Diary of a First-Year Teacher: My Race Matters in the Delta

A 22-year-old rookie teacher shares what it’s like to be a fish out of water in the Mississippi Delta.
It's tough for this rookie teacher to be accepted in the Mississippi Delta. (Photo: Jeffrey Coolidge)
Apr 29, 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.

Although I maintain that humility, kindness, and time can overcome most cultural divides, I have definitely hit a wall in some of my interactions with parents.

To be fair to both parties, there are a lot of cultural barriers that divide me and the community where I teach. There’s race—I’m a white teacher in a black community. Also, culture—I’m an urbanite in a small, small town. And economics—I’ve grown up middle class, and I teach in a poverty-stricken region.

Before getting to know one another, my race carried a lot of implications in the school community. Despite my best efforts, I too had assumptions about the parents of my students. I have come into a region that is still largely segregated and polarized.

The assumption in the Delta is that wealth defines you. If you are white, you are rich. If you are black, you are poor. While there are exceptions, this stereotype still exists.

For many of the parents, the color of my skin said a lot about me. On the flip side, by only hearing from a select group of parents, I often find myself critical of the parenting styles and amount of parent involvement in my students’ lives. I know their statistics, but I rarely get to hear their stories.

I came into the year so excited to share my perspectives and life experiences with my students. I strongly believed in teaching them from my story, and I thought their families would be excited to hear from someone new. I thought if I had a teacher who had grown up on the opposite side of the country, I would have loved hearing her point of view.

However, one of the most cherished values of the Delta is tradition and community. Despite well-intentioned motives, my enthusiasm for new perspectives was not well received by all. Certainly some parents love to learn more about me, but for the most part, they are baffled by why I am in their community. They wonder what’s in it for me and what a white northerner is doing teaching their kids.

Even after nine months of living here, I am not comfortable enough to jump into the community with both feet.

I have had no outright attacks or altercations. After all, this is the South, the home of the sometimes passive-aggressive “Bless their heart!” However, this sentiment is evident through my interactions and hush-hush conversations in the checkout line at Walmart about teachers like myself.

I would love to say I have overcome this trend and won over the hearts of my students’ parents by being a regular at community events and maintaining open and frequent communication with them. But, this is not the case. I am still a bit shell-shocked in my new environment, and even after nine months of living here, I am not comfortable enough to jump into the community with both feet.

However, I’ve made gains in building parent trust through humility, kindness, and expressing concern over our area of overlap—their children. It takes time to build trust, but that’s where I have found I can get parents on my side. They still may wonder about me, but as long as they trust me, we’ve got something to work with.

Show Comments ()

More on TakePart

Following the Bees, Weather, and Waterways That U.S. Produce Needs to Thrive