T. cries for Black kids" I immediately get a new type of street cred with the younger students.

I came from academics where we referred to profs by their first names and played basketball with them. So, I run the court with the students, set hard picks, and occassionally I commit a foul, and they call me D.T. I think B-ball was a crucial ingredient in the transistion from teacher to a parent surrogate to a virtual parent with many.

I was always flattered when a mom would say that her son had always been looking for a father figure. After about five years I heard a new twist on the story when the ex-wife of a nationally known Black Nationalist thanked me for becoming a father figure for their son who had just returned from living with his father in the middle of all the publicity he had been generating at the time.

And after enough hospital visits, jail visits, and funerals, you learn how to mourn. You also learn to appreciate how priveledged you are to become a part of the community. And even in my fifties, I sometimes feel the emotion of a young man, notice my fists clenched, and again experience the temptation to settle things the old fashioned way. Which of course is invaluable when trying to calm down an angry teen.

After eight to ten years, I had a kid who transferred in from the Deep South and he asked if I had Black kids because I was always talking about "ma kids," as he immitated my Okie drawl. From all across the room came shouts, "D.T. has hundreds of Black kids!" Then the class comedian brought a round of high fives as he commented, "Yeah, D.T. is a playa."

When I first taught Black History, the kids initially distinguished between my teaching of Multiculturalism vs. Black History. NCLB killed that course, but this year we reinstated it and none of the older kids saw any difference. The sophomores raised the question though, but their logic was interesting. They had no problem with me teaching Black History but they couldn't imagine a young teacher. They said I was an old teacher who acted young. In our area, maybe they have a point because all of the Black Studies courses that were available 20 to 30 years ago have been disbanded, and maybe they've never had a young teacher who had studied Black history.

Nine years ago I became especially attached to a student. After a trip to the Grand Canyon, she started calling me "grandpa." Later her mom started referring to "my daughter." After seven years, I awkwardly said that I always say that I love her like a daughter and my only regret was that I had to tack on the disclaimer. The next day when I drove her to take her licensing exam so she could teach in New York City, she introduced me as her father.

The only reason I can be so open about that story is that she gave me permission to do so.

So, every night we share our experiences dealing with kids from generational poverty, and you know what? Middle school kids from other classes come in every morning and punch her, and joke with her, and attach themselves with her in ways that are incredibly similar to the middle schoolers in my building.

If I had biological kids of my own, I'd have never stuck out a job where you have to go through so many indignities. After all, I started teaching at the age of 40, and I was stunned by the way teachers are treated by the full range of adults. I have done my shared of blue collar labor from digging ditches to slingin iron in the oil fields, but I had never been treated the way that administrators are allowed to treat teachers. ...

So Will, go with the flow as I know you do. Whatever happens will be fantastic. And be thankful for the incredible privilege we have being surrounded by the honesty of teenagers.


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