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Dear White Teacher

Dear White Teacher

Sending kids of color to the classrooms of teachers of color for timeouts on a continual basis is hurting everyone, including the teachers who send them away.

As a black, female, no-nonsense middle school teacher, dating back to the days of my student teaching, white teachers in the building have asked if I wanted to be in on a “difficult” phone call, if I would “talk” to a black boy who was “acting out” or a black girl who “needed a mentor.” I’ve gotten used to responding with professional, helpful words, though at times I’d like to choose otherwise: “Baby Boy spends more time in your class than anywhere else. He is looking for praise and mentorship from you. It’s phony coming from me. You can call home. His mother doesn’t want him acting up, but she wants you to do your job too. So, sorry—no, he cannot come to me for timeout.”

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate when teachers come to me for advice and understanding regarding students and families of color, but using me solely for repeat timeouts and phone calls does not help anyone involved.

A couple of Januaries ago, I was called into my building administrator’s office. I had assumed that I would be asked to do something, write something, lead something. Instead, I was informed that my child’s teacher had written her a referral.

I spent six years teaching at the same school that my children attended, which also happened to be statistically the blackest school in the city. The school was full of amazing, unique educators who had a good grasp on cultural competence. My child’s teacher was a white man who taught on the same floor as I did. I sat with this man through many good and not-so-good staff meetings and trainings. He asked me for writing lessons, which I shared. So how is it that I could share my expertise with him and simultaneously have no idea that my child was having trouble behaving herself in class—until it was crammed into one discipline referral at the end of the fifth month of school? The discipline referral went nowhere, but the confusion remained. I confronted her teacher to clear it up. “Why did you not tell me anything if he’d been doing this since September?”

I was met with a wheelbarrow full of excuses. “I don’t want to interrupt your teaching or use you as a crutch,” he said.

“Interrupt my life? That’s my child.”

It was my suspicion that his fear of the situation crippled his feet and his dialing fingers, just as fear has defeated many well-meaning white teachers of black and brown students. I tell my students, “Don’t go running your mouth unless you have multiple reliable sources on which to draw your conclusion.” So one day I sent out a special focus group invitation to the students who frequented my classroom timeout leather couch. I grabbed the envelope where I had collected the students’ timeout slips (I claimed to have lost them, but was secretly stockpiling them) and began writing invitations.

While most of the class was snuggled into silent reading and Jake had finally succumbed to the quiet, warm, dark room and put his head down, I scribbled out 13 invitations. One was for Jake, but I’d wake him later. They read:

You’re invited

A big bucket of Red Vines in exchange for your honest opinions today at lunch
Use this invitation
as a hall pass
Don’t tell other students—they’ll eat up our candy

Some of these kids were sent by other teachers for a timeout, and some decided to come for their own timeouts; nevertheless, my room was a revolving door with these same students of color, constantly in and out. Some were in my class at least one period a day; others weren’t on my class rosters at all. Some were girls, most were boys. All of them were black or brown, except Jake, a white boy who had attended this school since kindergarten and was now in 8th grade.

What I wanted to know from these kids was: What makes my class so different from their other classes? Why do they behave while they’re here but misbehave elsewhere, always get busted, and always get sent to me? I knew that the entire middle school team wanted students to be successful. Some can be sarcastic, but I am the queen of sarcasm. Some yell at times, but so do I . . . a little . . . OK, maybe a lot. So what makes Mrs. Lathan’s class different? Why were they always circling back to me?

The lunch bell rang and I quickly pushed my class along to get out of the room and get their coats for lunch and recess. I discreetly handed out the invitations to some students. Kids who didn’t get one begged to see what they said while I marched the line down to the cafeteria, and drank my soup before I got back upstairs. I set the bucket of licorice in the middle of the hexagonal table, grabbed my flower journal to take notes, and sat. Five minutes later, three kids were escorted in by another teacher, followed by 10 other kids filtering in with their lunches.

I started with my reasoning for asking them to this forum. “Y’all,” I said, “I’ve been teaching for a while, but not long enough. I come to school to learn too. What I learn from you helps me to be a better teacher, for you and for the next year’s class. Most of you are in my class at some point in the day, and a few of you aren’t. But you guys always come to me for timeout. Look, I counted your timeout slips—”

“Who has the most?” Deshawn butted in. He had a quick wit, but mine traveled faster than light.

“You,” I said, looking over the top of my glasses at him.

The table laughed and grabbed another Red Vine.

“Anyway, I counted your timeout slips. That’s why you were invited. And I really need you guys.”

“You need us?” Jake asked.

“Yes, Jakey. I need all of you to answer this perplexing question. Right now I’m like the Godzilla meme, with his finger to his brain, thinking, because I can’t answer this question: Why y’all always comin’ to me for timeout?”

The room fell silent, except for a few munches of licorice.

So far, Maya had sat with her head down, picking at an overcooked grilled cheese sandwich, silent. This was common for Maya; she rarely spoke to teachers. She came to me for timeout once and I asked her if she was ready to return—and she growled. Today would be different.

“You really want to know the truth, Mrs. Lathan?” she asked, never looking up. “You’re not scared.”

“Scared of what? Who? Tell me more, Maya.”

“Mrs. Lathan, you know they’re scared of us and our parents, too. That’s why they don’t be calling home. They just send us to you.”

Maya’s words prompted a firestorm of responses, some funny, some serious, coming so fast and hard that finally I had to conduct this small lunch group as a class. “One at a time—raise your hand—I can’t write that fast.”

“It’s because he ain’t got no control of the classroom, Mrs. Lathan!”

“Because we can still do our work in here and go back knowing how to avoid getting picked on by the teacher.”

“My mom don’t like her because she gave me an F without once calling my mom and telling her I wasn’t doing my work.”

“Because everybody in here knows Mrs. Lathan does not play.”

“You talk to us like our moms and aunts; you expect us to do right, and if we don’t, you make us tell our parents what we’re not doing.”

“They send us here when they get tired of us.”

“Only certain kids get sent out, for doing the same things white kids do, maybe just a little louder or bolder, so we get caught.”

“I think they be watching us as soon as we come in the building.”

“You know why, Mrs. Lathan, we ain’t gotta tell you why we always get sent to you for timeout. It’s because you’re black.”

“They don’t just send us to you. They send us to the other black teachers and aides too, Mr. Jones, Ms. James . . .”

“You’re not scared of us. We’re scared of you, though. Just kidding. I mean, scared in a good way. We’re scared to disappoint you. We’re scared to go into other classes because we know they’re gonna start out talking crazy before we even sit down.”

Students spoke of my familiar demeanor and tone, my classroom routines, my allowance of personal space when needed, my low tolerance for work avoidance or refusal, my refusal to kick students out but instead expecting them to work hard, my classroom environment of respect for one another, and so on. All of this sounded like what any good teacher would do.

The “it” factor that lingered was fear. There were two types of fear that the students spoke of: the teachers’ fear of them and their fear of the teacher.

As an adult and a professional, there were clearly some issues that I dared not discuss with the group of kids. One is the fact that I’m basically doing another adult’s job by doing out-of-class disciplinary work. I work hard, but I have a small lazy bone. I don’t want to do portions of other people’s jobs, as I’m sure no one else wants to do part of mine.

Another issue is that I am teaching students of color how to navigate a classroom with routines and rules centered in ideals of whiteness, where there is only one “right” way to be a successful student: show in ways recognized by white culture that you respect authority, work to a standard, don’t challenge, don’t make waves, apologize when you do. I question my own ethics every time I tell a student: “I understand you, your teacher may not. That is a reason to follow their rules.” And then I push them right back into that room.

The main issue, though, is the time I spend putting out the fires burning in kids, cooling the burns of the previous classroom mishaps, bandaging them up, and telling them not to play with fire, when I know full well that they aren’t playing with fire at all. They are walking into a furnace every time they step into the classroom. That furnace is failure, and it is fueled by fear.

“I don’t want to be called racist.”

Based on conversations with colleagues and my observations, I think that many whites live in fear of their good faith actions being labeled as racist. Rather than facing that fear and seeing what they can learn about themselves from the process, many white teachers seem to believe that a better alternative would be to pair students with teachers who look and sound like them, or like people in their families, in the name of having a positive role model or mentor. There’s no doubt that we need more teachers of color in our schools, but we also have to deal with the situation that exists today. Many white teachers are discouraged, believing that they are ill-equipped to meet the needs of students of color simply because they don’t have the same experiences as them. In response, they freeze.

They freeze when students like Maya are disengaged and not doing work. She may have issues going on that they can’t identify with, and she’s probably not going to open up to them anyway because she knows that, too. Does that make it OK to ignore what is clearly work avoidance and instead go to help students who have eager hands in the air? They freeze when students like Isaac storm out and say that they hate the school and every brick in it. Does that justify punt-kicking Isaac to Mr. Jones, because Mr. Jones goes to church with his family? They freeze when Shauna is watching twerk videos on her phone during science class. Sure, there are rules about phones in school, but do we tell her to put away her personal property and risk a class-melting blowout? They freeze when it’s time to call Julius’ father because Julius needs a tutor. Julius’ father just got out of jail. Does that justify letting Julius fall by the wayside? Or deflecting Julius directly to the principal because his father has a record?

“Phone conversations with parents don’t go well.”

I’ve had my share of literal and metaphorical hang-ups when it comes to calling parents, but most conversations have been helpful. When I call parents or guardians, I follow these guidelines.

  1. Address them as Mr., Ms. or Mrs., followed by their name on record. No assumptions. If needed, I ask how to say their name properly—and remember it.
  2. Refer to their child by their given name.
  3. Talk to the parents. Highlight the positive, academically and socially.
  4. When explaining the issue to parents, have concrete evidence without interpretation, and give the parent a chance to respond. For example, “Today when James was with another student, he pulled her chair out, and the student fell,” instead of “James hurt another student at his table and caused disruption to my lesson.”
  5. Ask for the parent’s help. The student is their child forever, I am their teacher for one year. Look to the parent as an expert.
  6. Make a deal among parent, student, and yourself as to how all three will help the child be successful in the area of concern.
  7. Call back in two weeks to update and thank the parent.

“I’m giving them someone positive to identify with. What’s wrong with that?”

Although white teachers may feel that they are doing a service to children by sending them to someone identifiable, it’s actually a backfire. Each time a child is sent to another adult in the building to manage behavior, the teacher loses a little power, no matter what race the child or teacher is. However, there’s a subliminal message that many white teachers are blind to, yet it’s a bold, glaring truth to parents and students of color: This teacher does not care. Today, I implore you to care. Care enough about this student to build and fortify your own special relationship with them. Care enough about this student to work at figuring out where communication breaks down between you. Care enough about this student to make them pull their weight and work when it’s time to work. Care enough about this student to see if there are academic, health, social, or emotional reasons for their work avoidance. Care enough about this student to call on their parents for help, knowing that a parent is more of an influential teacher than you are. And care enough about your colleagues of color to stop using them to clean up your mess.

Clearly, being uncaring is not the message that any teacher is trying to send. It is inherent that teachers care about the people in their schools. Otherwise, they’d look for jobs that pay more and do less. And just like I don’t know of parents who condone misbehavior, I don’t know of teachers of any race who intentionally seek to send a message that they don’t care.

“I can’t control that I am white. How can I show my students of color that I care?”

Allowing fear to cripple your ability to develop relationships in your personal life would have devastating emotional effects, so why allow fear to shroud your intelligence as a compassionate educator? The fear of a race of people fuels the furnace of failure for students of color. Just because you are a white teacher and do not experience life through the same lens as your students of color, it doesn’t mean you can’t build an environment where realness, rigor, and relationships abound in your classroom.

If you are a teacher of a student of color, and you have ever asked a co-worker of color to “help,” “guide,” “mentor,” or “just talk to” a student of color that you’ve had difficulty working with, it’s time for you to wake up. Trust me, there’s a time in every classroom where a kid needs to go so that either she—or you—can cool off. The revolving door of kids of color, however, needs to stop.

When you send your students to teachers like me, you are inadvertently forcing me to contribute to a racist system, asking me to tell kids how to behave within your four walls and sending them back. That is not fair to them, and it’s not fair to me. You need to find that bone in your body that tends to recoil when it comes time to deal with people of color—and purposely straighten it back out. You must confront your own discomfort at all costs. Find out why you really don’t want to call home, hold the child after school, tell him to sit down, or tell her to finish that essay.

To effectively teach children of color, you need to understand this: I know that you don’t look or sound like me, but that doesn’t mean that you have no power. My strength in the classroom does not come from my racial identity, and neither does yours. It comes from the way we treat—and what we expect from—kids and families. It is time for you to take back the power in your classroom. By all means, seek out the advice of colleagues of color, but don’t send your students to us without first examining the patchwork needing to be done in your
teacher practice.