#Intentional: Race, Education, and Motive for Learning… A Reflection

So John Hopkins did a study.  I like it when they do; they’re very good at this sort of thing in the educational realm.  In this study, they looked at black children, grades 3 – 5 and who taught them.  They discovered that for low income black students, having at least one black teacher helped those students achieve.

Then they took it a step further. What if, having that one teacher and perhaps another in the upper grades into middle and high school, motivated the low income students to work even harder and perhaps consider college?  The ongoing research suggests yes, it does help.

Some look at this study as some sort of slap in the face of non black teachers, but should we?  From a purely racial point of view, yes, one could say, there’s a particular bias on the part of the student for or against the person teaching them and vice versa. After all, we respond to the people who understand who we are as people, correct?  I know, back in the “way back” (I’m old enough to say that, thank you), I had white teachers starting out in kindergarten through second grade. It was an ok experience; I was smart, motivated by parents with college degrees who had no problem “assisting” those teachers make me a better learner.

Third grade, though, enter Ms. Ward.  She happened to be a friend of my parents, so that was a strike against me as far as acting a butt was concerned, but there was something different about her period.  She approached our learning as something more than being able to write neatly or knowing our math facts and being able to read.  She took us on journeys in education that I simply don’t recall having before that.

It got better and better for me.  Mrs. Gunn, Mrs. Foster, Mr. Morgan (who totally turned me on to science!), and on and on.  There was a fierceness and aggressiveness in their need for us to learn that I simply didn’t get from the majority of my non black teachers. (Mr. Pikul in junior year chemistry is the stand out exception to that.  If Mr. Morgan hadn’t laid the foundation, however, would Mr. Pikul’s push have mattered?)

What was going on there?

Perhaps privilege along with bias plays a part in it all.  Remembering our history as a people in America, there was always an assumption that white children would be educated, even if just enough to function in the world.  Black children weren’t afforded that privilege during the years of slavery.  Even after slavery, with Jim Crow laws and the Industrial Revolution, the HOW and WHY of educating children was different for whites vs blacks.  Whites learned, again, in the assembly line, tracking method, preparing the majority for labor jobs and the “cream of the crop” for management positions.  Just a basic, ‘education for educations sake” mentality about it all.

Blacks, in segregated schools were taught to survive, to learn as much as possible because although most things were denied us, what we KNOW could never be taken from us.  What we learned meant we could use to improve the race.  It was to be taken seriously.

After desegregation, white teachers with black and brown students had a bit of bias about it all. After all, we weren’t “smart enough” for the assembly line and certainly not for management positions, so a third and sometimes a fourth track was added, shoving many of our children (especially the boys) into special education, even when it wasn’t warranted.  It went on for decades.  Those of us who had black teachers recognized that we could be more than factory workers, look at our teachers!  They knew we could be more and told us daily, pushing us quietly toward our destinies.

Move forward to the 21st century.  A lot of blacks aren’t going into teaching for all sorts of reasons.  The pay sucks, the blatant disrespect of our intellect, the workload is horrific and besides, we’re too educated for “this”. It’s all good, we can be engineers, doctors, lawyers, and business tycoons too.  For those of us that either moved to education from private industry (like me) or made the conscious choice to be teachers, we recognize our role as paramount to keeping the momentum strong.  The school to prison pipeline was created… for US.  We teachers refuse to participate in that bullshit.

So, we fight for our children in the classroom.  I personally, fight for ALL of them: white, black, hispanic and asian. In the current education and political climate, I KNOW who the enemy is and what agenda and outcome they want.  I resist it. We all should.

White teachers, Hispanic teachers, Asian teachers, Black teachers.  We all have to tell the children, daily, that they ARE special and CAN learn and guide them as they fight to do more than survive.  We have to help them determine their gifts and skill sets and hone them until they are so sharp, simply looking at them draws blood.  We need to take the time to KNOW OUR CHARGES so we can be that still, small voice that helps them overcome all the crap in their lives.

Low income whites are discovering that having “just enough education” isn’t working for them anymore.  Case in point: I had a white male student last year who was great at math and loved tinkering.  I suggested to him he might want to become an engineer. “Nawh, Pops already told me he’s got a gig for me at the factory when I graduate.” I suggested more forcefully that maybe he could work at the factory but go to the local college part time at night and work on at least an Associates degree in engineering.  He lit up at the idea.  So much going on in his life thought.  He was expelled this school year for a series of fights he go into during the first semester.  I hope he comes back.  I hope he looks into going to college, I hope SOMEONE (other than his father) pushes him a little.  I hope.

Low income blacks have known this particular struggle for more than a century.  As teachers, we MUST love them into successful lives.  Teach them not just reading, writing and arithmetic; not only critical thinking skills and problem solving, but to love themselves enough to WANT more. To model intrinsic motivation, to push them, to give them a reason, years from now, when things seem hopeless to say… “wait, Mrs. Stone would kick my ass if I gave up now, let me keep pushing.”.

It’s the intentional thing to do, in a very intentional world.  Let’s do this.. for all the babies.  Check out this video on the topic:

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