Race in the Classroom

The tragic events of last week have brought the topics of race and racial bias to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. In this post, Zach Rozell, Director of Operations for iteach, shares his perspective about race in the classroom:

In the school where I taught, 52.9% of the student population was Hispanic, comprising the largest segment of the student body. The typical school within the district was made up of 32.7% Hispanic students, thus giving my campus a drastically different ethnic distribution compared to other schools within the city. The next largest demographic was African-American students. Almost 70% of the student body was eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The student population was prominently poor minority students.

As a teacher, I would overhear comments from the community about “those students” and “that school.” I do not think these comments were intended maliciously, but they were detrimental to the children in my classes. To me, these comments conveyed a lack of community investment in the success of my students. Otherwise, why didn’t the community believe that “those students” were actually “our students”? Further, the remarks suggested collectively low expectations for student performance at my school, by setting my school apart from others.

I refused to allow these low expectations to permeate my classroom. Instead, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status, I would set high standards and encourage my students to believe they could achieve them.

Unfortunately, some teachers have accepted the lie that they are simply a warm body in the classroom sent to control student behavior. In truth, managing student behavior is a precursor to learning—not a substitute for it.

As teachers, we must liberate our students from the bigotry of low expectations. Education can play an important role in reconciling the inequity of a broken world, but only if all students have access to the same quality of education, regardless of race. Failing this, a segregated and biased educational system will actually advance, rather than reverse, racial division and inequality in our country.

How can a teacher help to reverse decades of community prejudice against minority schools? For me, it began with taking ownership. The students in the class were all “my students,” and I served them with a commitment to “my school.” As an educator, do you believe that all of your students are able to learn and share your confidence with them? Students are remarkable perceptive of teachers’ expectations—good or bad.

Once I took ownership of my students and my school, I endeavored to genuinely love every child in my class, just as a parent loves his own kids. With some, this was easy. With others, it took effort! However, if you are a teacher or you want to teach, I challenge you to view students’ differences as assets, not hindrances, to learning.

As I teacher, I wasn’t perfect in my efforts. Some of my students far exceeded my expectations. Others continued to struggle in spite of my best intentions.

However, I believe that if we—as teachers and in our communities—viewed the children in our schools as our children, we would be less content to accept the idea of mediocre schools. When we stop thinking of kids who are different, or whose neighborhoods look different, as belonging to someone else, we can begin to make a positive impact in our schools.                                                                                   


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