Instruction & Curriculum

Opinion: An Open Letter to Teachers of Color Dealing with Guilt while Working at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI)

Guest Writer: Jheanell Lumsden
Dear Teacher of Color,
You’re about to begin a new school year, and as a teacher of color, you know that our teaching experiences are vastly different from our white counterparts. Each academic year can feel like an even steeper uphill battle, and we may end up even more emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the year, than white teachers. If you’re working at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), a unique set of complex issues for us teachers of color can present itself; but one specific issue that we don’t often discuss is how our emotional taxation can be compounded by an internal dilemma when we work in these spaces. Being a teacher of color and working in a PWI can come with guilt because you feel as if you’re not with the students who need you most. To paint a more intricate picture of the guilt I’m talking about, I’ll take you back to when I was a student-teacher…
…Almost three years ago, I walked into an elementary school classroom in Worcester, MA, where most of the young kids were students of color. Immediately, a young black girl looked at my afro and exclaimed to the girl beside her, “look! she has hair like mine.” Only a couple seconds later, a black male student said, “you look like my sister!” Within 5 minutes, I had made an impact on the students in that classroom. It was a moment of awakening; I became even more aware of the importance of teachers of color in schools where the student population is extremely racially and culturally diverse. As such, since choosing to become a teacher, I knew that I was meant to serve that community. According to the National Center for Education Studies, “…in 2015-16, there were an estimated 3,827,100 public school teachers in the United States. Slightly more than 80 percent of them were white, while less than half of the students were white.” These statistics reinforced the need for teachers like me. I knew there was an absolute dearth of teachers of color, and as such, I was sure that students of color were the group of students that I wanted to work with. However, you plan, and life happens.
Fast forward to 2019, and I’m about to start teaching at a new school in Toronto and it’s a PWI i.e. a school where little to no-one looks like you, (in terms of both the students and/or faculty). So, back to the guilt, I mentioned before. If you’re anything like me, your heart & soul is with working in schools with mostly students of color. However, you’ve found yourself at a PWI, and this may come with guilt or a sense of shame. If you’ve been in this situation before, know that you’re not alone. Many of us have been in this circumstance and have experienced this guilt.
The guilt or shame may start in a number of ways. It may start when you first get the contract, and you’re deciding whether leaving where your heart feels right, is the right decision. Perhaps, it’s heightened by the stark awareness of how different you are at the PWI: in the first couple of months, you get questions from your students like “Miss, how come your hair grew so long, so fast?” when you get braids or wear wigs, or when you get asked questions about where you’re really from, etc. You may start feeling the guilt when you first bring up police brutality against black Americans or the morality of current immigration practices. Despite knowing how essential it is for these topics in ALL classrooms, you see some eyebrows raised, and question whether some of these kids (who have the privilege of never experiencing these things firsthand) really get it. The worst way for the guilt to start is when other teachers of color make you feel self-conscious or badly about working at a PWI, and you even start to feel like a teaching pariah. After the guilt sets in, you think a lot about your past students of color, you start to miss them and feel as if you’ve let them down. You even worry that since you’ve left, they’ll rarely see any teacher who looks like them and that feeling tends to linger. However, this guilt doesn’t have to consume nor define who we are.

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