The latest data shows that slightly less than 50% of America’s students are white, while the percentage of white teachers, though slowly trending downward, remains near 80% (USDOE). Combine these numbers with the reality that our schools are more segregated now than they have been in decades, and that means that my situation is far more common than we may be willing to admit; a white teacher teaching at a majority non-white school.
It is worth noting that a majority non-white school does not necessarily indicate a segregation problem. My school is roughly 35% white, 35% black, and 15% Hispanic. We have about as diverse a student body as anyone could hope for. But our diversity is a distinctive of our lower middle class community (What It Means That My School Embraces Cultural Diversity). If you go east away from the city, property values rise, and the schools have higher concentrations of white students. If you go west toward the city, property values decrease, and the schools have higher concentrations of students of color.
I am in my 6th year of teaching, and I have only taught at one school. My perspective on what it means to be a white teacher is very much shaped by (if not limited to) my experience at my school. But at this particular stage of my career, I am beginning to wonder. What kind of school allows me to have the most effective and authentic impact as a white teacher?
I am almost certain, for instance, that my effectiveness would decrease (Hechinger Report), even if slightly, if I transitioned to teaching at an urban school with a high percentage of black or brown students. Don’t get me wrong. I place high value on cultural competency and culturally responsive teaching, and believe that equipping white teachers with these skills is the number one thing we can do to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline. But even a culturally competent white teacher can easily fall into the trap of believing themselves to be the “white savior” who offers students of color “a way out.”
What kind of school allows me to have the most effective and authentic impact as a white teacher?
I do not believe that white teachers should flee large city school districts en masse. White teachers in urban centers should hold their ground, prioritize their self-care, get involved in their local union/association, and read Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and Chris Emdin’s “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too.” Perhaps most importantly, white teachers in majority non-white schools should defer to but not lean on their colleagues of color when relating individually to non-white students (Rethinking Schools).
My real quandary is this, what would happen to my effectiveness if I were to teach at an almost all white suburban or rural school? I have long had disdain for this idea, but mostly for selfish reasons. I do not have any particular interest or perceived personal benefit in teaching at a mostly white affluent school. Higher pay perhaps? More rigor? Ease of classroom management? Ultimately, these are not my career priorities.
But would teaching at a mostly white suburban school afford me more opportunity to do what white teachers do best; challenge other white teachers, and white students alike, to think critically about race, class, and the injustices/privileges that stem from the intersection of these socially constructed categories? Or perhaps would this so called “opportunity” instead result in conflict, controversy, and my potential removal?
I currently don’t have the answers. I am just trying to come up with better and better questions.