In my educational experience, most of my teachers looked and sounded like me and came from similar backgrounds. I never once had to consider whether I would see people like myself represented in the texts I read. And for a long time, with an uncritical lens, I took it for granted that other students had the same experience.
This year, I’m back in the classroom with a grade nine destreamed English class as one of my assignments. I have taught grade nine only twice before, so I suppose, to put a positive spin on things, I have very few preconceived notions about how a grade nine “academic” class differs from a grade nine “applied” class.
I’ll focus on the “destreaming” part of things a bit later because this post is about me struggling with how to do a good job with culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy as a white woman. Not just a white woman, but let’s look at all my other privileges: I’m white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, neuro-typical, and middle-class. I have often felt, and continue to feel uncomfortable when discussing issues of race in the classroom, and I feel like it’s time to interrogate why I feel that way, and why I think it’s my responsibility to do it anyway.
Why I Feel Uncomfortable (an inexhaustive list)
- I’m worried I’ll sound ignorant
- I’m worried I’ll hurt a student’s feelings
- I’m worried I’ll make a student feel uncomfortable
- I’m worried I will say the wrong thing
- I’m worried I won’t have the answers students need
- I’m worried that a student who holds racist views (consciously or unconsciously) will express those views in my classroom and I won’t know how to respond and that will hurt some of my students.
Here’s what I notice when I look at that list: some of these worries come from a place of concern for my students. Some of these worries come from a place of concern about how I’ll be perceived.
Let’s deal with concern about how I’ll be perceived first. If we accept that students have a right to see themselves reflected in texts we teach in the English classroom–and I do believe this–and many of these texts are going to deal with issues of race, sexuality, and gender identity, then avoiding these topics because it makes me feel uncomfortable is centering myself. This shouldn’t be about me; it’s about doing right by the students. That’s pretty straightforward. So my solution will be building those relationships with students, being transparent with them, and letting them know that if and when I make mistakes I will work hard on correcting them.
Concern number two: I’m worried about hurting my students. If, again, I believe that students have a right to see themselves reflected in the texts we teach in the English classroom, then I can’t do that without acknowledging the struggles and issues that students from those diverse communities face–ones that are expressed and explored in YA novels by BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ authors. The alternative seems to be finding texts by diverse authors that don’t depict trauma or depict them in ways that are clearly fantasy. But doing so doesn’t change the fact that these issues still exist for these young people. And what better place than fiction to allow students to explore ways to deal with the very real issues they and their friends might be facing? What better place than fiction to give students some insight into the struggles of others? So my conclusion here is that avoiding difficult topics doesn’t make them go away, and if the alternative is not to discuss them at all or wait for someone else more qualified to do it, I could be doing more harm to my students than good.
I am doing my best. I am muddling through. I’m going to make mistakes.