Why Teachers Have to Stop Saying ‘You Can’t Teach Those Kinds of Kids’

Dec 13, 2016 12:00:00 AM


I watched the  now infamous video of a White teacher in Baltimore calling her students “idiots” and asking if they want to grow up to be “broke-a**  n***ers.” The footage is very disturbing and extremely upsetting but I’m not surprised this happened. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard Black children either spoken to or referred to in this manner. But there’s one difference: when I hear it, it’s mostly from teachers that look just like them. [pullquote position="right"] Implicit bias is a huge problem in education.[/pullquote] Teachers, both White and non-White alike, have varying expectations of their students because of such bias. Just this week, I spoke to a teacher who referred to students in his class as “project kids.” When asked to elaborate what he meant, he said “you know how kids act in the projects, like they act like they have no home and manners. You can’t teach those kinds of kids.” Difference was, this teacher is Black. Often in situations when the offender is White, we are quick to say it’s racist. But teachers of color can also be just as guilty of such bias. Teacher bias isn’t always so direct either. It also includes subtle things like assumptions that students of color have parents that must not care about their academic progress and students of color are simply not capable of meeting high academic standards. Drawing blanket conclusions about who our students are, who their families are, or stereotyping them, is unacceptable. These generalizations about the children we teach and their abilities contribute to a structure that limits their opportunities in school and beyond.

We're All Guilty of It, So How Do We Fix It

Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. We are all guilty of it. We make decisions about our students, their learning abilities and future outcomes based on our perceptions of them, which may not be completely accurate. How can one expect the best from students when you don’t believe it? You will never create geniuses in a class of students you see as less than capable. So, how do we address this? To start, first we must examine and reflect on our bias and how this bias impacts the culture of the classroom. Ask yourself, "[pullquote]Do I really have high expectations for my students?[/pullquote] Have I taken opportunities to get to know them as individuals? Have I made the effort to reach out to a parent(s) or guardian(s)?" Second, we need to acknowledge teaching is difficult and complex work and as such, understand that teachers need consistent and strong professional development, especially in the arena of the social-emotional development of their students. Professional development should not be treated as an extension of the day, but rather as an opportunity for teachers to increase their capacity to address the needs of the whole child. Until we are ready to do this hard work with all teachers, we will continue to have situations like this one. Research has shown that the most impactful aspect of teaching students of color is the significance of the relationship teachers form with them. When students feel they have an adult at school who cares for them and is invested in their development, there is no limit to what they can achieve. And we know it is not possible to form significant relationships with students that we feel bias towards. If we train teachers to recognize and understand their own biases, they will be able to break down these barriers and their relationships with students will begin to flourish.
An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk as The Ugly Face of Teacher Racial Bias.

Ingrid Lafalaise

Ingrid Lafalaise is an assistant principal at a New York City high school and has been an educator for over 15 years. She has designed and taught curriculum in multiple content areas including math and science. Ingrid has also worked on the development and alignment of science standards at both a city and state level.

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