Diary of a First-Year Teacher: The Trouble With Being White

A rookie teacher struggles to bridge the cultural and racial divide in her rural Mississippi classroom.
At 22 years old, this first-year teacher is striving to relate to her students and their parents. (Photo: Jeffrey Coolidge)
Mar 11, 2013

Each week in the series Diary of a First-Year Teacher, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.

I teach children who are of a different culture and race than I am. I'm a white northern 22-year-old teaching a class of African-American Southern students.

Not only do I look different than my little scholars, but I am often naive, and I fear insensitive, to the areas in which our cultural values and norms differ.  I fear our small differences are creating an even greater barrier between us.

There are the obvious moments, such as failing to understand their Southern accents and Delta vernacular when they ask questions. And there are superficial examples, like when one of my girls asks me to fix her braid or hair bow and I have to look to my black colleagues because I am entirely ignorant about how to fix my student's hair.

I can only imagine their parents shaking their heads when their daughters come home with a boring ponytail when she was sent out of the house with a beautiful variety of braids and bows. Although they seem minor, these moments have a tendency to build on each other. Without being kept in check, they can separate me from my students even further.

So what can I do to overcome these differences?

Time and experience is a great educator. But even with time, there will always be an overwhelming difference between my students and I. Right now, I know I can help bridge the differences between us by concentrating on our relationships.

I seek to learn more about my students and their community. Being interested and asking questions is worth so much. From there, I seek common ground—the place where relationships are formed. Sometimes, it can be as simple as "Tyrone do you like superhero movies?" "Yes!" "Cool, me too."

I do my best to educate them in a way that is relevant to their cultural and home life. For example, I try to teach standard English grammar and language in a way that builds on to my students' cultural vernacular, without condoning the way they've learned to speak at home.

I seek to be mindful of whose perspective my social studies lessons reflect, and do additional research when necessary to teach my students the basics of social studies from an accurate and diverse perspective. Finally, I allow conversations of race to come up. I am honest and open with my students in order to find an understanding, and maybe even some reconciliation.

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