Yesterday, I was required to attend an all-day, end of the semester workshop. Essentially, it was a day-long series of other people’s thesis presentations. The morning opened, though, with a keynote speech titled “Teaching for Social Justice.”
Now, for those of you who don’t know me, let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m in my mid-to-late thirties, I was born, have lived, and will probably die in New England, and I descend from a long and nearly exclusive line of Scots. There’s a native American way back there in my family tree somewhere, and a Russian Jewish great-great grandmother, I think; but most of my ancesters went by MacSomething-or-Other. What I’m saying is that, for the most part, I am about as WASPy as one can be. White, People. Very, very white. I should also mention that I live – and will work – in an area that is predominantly white. I live in an essentially suburban environment – we’re not in the big city (well, as big a city as one finds in New England), but, unlike some parts of the northeast, people in my region most certainly outnumber farm animals. Middle class, for the most part, and white. Very, very white.
One of the things that continues to bother me about these seminars I attend and speeches I hear on the subject of social justice and education is the idea that it is almost universally true that the bigggest percentage of teachers are white, middle class women. Uh, hello? That would be me. I begin to sink a little lower in my seat. The speeches and seminars go on to say that the educational system is doing a tragic disservice to our multicultural student body by putting us – white, middle class women, that is – in charge of classrooms. We (WMCWs) cannot approach teaching with an authentic cultural understanding, it is argued. We cannot connect with our students in meaningful ways because we cannot, by virtue of our heritage and privileged backgrounds, comprehend the complexities of the lives and experiences our multicultural students take with them to the classroom. Because we cannot bring an authentic comprehension of our students’ experiences into our practice of teaching, the claim continues, we cannot provide authentic learning opportunities for our students.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, now. Quite a while, actually – ever since I began to consider the idea of becoming a teacher. The implication of these seminars – and the rallying cry for social justice in education, really – is that we need to involve more people of diverse backgrounds in the education of our nation’s young people. I couldn’t agree more, really; I am pretty sure that I would have benefited from the experience of having someone who was different from me as a teacher. I can’t say that with any certainty, however, because I didn’t get to experience that until my junior year in college. Like I said, I live in a predominantly white part of the world; up to my junior year, all my teachers were white, and most of them were women. My point is this; because I am white and a woman and middle class, I am somewhat disrespected right out of the gate by the people who are championing the idea of diversification in the educational system. I can’t possibly deliver an authentic education to my students of color, they argue, because I can’t really UNDERSTAND where those students are coming from. I cannot deliver culturally sensitive or appropriate content because my white, privileged upbringing excludes me from the kinds of experiences that would give me entree to those kinds of teaching strategies.
I haven’t decided how I feel about all of this, though I do know that my first reaction is defensive. *I* can’t help the fact that I’m white, and I resent the idea that the color of my skin and the happenstance of my upbringing somehow causes others to question my efficacy as an educator. While I understand the underlying assumptions of the claims, I’m not sure I can agree entirely with the premise that my entrance as a WMCW into the profession is somehow perpetuating the problem. I may not be able to have an authentic understanding of what it means to be Latino or black in this society, but I don’t necessarily believe that I am in the classroom to do that. I’m in the classroom to teach my students the use and comprehension of English, to expose them to the written and spoken word, to teach them to manipulate and command the language to their best advantage, to express themselves fully and eloquently. If I do my job correctly, my students will emerge from my classroom better able to express what it means to be who they are – regardless of the culture of their family or the color of their skin.