Why Kids of Color Don't Need ‘White Hero’ Teachers

Students from diverse backgrounds deserve more than educators with a ‘savior’ mentality.
(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
Apr 3, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a familiar trope, made popular in movies and best-selling memoirs: the idealistic, often white, occasionally affluent, burned-out young teacher who heroically struggles to educate “unteachable” black or Latino students in a failing urban public school.

And it drives Christopher Emdin, an African American educator who spent years teaching math and science in just such a school, to distraction.

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So he’s turned his frustration into a book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too, on what the idealists turned burnouts have gotten wrong—and why.

“I always say the first step is an acknowledgment or a recognition of the fact that you are in the classroom as an expert in content—math, science, reading—but you lack the expertise in so many domains,” said Emdin, who is now an associate professor in the department of mathematics, science, and technology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

This lack of expertise usually includes a misunderstanding of minority cultures, little knowledge about the roots of poverty or educational racism, and only a casual interest in exactly where their “rowdy” students are coming from, he said.

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“You’re a 24-year-old or a 35-year-old, [yet] you are part of a history that’s so much bigger than you,” Emdin said. “Unless you recognize that first, you will never be effective.”

Emdin’s book tackles the intersection of race and public education at a critical time: 2015 marked the first year that minority children outnumbered non-Hispanic whites in U.S. schools—and the first year that more than half of public school students qualified for free and reduced lunches.

Statistics show the teaching ranks are more than 80 percent white, and teachers of color are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, black and Latino public school students are more than twice as likely to attend underfunded, under-resourced, largely segregated schools, and integration with whites, even in gentrified areas, is more concept than reality.

At the same time, research shows that a white person teaching minority kids probably doesn’t have high expectations of them even before the first homework assignments or test sheets are handed in.

The big picture, then, becomes a dismal paradox: As economists predict most well-paying jobs in the near future will require at least an associate’s degree or certificate, minority kids are at risk of being stuck in a cycle of poverty that only a quality education can break.

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At the core of Emdin’s book is the “reality pedagogy” philosophy of urban eduation: meeting hardscrabble students where they are, understanding their cultural and emotional lives, and then tailoring the “magic” of teaching to engage them. It also means rejecting “white folks’ pedagogy”—the timeworn demand that students conform to white classroom culture.

“You might not know everything you need to know to teach them,” Emdin said of newly minted, new-to-the-’hood teachers who may not understand how whites used the education system to control or avoid African American communities, from slavery to the civil rights movement.

It’s unrealistic, however, to expect kids from poor neighborhoods in crumbling schools with metal detectors at the doors and bars on the windows to sit down and shut up like their peers in the suburbs, Emdin said. Teachers stuck in that mind-set, he added, doom themselves to failure along with the kids they might sincerely want to help but can’t seem to reach.

Exhibit A: The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City Classroom, a headline-grabbing memoir by Ed Boland, a former teacher who now works at an education policy think tank.

In 2008, Boland traded his well-paying job to get inside the classroom, taking a job teaching in one of the Big Apple’s toughest schools. Filled with shocking examples of poverty, disrespect for learning, and contempt for his authority, the book centers on how his inability to transform his students—or even get them to behave for five minutes—is a microcosm of systemic dysfunction.

To Emdin, however, the situation Boland faced is an opportunity for teachers to embrace the challenge and the essence of teaching: using rap to teach math, for example, or phrases from basketball or pop culture to demonstrate an academic concept. His ultimate vision: a school that feels like home to young black and Latino students.

“I can see it. I’ve seen slices of it in places I’ve visited all across this country,” said Emdin, speaking with the passion of a preacher and the cadence of a slam poet. “Teaching the teacher how to teach better. A community fully invested in the classroom. A [neighborhood] pizza shop with grades posted in the corner. It sounds like hip-hop in the hallways. Kids taking Advanced Placement classes and succeeding. Kids not being harassed by the police because of how they’re dressed.”

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Ultimately, said Emdin, successful teaching in such an environment feels like an explosive, crowd-on-its-feet fast-break in basketball. Improvisation and energy meet discipline and rigor, toward a singular goal: scoring at the end of the play.

“It’s not about just going down the court and putting the basketball in the hoop,” Emdin said. “But if you do it with joy, pizazz, energy, and love—if you do it in that magical way, it makes the game better.”

In urban education, he said, “The whole damn thing’s got to change. I’m not going to stop this work until it changes.”