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An Incomplete Identity

An Incomplete Identity

Even before I enrolled in my teacher education program, I was aware of the lack of teachers of color in a largely white and female teaching force. In the urban, suburban, and private schools I had attended, I could count the number of black teachers I'd had on one hand. By the time I began student teaching, I still barely needed to use two hands. I had spent three and a half years reflecting on the crisis in American education, with such a mismatch between the faces of the learners and the faces of those in power. I knew how empowering it felt to have a teacher who looked like me, standing in front of the class. I was familiar with the foundational identity work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, William Cross Jr., W. E. B. Dubois, and others. I had read Juwanza Kunjufu, Lisa Delpit, Jonathan Kozol, Asa Hilliard Jr., and more.

From these readings and my own experiences, I was aware of the negative impact that not having black teachers had on black school-age students. I felt eager, but prepared for the frustrations student teaching would bring. My advisor warned me about the lack of sleep. I no longer regretted the loss of the college student weekend that started Thursday at 5 p.m. I had even come to terms with missing my last spring break, as my university's calendar was not aligned with the school system's. I was running on a bubbling passion to reach urban black students.

However, I was not prepared for the impact that the lack of black teachers and administrators in schools would have on me, only one semester from wrapping up my undergraduate career. And I was not prepared for the profound effect that their absence would have on my identity as a black teacher.

For my student teaching placement, I was assigned to an excellent veteran teacher. I was also paired with a supportive university supervisor, who had taught general education for nearly 10 years before returning to school to obtain her master's in special education. Both were filled with helpful information and shared it readily. And both happened to be white. On the surface, my placement could not have been more positive. There was mutual respect and honesty in each of my working relationships. But, within a few days of teaching, I found myself filled with questions, and not sure who I could ask.

My special education classes confronted me with the overrepresentation of black students. In each class, over 70 percent of my students were black. I wondered how the use of what scholars call Black English Vernacular might affect my students. My ability to "code switch" helped me develop rapport with many of my black students. But many teachers at the school insisted on using Standard English. Though at this point in my life I thought myself fairly well versed in navigating the two linguistic worlds, I found myself slipping up or dancing around certain words and phrases, not sure if they were "proper" enough.

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