Voices of the Northwest
Back To School
by Roscoe Caron
Roscoe Caron teaches at Kennedy Middle School in Eugene. He
worked in the
woods for a number of years before becoming a teacher 13 years ago. He is
involved in social justice work inside and outside of his classroom. He
also plays rock n' roll in a garage band. - Editor
The complexion of classroom teachers in the United States is becoming paler and paler while the students in their classrooms are become increasingly culturally diverse. In 1985, white teachers made up 88% of the U.S. teaching force. Today, 95% of U.S. teachers are white. We are all in trouble. The recipe for student alienation that has been producing toxic results in the major cities of the U.S. is now being replicated across the country, from tiny farm towns to formerly all-white suburbs. That recipe is: An overwhelmingly European-American teaching and administrative staff working with sizable percentages of students of color.
What is causing this segregation in the teaching workforce? The answer appears to be twofold. In the past, teaching was one of the major ways for working class people to enter the professional workforce. This applied to European-Americans and to cultural minorities, especially African-Americans. Minority students today have a significantly broader array of professional choices, many of which pay much more than teaching. So, in a world of options, a teaching career is less attractive. The other factor is racism. The world of public education is rife with institutional racism -- from teacher training programs to school staff rooms to parent conferences to the daily reality of the classroom.
What it looks like
What does institutional racism look like? In colleges of education, it looks and feels like an alienating atmosphere for students of color. It looks like teacher training programs run overwhelmingly by white administrators and professors. It looks like programs whose commitment to recruiting and retaining students of color is superficial and ineffectual.
Additionally, it looks like programs that spend little time teaching about the emotional realities for students of color and their parents in the school system. It looks like programs that don't take seriously their responsibility to train all future teachers in the skills needed to teach multiculturally. In the public schools, institutional racism looks invisible. Parents of color who are invisible in the PTA, parents of color who are invisible at parent conferences, students of color who are invisible in student councils and on other student leadership clubs, students of color who are culturally invisible to their teachers, students of color who are absent from award recognitions, teachers of color who are invisible on school staffs, teachers of color who are culturally invisible to their peers.
Institutional racism in education looks like a white middle class world, by and for white middle class people, reflecting white middle class norms and values. Educators who are players in institutional racism are largely unconscious of the impact they have on other people. Institutional racism is not purposefully evil,but it is appallingly unaware.
The reality is that the teachers of the future will be overwhelmingly white. As the baby boom generation of teachers retire in the near future, their largely European-American replacements will be teaching for the next 25 years. Can these teachers actually teach effectively in classrooms with 20% - 70% students of color? The answer is maybe.
White teachers cannot replace the vital role that a teacher of color plays in the life of students of color - the special power of example and the comfort that comes from having a teacher who looks like you. White teachers cannot add the essential role that teaches of color bring to a staff - from making it harder for teachers to be openly racist to providing a wealth of life experiences for other teachers to learn from.
White teachers can, however, really come to know their students of color - who they are culturally, what their world view is, what challenges they face, the beauty of their particular culture, and who their parents are.
White teachers can spend time in other cultural settings - to understand the daily reality of students who are in a minority in their school, and to learn personally from people of color.
White teachers can serious encourage - from kindergarten through high school - promising students of color to become teachers. White teachers can decide personally and collectively to challenge the institutional racism in their nearest college of education.
White teachers can advocate for education that is multicultural in their school.
White teachers can raise the issue of inclusiveness for students and parents in their school.
White teachers can get to know and support any staff members of color at their school.
In short, white teachers can become better teachers and deepen their humanity by making sure that their actions do not add to the burden of institutional racism.