Confessions of a Teacher

Teaching While White: How can a white suburban teacher lead students of color in their celebration of Black History?

The 2017–2018 school year has brought new opportunities for this veteran teacher, including the challenge of advising the Umoja Step Team, a cultural dance group at the suburban high school where I teach. Previously, I outlined my amazement with this group in my piece, “My Classroom is a Dance Floor,”   which highlighted my first months working with the team.
During the subsequent months of November and December 2017, the students demonstrated commitment and dedication beyond my expectations. On December 22, 2017, the group performed at a level unprecedented. My colleagues congratulated me like I had anything to do with these adolescents’ accomplishments! With every compliment, I felt more humbled. I adore these students, and I feel connected to each one of them, but their success is for them to own.
My role as an advisor has been small. I do not choreograph the dances, instruct the students in the movements, or have any decision in the choosing of the music. The only thing I offer is a calendar of practice dates and space for rehearsal. I give them boundaries, and they give the school a fantastic show.
Now it is January 2018, and I am wondering how the heck did I think I could advise a Step Team and help them plan a Black History Dinner/Celebration with any authority? I feel like a fraud. The only step dancing I have previously experienced has taken place in bars called Bally Bay, Coleman’s, and Rosie O’Grady’s. In the 1991 movie “The Commitments,” the characters proclaimed that the Irish were the blacks of Europe, but I think that is a loose analogy. No, I have no connection to black history. I am neither African-American nor Afro-Caribbean in descent or experience. I am a typical suburban teacher: white, lower-middle-class, and graying. I am so white that I could be translucent. A collard green has never crossed my lips. I don’t speak anything close to fluent Spanish. I am advising a cultural group for which I have no compass. I am out of my element: teaching while white. 
This outsider feeling is familiar. During my student teaching, I tutored students incarcerated in a juvenile detention center. I learned a great deal about appropriate boundaries regarding personal disclosure from those youth.
My first eight years of teaching included dissonance concerning my students wearing t-shirts that read: I attended Ben’s Bar Mitzvah, 1997. I uncomfortably accepted an unwarranted apology from an eighth-grade student on Yom Kippur. I learned valuable lessons concerning Judaism in my first eight years in the profession. My Jewish students schooled me.
In the past fifteen years, my current placement has informed my teaching of Islam and of student’s immigrant experiences. I wrote about one student’s journey in the post: “I was born on September 11, 2001.” 
So, yes, my students have educated me about different American voices, but I have never been “in charge” of celebrating an event so foreign as a Black History Celebration. I am struggling with imposter syndrome. I am a history teacher for Pete’s sake; I should feel equipped, but other than one course in my undergraduate studies, I am uninformed.
Teachers know that when they don’t own the content, they cannot adequately teach it. I do not own African-American history, and regardless of skin color, neither do most Americans. The celebration of the story of Black History began with a week-long dedication in 1926, called Negro History Week. Until 1976, when Black History was allotted the entire month of February, the African-American story was relegated to a seven-day celebration.
Now some people, including famous African-Americans like actors Morgan Freeman and Stacey Dash, want to eliminate the month. They claim that the month fuels racism and separates Americans into specific categories. I agree that the history of African-Americans and other marginalized groups should be infused into the curriculum, but after teaching for 23 years, I can tell you that the number of non-white men in the curriculum is under ten! White history is the paradigm. White supremacy is ingrained and non-white males, and all females have very few exemplars in secondary-level studies.
White history is the paradigm. White supremacy is ingrained Click To Tweet
It is not just that non-white men and all women are underrepresented in history, they are also missing in large numbers in American government. With the appointment of Tina Smith, Al Franken’s replacement to represent Minnesota, the U.S. Senate will now include twenty-two female Senators. Twenty-two women out of one hundred Senators, yet women make up fifty-one percent of the U.S. population! According to Daily Kos, the 115th Congress has the highest diversity rate of all time, but the Senate and the House of Representatives continue to disproportionately mirror white America.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2016 report “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce,” 82 percent of public school teachers are white. The current enrollment of white students is about 51 percent of the public school student population, but that is expected to change in the next decade. White students are predicted to drop in demographics to 46 percent with an increase in Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students, 29 percent and 6 percent, respectively. By 2024, Black students are predicted to account for 15 percent of the public school population. Therefore, if trends continue as anticipated, white teachers will be increasingly disconnected from their students’ cultural experiences. If college students of color continue to shun the teaching profession, the divide between the narratives of students and teachers will enlarge.
The National Education Association (NEA) and other organizations have recently pointed out the need for teacher diversity in their article: “Experts Discuss How to Find and Keep Teachers of Color.” A teacher shortage is looming on the horizon, and non-white educators are already missing from many schools.
So, to recap: I am white; I teach mainly white history; The United States is run by white people. Students of color have very few models and representations of themselves in their schools, in their instruction, and in their government. These facts make the celebration of non-white stories incredibly necessary, but it also demonstrates why I am scared to get the night of February 15, 2018, all wrong. I will do my best to learn as much as I can, but the upcoming Black History Dinner/Celebration has me feeling like a rookie again. Maybe, that is a positive because discomfort breeds growth.
discomfort breeds growth. Click To Tweet
I will allow discomfort to motivate me — taking a deep breath and diving deeply into an unchartered professional area. I will use every available resource, including the students themselves, to celebrate an experience for which I have little input. This group is important. The students deserve my best–even if I am out of my element– what matters is how I augment their endeavor. The Step Team is inclusive and strives to represent the Swahili translation of the word Umoja, meaning unity. Hopefully, through dance, songs, poems, and a pot-luck collection of food, people can come together for a positive cultural experience. Possibly, we all will grow.

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