For The New Teacher: How To Handle Race In The Classroom

Jose Vilson Jose 6 Comments

Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit

Today, I had the pleasure of addressing staff members for the Nativity New York Schools orientation at Regis High School today. Anyone who knows me knows I went Xavier, so there’s a certain tension going into “enemy” territory. Nonetheless, I found the energy of the crowd refreshing, and I also knew how much I needed to reciprocate. Blame it on having the after-lunch slot for my presentation.

In any case, I left a list of books I thought the audience should read (if they haven’t) that would help them get better as educators:

  • Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • Holler If You Hear Me by Greg Michie
  • Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting At The Same Table In The Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

I thought the list has a little bit of everything for everyone, including the advanced teachers who need a different dimension to their work.

One thing I addressed with the teachers (and that I think resonated with some of the teachers there) is that they’re going to encounter racial situations that might make them feel uncomfortable. I tried to couch the conversation in professional terms, but it’s a delicate situation for everyone. Here are some items I left out there for people:

  • If you’re not comfortable with talking about race, be prepared with something. When you encounter certain words, at least be prepared to assure that people use the academic language given in the classroom. Kids know that certain words shouldn’t be in the lexicon of students. Yes, academic language also have certain racial contexts, but I prefer it if the person can’t handle that conversation.
  • Your job becomes easier when you act like you care about the students. Irrespective of race, students will follow you if you tell them that you really care about them. Even if you have a hard time with a particular student, show them you care and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.
  • Relationship first, academic second. Lisa Delpit’s book highlights the fact that teachers who address students of color ought to build a relationship with the student first. Once the teacher builds that trust, they’ll be much more receptive to your message.
  • You’re not changing the child; you’re giving them an alternative route. People think they’re coming into classrooms to change children. Often, the children don’t want to be changed. Adults rarely do, either. Why not, instead, show them a different route? Some kids just need to see a different way of seeing life, and teachers can do that. It’s working on an implied and subconscious level.

I had more to say, but for the event, I think those tips were most appropriate. Yes, I spoke about high expectations and meeting the children where they were, but that conversation should apply to all children.

Then again, so should this.

Jose, who would like to hear your tips in the meantime …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 6

  1. Jen

    “You’re not changing the child; you’re giving them an alternative route. People think they’re coming into classrooms to change children. ”

    I’d add to that the meta-view that you’re showing them that alternative routes are all around us — trying them out doesn’t mean forsaking all other routes. That is, done right, education is about seeing that there are lots of routes, and that route making and alternative choosing is what education prepares you to do.

    In some ways, it should be easier to give that message to children “different” than you are, since both of you are (should be) engaged in seeing and understanding each other. Not that it really is easier, since it isn’t easy for adults to see past their choices any easier than it is for kids to see that they have choices.

  2. mrsewp

    I encountered Delpit quite frequently in my Masters courses at New Paltz and she would have been the top of my list. What about Paley’s Kwanzaa and Me and Kozol’s Savage Inequalities? Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary is also important to keep in mind and his blog is one of my frequent reads.
    Have a great school year, Jose!

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