I’m sure that title grabbed your attention. It’ll be clarified further in the post. Until then…Have you ever experienced a full circle moment in your professional life? The first time that occurred was during parent-teacher conferences as a rookie teacher. It was my first time being on the other side of one of those school-family conversations and I recall thinking, I’m talking to parents about their kids? How’d that happen?! I recently experienced something similar when I began teaching those who are aspiring to teach children. I recall standing in from of those students for the first time and thought, I’m teaching future teachers? How’d that happen?!
I’ll own up to being slightly nervous about teaching adults. Despite being invited to co-teach in a popular course (Cultural Socialization of Children) that was already set-up by Rosemarie Allen, I had a few worries. Would I bore them? Would I be challenged by them? Would I add anything substantive to something that was already in place and very successful? Now that the class has ended and I’ve had a chance to reflect, I see that my concern was about the wrong thing. Whether teaching children or teaching those who want to teach children, the concern must always be centered on meeting the need of the learner and ensuring they get what they need during our time together. As for this class and those who enroll or consider enrolling, there is certainly a need for coursework that teaches and celebrates cultural differences, uses meaningful reflection to recognize bias, and prepares individuals to work with children and families that may have histories and backgrounds that are significantly different than their own. Despite the often heard suggestions that “there is only one race, the human race” and “we must strive for a colorblind society”; Rosemarie and I reminded students of the need to celebrate differences, and to create environments within their classes and schools that celebrate all cultures and encourages students to embrace their heritages.
One of the more telling moments in the course occurred when a student tearfully shared how her teenage brother appeared to be doing things to distance himself from his Mexican heritage. He was limiting his use of Spanish with their mother and choosing not to participate in various activities that celebrated their culture. Tears aren’t a routine element in college courses, and it’s not routine to interject politics into class discussions. However, that moment provided an opportunity to remind students of why they must actively work to counter the pervasive negativity within our society that often disparages individuals and groups based on racial and cultural differences. Welcome to our class, Donald Trump. Trump’s persona is larger than life, but we didn’t allow him to take up too much oxygen in our discussion that day. We simply used his negative and divisive rhetoric as an example of why we have to be intentional in our actions when working with children and families. When we don’t push back by building inclusive environments that celebrate the uniqueness of all cultures, impressionable individuals (youth) can internalize the negativity they routinely see and hear, and may distance themselves from the wonderful things that should be celebrated about their lives.While tears can provide the impetus for impassioned and meaningful conversations, students shared how they appreciated opportunities to have fun while engaging in conversations and experiences that teach about those things we rarely engage in among mixed company. The entire class had a good laugh when a student shared how she ran one day to share her umbrella with two African American women that were running for shelter when it began to lightly rain. She said she felt compelled to help them protect their hair after Rosemarie’s informative, lively & fun presentation on black hair. Hot-combs, perms, naturals, and everything in between were discussed. In other words, everything you wanted to know about black hair but were afraid to ask! Curious about why that African American mother isn’t smiling when she picks up her daughter from school and there’s sand in her hair everyday from the sandbox? Why is well oiled hair a good thing for little black girls, but not a good thing for little white girls? On the surface those questions appear to be very minor, but past misunderstandings concerning the welfare of children because of very simple things (like hair) highlight the need to ensure teachers are aware of differences between the experiences of children of different races. As the owner of a shaved head I didn’t have much to contribute to that conversation. However, one question I can easily answer concerning black women, random people, and their hair. No, you cannot touch it.
In addition to those lively discussions, a significant portion of the course involved students providing personal reflections of their experiences when they visited the different venues and neighborhoods in Denver. In one of the reflections a student shared how she was beginning to fear black men after hearing about a murder in one of the neighborhoods. In this age of fiery retort via social media, I was more appreciative of her response than I was angry. While I could have sighed and rolled my eyes at the thought of a white woman saying she feared black men — I didn’t. As a black man I wasn’t offended, nor did I attempt to analyze her background as a way to understand her growing fear of black men. Actually, I was very happy that we’d established an environment where students could be open or vulnerable concerning different topics. I was also happy that she was aware of her growing bias based on an experience that didn’t have any connection to her life. Once individuals become aware of current or burgeoning bias, necessary steps can be taken to address those issues. A common “Rosemarieism” used throughout the course simply states, “Being aware is halfway there.”Teachers are known for referring to students as their kids. My wife and I have one daughter. I’ve been asked to clarify on many occasions when friends hear me mention “my kids” in a conversation…“No, not my kid, but my other kids.” Not only do I refer to them as “my kids”, I also feel a need to protect and stand up on their behalf as if they’re my own. While I strive to do that on a regular basis as a teacher, blogger, and life-long student; I see the need for ensuring teachers enter the field prepared to meet the needs of all our children. I have many friends and colleagues that are paid extremely well as consultants to fix issues in schools related to cultural (in)competence of those who work with children and families. There will always be a need to fix what’s broken in education. For now, I’m excited about the prospect of simple damage prevention for those who strive to work my with my kids…and yours.
Dr. Harris, I really enjoyed reading your post about your first teaching experience. I had similar concerns when I became a Teaching Assistant. You are absolutely right thought that it’s about what the students need.
Elmer Harris has done it again, ever informative and enlightening. Indeed “future” teachers have the opportunity and privilege of getting to know and nuture amazing children from various backgrounds. I, like many others, remember “that” teacher that made a difference in my life…I told her I wanted to be a stewardess she told me I could be the pilot. She perhaps saw my sense of adventure but more then that she took the time to truly see me.
Future teachers learning from the best! Keep th blogs coming Mr. Harris.