education station

The Trouble with Teaching

Note: This is a piece on a sensitive aspect of my teaching career. Although currently I live in an area that’s predominantly monocultural, I’ve worked for a school board that has a very diverse population. It was at the top of my mind when I began writing.

Teacher at Chalkboard

It took time for me to fall for teaching, but once I did, I was committed. Sadly, though, the profession that I loved didn’t seem to love me back. I spent the majority of my career working as a substitute teacher. Slowly but surely I noticed a pattern related to those who worked long-term in various schools. Stories of nepotism were popular, but something else was going on.

I’ve seen the occasional article claiming that boards with diverse populations are making an effort to include more non-white teachers in their schools. But I am not a fool. Teaching isn’t a profession with a high turnover rate. It’s true that new teachers may give up when faced with challenging circumstances. However the majority of staff at any given school are established professionals. And from what I’ve seen of said professionals, most are white. My concern is that in spite of the occasional hire, diversity in the teaching profession remains primarily a discussion. Little action has actually occurred to provide diverse students with instructors who reflect their cultures.

I should have caught the hint that people might object to me being an educator after I first left teachers’ college. Back then I’d heard an odd rumour: A classmate had said I wasn’t “cut out” to be a teacher. At first, I naively thought she was right. Teaching isn’t for the faint of heart. The transition into the profession involves a disturbingly steep learning curve, and a life change arguably as drastic as the arrival of a child. Eventually, though, I wondered what my colleague had meant. What was it that made her suited to a teaching job over me?

This essay doesn’t show it, but I know that I tend to be more exuberant than your average citizen. For a moment I wondered if her doubts were related to my personality. However, let’s be realistic. Just because someone has a cheerful disposition, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be an awful educator. Over time, as I thought about my classmate’s statement, reality dawned on me: People of colour are streamed and steered out of professions all the time. And what of those who resist the tide? From architects to doctors, folks just can’t seem to envision Black people in positions that command respect. Should I really be that surprised that someone didn’t think I was equipped to share knowledge with others?

“But Claire,” you say,”You worked as a substitute teacher. That’s more than most people!” True. But let’s take a closer look at the types of “opportunities” I was given. During the rare occasions when I received assignments lasting longer than a day, I noticed a trend.

For example—I once worked for an entire term, full-time. Great, right?

Not so fast.

In a landscape where solid teaching jobs are as plentiful as literate internet trolls, that may sound good. But let me share a bit more about what I was up against. I had three classes. Each involved a different subject—English, World Religions, and Civics/Careers. Yet I was only qualified to teach one of them. Therefore, I didn’t know the other two subjects.

And again, I hear you. I know I was supposed to play catch up and properly prepare for my other two classes. But if you know what the pace of a full-time teaching job is like, you’ll understand me when I see your,”Claire, PREPARE!!” and offer up a big, fat, “WHEN?!?”

To top it all off, the students in the class involving my terra firma—English—were challenging. By that, I don’t mean that they had intellectual difficulties and I was ill-equipped to accommodate them. I have training in special education. When I say “challenging” I’m referring to their behaviour. My students were disrespectful and often downright hostile to me on a daily basis. In return, I was constantly stressed and terrified. I barely got any teaching done. Between my workload and my kids’ behaviour, I felt it was a wonder I made it through the semester.

Adding insult to injury, their behaviour left me second-guessing myself. You know those moments when someone’s so rude that you wonder if you dreamed it? That was me for several weeks, until one day it happened: I received confirmation that I wasn’t losing my mind. Back then I’d built a rapport with one of the non-teaching staff, a safety monitor whom I’ll call “Tony”. Tony told me flat-out that my English class contained “the worst” students in the school. Admittedly, it’s horrible to label students. But there needs to be room to be honest about young people’s conduct. Leaving and entering the room without permission isn’t kind. Incessant heckling isn’t kind. Snapping at both your teacher and your fellow students isn’t kind. I think it’s disturbing that administrators would deliberately put their rudest students in a single class and then assign them to a new teacher.

I wondered what the point of it all was. I used to wrack my brain to understand why I might have received this kind of assignment. Earlier this year I felt some relief when I learned about Through Our Eyes. It’s a report filled with insights from Black teachers in America, and it mentioned something that caught my eye.

Teachers have indicated that being labeled as the disciplinarian meant that their colleagues and administrators believed they could only teach the troublesome or lower performing students.

Looking back on my career, I wondered: Is that why I’d been hired? Had I been cast in the role of “disciplinarian”—a ball-buster who would whip tough students into shape? Considering this class wasn’t my only assignment featuring aggressive students, the thought had crossed my mind.

Somehow, here, I feel like I ought to justify myself by discussing my background. I already mentioned my sunny ways. Let me also share that thanks to my parents (one of whom was a teacher) I could read before I went to school. Once I started, I spent my elementary years in private institutions, and then attended one of my area’s academically-focused high-schools.

And reading that, I realize how spoiled I must sound. I can assure you that I wasn’t. My point was to help you understand that I don’t fit whatever stereotype I fear my colleagues and superiors may have expected. Rather, I’m someone who’s used to a certain amount of readin’, writin’ and–God help my math-phobic self–arithmetic.

Overall, when I went to school, the expectation was that students would behave.

To this day, I wonder if school administrators truly understand that Black teachers are qualified professionals, every bit as intellectually competent as their white counterparts.

So again, the question remained: Was I given antagonistic students on purpose? Were administrators patting themselves on the back for hiring me, a “token” Black teacher? And how wonderful was it for them, when they knowingly gave me such unkind kids?

It horrified me to consider the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been sabotaged. But eventually I learned that my experience wasn’t that far out of the ordinary. Earlier this year Bee Quammie wrote an article entitled Are Diverse Hosts…Set Up to Fail? . In it, she discussed something called the Glass Cliff phenomenon as it relates to the firing of certain Black media hosts. Ms. Quammie explains that the idea of the Glass Cliff

was developed by Dr. Michelle Ryan and Professor Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter, and looks at the idea that women and other minority groups are more likely to be appointed to high-profile positions with a higher risk of criticism and failure.

In my experience as a Black teacher, I found it hard not to believe that I was purposely given difficult assignments. Also, keep in mind that in a classroom, students’ behaviour and their academic level tend to go hand in hand. I once asked myself, “Do they [administrators] realize that I’m capable of supporting intellectual students?” I took Honours English when I was in school, and have the same degrees as everyone else who applies to be a teacher. Yet the fact that my students were both underperforming and badly-behaving spoke volumes to me. As a new teacher, the stress of the situation stung. Who would want to attempt to continue in a field that left them feeling raw and weary?

In hindsight I know the onus was on me to be able to help my students. However that would have been easier as a new teacher if I had access to my own resources. I remember a vice principal spoke to a colleague of mine on my behalf. This woman was in charge of coordinating the school’s educational assistants. My VP’s request was simple: Could I be assigned one? In reply, my coworker’s “No,” came so fast it nearly knocked me over.  I knew that personnel were limited. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if she got some sort of joy out of inconveniencing me.

How effective can a teacher be when she or he is constantly stressed? And what if the source of that stress is his or her students? That sort of circumstance can be tantamount to an abusive relationship.

Placing Black teachers with badly behaving teens and offering no support via administration or an EA sends a very negative message. It suggests we are incapable of supporting academic excellence. It also suggest that we deserve professional hardships. Meanwhile, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the days when I was trying to get hired, it was hard not to take my unemployment personally. Until I caught on, I thought something was wrong with me. Yet for teachers of colour there’s an added obstacle to entering the system. Over the years I’ve dealt with people (well-meaning) relatives and family friends who believed my lack of a job had something to do with my Blackness—specifically my hair texture. Surely “they” would hire me if only I wasn’t natural. (This is a sentiment that’s sent my way to this day.) If this seems too far-fetched to you as reasons for unemployment go, read on. Although it’s 2016, certain employers still believe that a woman wearing natural hair deserves to be discriminated against. For our southern neighbours who wear locs, the law is not on their side

Thankfully I don’t take objections to my hair seriously. To me it isn’t a problem. However, I believed another more obvious aspect of my identity was. Over and over again I couldn’t help but notice the demographic of the majority of those who worked in schools on a permanent basis: white women. Here, to clarify, I have no problem with Caucasian women being employed. But as a Black woman, it’s been hard not to recognize that I’m the polar opposite of my profession’s norm. In that sense, as I think about hiring trends, a part of me wonders if there’s a point in my being upset. When it comes to looking for someone to hire, it’s clear to me that I’m not on administrators’ radar.

As an industry, education hasn’t always been welcoming to new professionals. In writing this, I hope that school principals will begin to look at how teachers of colour are treated once hired—if they are hired at all. Whether we work temporarily or not, teachers of colour see who’s working permanently. Currently, the odds are stacked against us.

People who would make excellent educators are losing interest in their dream profession. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to want to find a space in a field where you’re not welcome. The past few months’ news has featured incidents of prejudice both in and outside of the classroom.   These, combined with the law suit against the York Region school board  haven’t come as a surprise to me.  Current staff ought to be trained to appreciate diversity. However beyond that, people of colour should be given fair consideration when the time comes to hire teachers for permanent positions. We have as much of a right to be at the front of a classroom as everyone else.

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