Supporting Teachers in Urban Schools
By Deborah LaPierre
I met Marcel my first day teaching in Worcester. I had never taught in an urban school and was worried about making connections with students who had life experiences that were nothing like mine. Their family backgrounds, cultural identities, and values made me feel like a foreigner. Why should these students care what I as a white teacher had to say anyway?
I am a special education teacher, and so on the first day I began visiting classrooms, introducing myself to staff and students. Walking into one classroom, the first thing I noticed was a small, 4th grade boy wedged between the teacher’s desk and a bookcase. He was very busy fiddling with his shoe. The classroom teacher whispered to me, “I asked Marcel to come over and join the class. He said no.”
I went over and sat down nearby. We sat quietly for a minute or two and then Marcel said, “Hey, you’re one of the whitest white people I’ve ever seen!”
“Yeah, I guess I am pretty white. My name is Mrs. LaPierre.”
“Are you going to be working with me this year?’
“I hope so.”
“Ok. That’s cool I guess.”
We sat a few minutes longer. Marcel then finally decided to get up and join the rest of the class on the rug.
As I walked out of the room, I felt tremendous relief. In one of those, “kids say the darnedest things” moments, a fourth-grade boy reminded me that for young kids, skin color was just a way to describe how someone looks. Marcel was willing to give me a chance no matter what color I was. He reminded me that young kids aren’t worried about being politically correct.
Since I’ve met Marcel, I’ve been constantly looking for opportunities to build relationships with my students. Listening to them and answering their questions in an honest and upfront manner has helped me a lot to bridge cultural differences. Sharing my childhood educational experiences and acknowledging some of the advantages that I’ve had has given me a lot credibility with my middle schoolers. Often when I give voice to our obvious differences, it’s also an opportunity to learn about our similarities. Middle school students are starting to filter what they are comfortable talking about and my students know that they can ask me anything and I will give them an honest answer.
While we unquestionably need more teachers of color in public schools, the reality is that the majority of teachers teaching in urban schools are white. I believe there are several things that would help white teachers working in urban settings. One that has helped me tremendously is the SEED project, Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. For two years, I attended monthly seminars run by a SEED-trained ELL teacher from my school. SEED gave our group of volunteer teachers a unique opportunity to explore our cultural identities and how to better integrate culturally-relevant curriculum into our teaching. I also learned a lot from a series of workshops on trauma-informed care held at my school. By focusing on student behavior through the lens of trauma and realizing that all behavior has a cause, I better understand the impact socioeconomic factors have on many students in urban settings.
If all teachers are to succeed in urban settings, we need to start preparing them before they set foot in the classroom. Teacher preparation programs need to include courses that focus on building school culture and respecting and promoting cultural diversity. And teacher practicum programs should require some hours of observation and student teaching in an urban school so that new teachers are better prepared for the impact of cultural diversity.
Marcel is now in 7th grade. Our conversations have changed over the years. We still talk about me being a “white chick,” and he has also taught me a lot about what it’s like to be a black teenager. We have learned to appreciate our differences. We also see ways in which we are the same. I hope that every teacher can experience this kind of relationship with a student. It has certainly helped me to be a successful teacher in an urban school.
Deborah LaPierre is a 6th, 7th, and 8th grade special education teacher at Seven Hills Charter Public School in Worcester. She is a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow.