Diary of a First-Year Teacher: The Trouble With Being White


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.

I teach children who are of a different culture and race than I am. I'm a white northern 22-year-old teaching a class of African American southern students.

Not only do I look different than my little scholars, but I am often naive, and I fear insensitive, to the areas in which our cultural values and norms differ.  I fear our small differences are creating an even greater barrier between us.

There are the obvious moments such as failing to understand their southern accents and Delta vernacular when they ask questions. And there are superficial examples like when one of my girls asks me to fix her braid or hair bow and I have to look to my black colleagues because I am entirely ignorant on how to fix my student's hair.

I can only imagine their parents shaking their heads when their daughters comes home with a boring ponytail when she was sent out of the house with a beautiful variety of braids and bows. Although they seem minor, these moments have a tendency to build on each other. Without being kept in check, they can separate my students and I even further.

So what can I do to overcome these differences?

Time and experience is a great educator. But even in time, there will always be an overwhelming difference between my students and I. Right now, I know I can help bridge the differences between us by concentrating on our relationships.

I seek to learn more about my students and their community. Being interested and asking questions is worth so much. From there, I seek common ground—the place where relationships are formed. Sometimes, it can be as simple as "Tyrone do you like superhero movies?" "Yes!" "Cool, me too."

I do my best to educate them in a way that is relevant to their cultural and home life. For example, I try to teach standard English grammar and language in a way that adds on to my students' cultural vernacular, without condoning the way they've learned to speak at home.

I seek to be mindful of whose perspective my social studies lessons reflect, and do additional research when necessary to teach my students the basics of social studies from an accurate and diverse perspectives. Finally, I allow conversations of race to come up. I am honest and open with my students in order to find an understanding, and maybe even some reconciliation.

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Finally, I’m Out of Survival Mode

• Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Racism Is Alive and Well for Kids in the Mississippi Delta

• Diary of a First-Year Teacher: A Key to Unlocking a Child’s Imagination