White Teachers and Cool Handshakes

Last week, I saw this video on Facebook from a black teacher in South Carolina. His name is Barry White Jr.  He worked out a handshake with each of his students that he does every day when they enter his class. I wasn’t the only person who saw it, and the Today Show said that 30 million people had watched it.

    Then the teacher in me was impressed.  I know how much smiles and relationships matter in class. I thought about my own methods of getting smiles at the door.  And even thought of my one generic handshake that is slightly different every time.  It usually involves a “walk the dog” moment like Jack Black in School of Rock, and an off-balance Heisman trophy pose that draws a laugh because students think it is just an awkward attempt at a dab. A Heisman pose should look nothing like a dab, but that speaks to my basic lack of coordination and “cool.”

    Then I thought about race. I thought about how statistically rare Mr. White’s classroom is in this country.  In America, we don’t have a lot of black teachers. Those students are experiencing a learning environment that research says is the most fruitful. My friend told me recently that there were only 28 black men to apply for licensure in PA in 2014.  Out of 5000.

    The wheels in my head spun and I thought, “Bet a white teacher does this soon.”

    I should have made that bet. Just a few days later, a white teacher in Kansas caught her own social media fame for the same thing. To be fair to that lady in Kansas, the reports are saying that she has done this for years and started getting attention because of the other video.  But also to be fair to every black person in history; you can bet on cultural appropriation. If you need just one of  the many examples of this, just run a google image search on “dreadlocks. (thanks to Questlove’s instagram for this little realization).

    I couldn’t help but think of my own students.  I am a white teacher and I landed my dream job 2 years ago. I work at my neighborhood high school.  I walk to work most mornings because the school is less than a mile from my house. But there is a noticeable, though not unique, dynamic at play in my neighborhood. According to the census says it is something like 60% white and 40% black.  The high school, however, is 90% black. White families, and many black families, are not sending their children to the neighborhood high school. White people have a long history in this country of avoiding black schools. In policy, in attendance, and in concern.

    For now though, I just want to start a discussion on white teachers in black classrooms. And this is where some of us get uncomfortable. Some might feel defensive or offensive, and others just stop reading for a myriad of other reasons, but it seems relevant and important because so many black and brown students are experiencing this. If it is uncomfortable for us to talk about, we have to imagine how our students are feeling everyday in classrooms where the teachers don’t look like them.  

    I’m sure I am guilty of making plenty of assumptions about this classroom dynamic, acting like I know things, and, as is the case with a lot of my teaching decisions, falling flat on my face with that feeling of failure and embarrassment. Even as I write this, I feel weary of my own words. To quote Adam, there is nothing “hackier” than white liberals with opinions right now.  Especially about race.  

    But we hoped this blog would be about discussion.  So here goes.

    A lot of us well-meaning white teachers fall into sub-conscious ideas of savior-dom and maternalistic tendencies. This manifests in a lot of ways, but I want to focus on the temptation to care more about hugs and feelings than student learning.  The handshakes by Barry White Jr., and the lady from Kansas, are an example of the important relational piece of teaching. Even the hugs and the feelings matter a lot. But that is not the only aspect of the work.  And too often in some settings, teachers see relational needs and spend most of their time trying to meet those. If we are not working toward the goal of making our students better, smarter, and more thoughtful, then we are probably doing them a disservice.

The trick is that care and relationship are an extremely important piece of that. But they can’t be the goal.  Or, more accurately, they can’t be the only goal. If our students are not growing academically in the time that we know them, we are not doing our job. Too often, teachers in black and brown schools get our work confused with other things. The primary goal must always be learning. We do our students a huge injustice when we clothe low expectations and diminished learning goals in any sentence that starts with, “But these students…” In other words, misplaced ideals and good-hearted intentions to help, can work as excuses for low expectations and lack of rigor. We use the “hierarchy of needs” to explain why we never get to real learning. Society hasn’t asked us to be parents, but to teach our students with excellence and hope.

    I could be wrong, and I’m sure it's an incomplete observation.  

    The questions of respect, dignity and learning are the ones that keep me up at night. It’s about handshakes, hugs, listening, and great lessons. Most days, I come up short.

-Jason