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Watch Out for that One

(and other ignorant statements that I’ve heard spoken about children who look like me)

I often tell my close friends that I don’t really want to work in education, but, somehow, I keep getting drawn to the classroom, primarily in supportive roles like tutoring, teaching assistant, and, occasionally, substituting to support myself through grad school. I think a major part of why I keep wanting to work with students is because I had great teachers growing up, specifically in my high school years, and they have left a positive impact on me in many different ways. One of my teachers, for example, often said this very powerful statement, and I paraphrase: “it’s important for me to work with students who look like me.” As a teenager, I didn’t fully understand the power behind that statement, but now as an adult, it resonates with me completely. Initially, I thought, why would you only want to teach black and brown kids? What about the others? But now, I understand why it is important to have someone like her in the classroom because representation matters.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to work with a first-grade class, with kids ranging between the years of five and six years old. One of the classroom assistants came in to warn me about a student saying, “watch out for this one - she will try to get under your skin and she’s a lot of work.” This is not the first time I have heard this type of statement regarding black children from white, female teachers. You might be asking, why does her race need to be mentioned? Why is it always a race issue? The answer to this is both simple and complicated because in the world we live in, particularly in the country we live in, many things go back to race. There have been many studies regarding black students getting punished at higher rates, while white students may get warnings or lighter punishments. A black student might get 5 to 10 days of suspension while a white student might get written up and sent home for that day. Unfortunately, this type of treatment extends beyond the classroom. Black kids aren’t offered the same types of considerations as white kids. What I mean by that is, a black student may be misbehaving in class and get sent out of class or some other type of punishment, while a white student may get a number of verbal warnings before being punished. It’s usually passed off as “oh, he’s just having a bad day today.” Black students don’t get the same considerations.

Back to the first-grader I was referring to earlier, this teacher had already tried to put a negative impression in my head by telling me to “watch out” for this particular student. I could have approached the child with the negativity that was told to me, or I could have given her the chance to prove herself and then redirect whenever needed. I chose to do the latter. This is how stereotypes affect people - when you already have a preconceived negative notion about a group of people, you don’t approach an individual as an individual. You group them as one and, in the end, you’re unable to make meaningful connections with people who you think may be different from you. When the little girl came into my class, I greeted her, just as I did her other classmates, and I asked her to join us on the carpet. She behaved very well and seemed to respond positively to me. The way the teacher described her was as if I needed to be on high alert, and if you are in education with this mindset, you are in the wrong field.

Earlier this year, after almost three years since I last worked with elementary-aged students, I substituted for a fifth-grade class. There was a cute, little kid in the class who made a statement that made me smile. He was bright-eyed, highly intelligent, and playful. He got off task on a couple of occasions, not unlike other ten-year-olds. All I did was redirect him to focus on his work. He said to me, “You’re a really nice teacher. I’ve actually never had a black teacher before.” His experience is actually quite common. There he was in a mostly black and brown school with the majority of his teachers being white women, who for the most part might not really know how to properly engage with their black students and are quick to label students like him as “troublesome.”

Being able to connect with students is a valuable skill to have. There was one day when I was substituting in a third grade class and it was time to take attendance. I stumbled upon a girl who had an Igbo name like me. To her surprise I pronounced her name correctly and when I told her I was also Igbo, she smiled and seemed to take a liking towards me due to the cultural connection we had. In the different examples I mentioned, those black students responded really well to me. Maybe it is because they see a bit of themselves reflected in me - they may see their mothers, their aunts, their older sisters - and because of that they feel more comfortable. Many may even grow up and want to be educators, doctors, engineers, or even diplomats because they saw someone who looked like them in those positions.

There was one negative experience that I will never forget and it is painful to remember for a number of reasons. It was my first year in the classroom as a teacher assistant, it was my first real job after college graduation, and at this time I was still very young (22 years old) and new to working in education. The last class of the day that I worked with was a kindergarten group and there were two little black boys who often became cranky in the afternoons and sometimes didn’t want to listen to their teacher (a white woman). To cut a long story short, there was an elderly white woman who would come in almost every day to work with this particular classroom. She was a retired community member who volunteered her time at the school. She made a comment one day that was particularly chilling. The two black boys that I referenced earlier - only about five or six years of age - were having a bad day one day and she said to me in confidence something along the lines of “with that kind of behavior, we are going to see him in the news locked up in about 10 years”. You could imagine the shock on my face. I was left speechless. Hearing this older white woman who was probably in her late 70s or early 80s saying something like that about young black children was so hurtful, especially when I think about the time in American history that she grew up in. Imagine being 5 years old and someone already condemning you to prison or death. Meanwhile, we had a white kid in the class who was just as “troublesome” as kids that age can sometimes be, but I never heard her say anything remotely as bad as what she said about the black kids. Again I say, black kids aren’t offered the same types of considerations as white kids.

So what is my point in writing this? I want readers to understand how important representation is. When people say representation matters, it really does. I’ve heard the expression that says something along the lines of, “you cannot become what you don’t see.” Children are highly impressionable, and when they see positive role models, it can really change their worldview for the better. Another reason why it is important to have more black and brown teachers, administrators, and support professionals in the educational system is so that they can serve as advocates for their students. Many students in the category of low-income are not bad kids as the media may try to make them out to be - some of them just need an extra push and they need people who they can relate to. In all of these instances that I mentioned, with the so-called “troublesome” black kids, I have never had a negative encounter with them. With my kindergarteners, of course they had their bad days sometimes, but don’t we all? Imagine if we are judged by our worst days? It would be unfair and unreasonable because that is not us every day. Every time my students would see me, especially my younger students, they would rush to be around me and give me hugs. At the end of the day, children need love and they need people who genuinely care for them to lead in the classroom and to serve in more educational leadership positions that will directly impact their education and their future. To the white teachers who are quick to call black students troublesome, I implore you to have a rethink as to why you view them in that way, and please don’t tell me to “watch out for that one”. The only watching or looking out that I will do is looking out for their best interest and hopefully, serving as a positive role model in the brief moments that I have to share with them. There is something that’s empowering for little black and brown students to see people who look like them in positions of power. It really does make a world of difference.

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