I Thought I Knew How to Support Students of Color Until I Learned This

Jul 10, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Brett Bigham

A few months into my time as Oregon’s Teacher of the Year I was asked to speak to the largest gathering of teachers in my state. As I stood at the podium, addressing an auditorium full of teachers, I saw something that shocked me. I stood before Oregon’s biggest meeting of teachers and saw exactly one Black teacher. One. When I visited the state’s teacher-prep programs, I again noticed mostly White teachers and almost no men of color. As I toured the state, [pullquote position="right"]I set a goal to start telling all the students of color I met that they should consider being a teacher.[/pullquote] In my naiveté I remember thinking, “Is there a cultural reason Black boys don’t want to grow up to be teachers?” It turns out, yes, there is a cultural reason. It just wasn’t what I thought it was. It isn’t that teachers don’t make enough money or being a teacher isn’t “cool.” It is that many of our students are fleeing the school system because their experience is so negative.

Putting a Band-Aid on It

I think teachers have been covering that up with a Band-Aid. Trying to take care of the kids in their classrooms while systemic racism does much of the dirty work unseen. Young Black men going to college are escaping high school and do not want to return. Others are dropping out and wandering into a life filled with poverty, low expectations and negative behaviors that are leading to jail time or worse. I’ve worked with students who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you look at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s symptoms of PTSD this one is startling: avoidance of places, people and activities that are reminders of the trauma. In their screening tool for PTSD one of the things looked for is persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others or the world (e.g., “I am bad”).

Oregon’s Racist History Still Permeates Our Schools

Once again, I had to do some learning, and history pretty much set me straight. Oregon had laws on the books from its inception to make it illegal for Blacks to live in the state. Even if a slave was freed in Oregon, he had to leave or be beaten on a weekly basis. We were the only state ever admitted to the Union with an exclusion law against people of color. The people who passed that law were some of the same legislators who created the public school system. That legislative body would pass laws banning Chinese people, Japanese people and anyone of a color that didn’t pass for White. The legislators were deciding how a school system would benefit our state’s children in the same sessions they denied voting for people of color and passed taxes based on skin color. Could these people who voted for such racist and demeaning laws be trusted to make a school system that looked out for kids of color as much as the White students? Let that sink in for a minute. [pullquote position="right"]The men who thought Blacks should be whipped if they stayed in the state created our school system.[/pullquote] In 1991 Oregon passed the Minority Teacher Act. It required the state to have a percentage of minority teachers that matched the population by 2001. It failed miserably. The state was unable to find minority teachers willing to teach in Oregon schools. Twenty-eight years later that goal still remains unmet. Just 18 years ago, the state voted to remove these words from the state constitution:
No free Negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate.
Though no longer enforced, the state left those words in our constitution for 36 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed. And those legislators who allowed that continued to work on education policy right on up to the modern age. Imagine the message that sent to a Black student reading the constitution for civics class.

I’m Learning to Be a Better Teacher from My Black Colleagues

Last July I was asked to participate in a discussion group with members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year Outstanding Black Male Teachers Fellowship and the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year, Josh Parker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExrSBprv0C0 It was a far cry from my day at that podium and seeing one Black teacher. These are teachers who are trying to change the profession from the inside. These conversations about race are not easy. As a White teacher, I think they are exceptionally hard, because we do want to do right by our kids of color. [pullquote position="left"]To accept that systemic racism may be undoing all of our good work is crushing.[/pullquote] To realize bias, White privilege and ignorance have allowed White teachers to think they are “doing enough” when in reality your students needed so much more, is heartbreaking. When this comes up I picture a couple of kids I had in my first year of teaching. I remember big smiles, trusting faces, kids who really looked up to me. And I would swear I did everything I knew how to do to be awesome to them. It wasn’t enough, and I know that now. I only know it because I had these uncomfortable conversations. That’s why I’m inviting you to the uncomfortable conversation. Think hard about those kids of color who sit in your classroom desks. If you aren’t inspiring them to be a teacher, then you might not be inspiring them at all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNFCxlLmi5U

Brett Bigham

Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to visit cultural landmarks and social events. The books are currently available in 10 countries and four languages. He is president of ORSTOY, the Oregon chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and serves on the boards of Oregon Safe Schools and Clubfunder.Org.

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