Students of color matter

I’m going to make a confession that could be controversial: I focus more on students of color in my classroom. I think most teachers do. When things get loud, traditionally we focus on Black boys, and when students fight, we look for the hot-headed Latina or Black girl at the center. We see who sits in detention, we see who sits in the hall.

But my focus is different.

I watch them and sometimes give them the ‘teacher eye’ because I want them to break this cycle of pulling focus. I want them to unlock opportunities that weren’t originally dreamed for them. I want them to navigate in a white culture, while maintaining their own, without assimilating, but adding to the differences that supposedly add to diversity. I want them to challenge the status quo, as do I. Yet typing these words, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the itch at the back of my brain is, “How will my focus be received?” Always, that fear.

I fear for them. Because I know the depth of the impact that white supremacy has had on this nation. Our political climate has made it openly okay to “Make America Racist Again.”

I wonder: How can one be a teacher of color, with students of color, and not assimilate to white culture in an educational system set up to benefit white culture?

I fear for students of color, because I have found myself, without even trying, focusing on my students of color when things get loud, when test scores are entered, when signups for opportunities are Anglo names only. I see that often, my students of color don’t see themselves as worthy of opportunities. I see they fear failure more than they value the shot at opportunity. I know the prompts they get at home: “M’ijo, there’s always the army;” “Jita graduate and then find your husband.”

I realize, working in a system of disadvantage, that we need to teach our students of color how to see themselves differently. We need to see them differently.

I struggle, because there is such little time, and the change that must occur is as wide as the achievement gap, unchanged for decades.

I wonder: How can one be a teacher of color, with students of color, and not assimilate to white culture in an educational system set up to benefit white culture?

It was difficult to deliver today’s directions because that one table was always talking. Even if they were talking about the assignment or the writing prompt, it was always loud, and seemingly ‘off task’ the majority of the time. “Ode le, stoopit!,” she screams when he takes her pencil and holds it out of her reach. “Whatcha need a pencil for?” he counters, “ya’ got your Chromebook!” She smacks him hard enough to hear it across the room. I now stand directly behind them, like an auntie with a “chancla”, coaxing them to chill and get to work.

I spent so much time over the weekend building a lesson that they would embrace, writing the directions specifically so all my students would know just what to do. The evidence that the majority of students didn’t read them is hard to swallow with my cold coffee on a particularly hot Friday. I spent the majority of class standing near their table, and they continued with their conversations, not knowing what to do, where to be. They kept distracting each other; losing opportunities. I felt the rush of anger spread across my cheeks, knowing all of the conversations I’ve had on their behalf, knowing the conflicts I’ve overcome to make sure they are included. That their lives matter. Why doesn’t this learning time matter to them?

I get them on task and I’m greeted with smacks of the lip, eye rolls, and heavy sighs and 9th grade ‘tude. I give it back, and they know that there is a point that they won’t cross, just like I won’t either. Eventually they will love me, eventually I hope they take all advantages I offer. Today though, if they complete the classwork I will be satisfied, for now.

The bell rings; last class of the week. The Students of Color Association members are filtering in one at a time. We have 11 members so far, and only two of them are returning from last year. This is our only time block together and we have few members as we compete for the same time slot for electives like poetry, drama club, and hip hop dancing. Competition for this class is real, but I have these kids and they are my world.

Today, we talk about happenings going on in the school. The hubbub is currently about how a student wasn’t allowed to write his pet peeve speech on DACA, others talk about the fight that broke out during lunch. White Student A hit White Student B first, and Black Student C jumped in to support. They want to talk about Trump and Charlottesville, and we have 90 minutes.

Given the emergency state of our (their) world, what should today’s prompt for them be?