5 False Assumptions About Teaching Students of Color

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By Richard L. Curwin

5 False Assumptions About Teaching Students of ColorI was more nervous than I’d ever been since I started public speaking 25 years previously. Here I was, a white professor in front of a large group of all black mothers in an Oakland, California school cafeteria, overdressed and overwhelmed. I kept wondering, “What do I know about the lives of people so different from me?” That was one of my first false assumptions about parents of color. As one wonderful mother said to me when I tried to explain my discomfort, “We don’t care what you look like, what you wear, or anything else. If you can help us be better parents, we will love you.” I learned very emphatically that superficial trappings of race mean little to mothers who love their children. I was more worried about myself and the success of my presentation than about those who came to learn from me.

The recent tension that has been exposed about racism has raised a lot of issues that need to be considered. One is that white folks cannot understand what it is like to grow up black and therefore must be careful not to assume they understand the “black experience.” There is some truth to this assumption. My experience in Oakland was due to my feelings of inadequacy over speaking to people whose life experiences were different from mine. However, white people or people of any race must speak out against explicit or implicit racism. Racism is evil and we must all stand together against it, if it is to end.

In schools I’ve noticed false assumptions about children of color, which all relate more to how the teachers feel about the quality of their teaching instead of the quality of their students’ learning. Here are the five myths that bother me the most:

1. “You have to be mean, strict, and very tough with them because that’s all they know.”

Actually, the reverse is true. A teacher acts tough not because that’s all his or her students know. It’s because that’s all the teacher knows. Great teachers lift students out of the poverty of ideas and behaviors by teaching them better ways to solve problems and meet needs. Great teachers are role models for those children who have less-than-perfect role models at home. With so many black and brown communities torn apart by the criminal justice system, teachers can be a stabilizing figure by modeling better ways to succeed.

2. “These students need very high structure because they have so little structure at home.”

All children need structure. But when a structure stifles ideas, reduces thinking, promotes negative self-image, or keeps children in line rather than encouraging them to explore options, then that structure is too rigid for the classroom. Students need to know the rules and accept the consequences when they break the rules. They also need to know the structure of the lesson — what will be learned in what way. What students don’t need is having their teacher read them lesson scripts, being at a certain place in the lesson at a certain time, and not being allowed to question or think beyond what the curriculum allows.

Clear values and behavioral rules were present in the schools I’ve visited that are best at reaching their minority students. Teachers started their lessons by explaining what the class was going to do and what the students will have learned at the end of the lesson. These schools offered individualized lessons whenever possible.

3. “If they don’t want to learn, that’s their problem, not mine.”

This attitude might be perfect for a gas station attendant or car salesperson, but it’s a dangerous myth for a teacher. My experience in Oakland was powerful, but it wasn’t the only time that I’ve learned this simple truth: It doesn’t matter what we teach, only what they learn. If students aren’t learning something, then their teacher is responsible for finding new ways to teach it.

In my life, as you probably can relate to, I had too many teachers who cared more about their lessons than if they helped me learn. A teacher once said to me, “I covered that in class.” I felt, “True, but not in a way I could understand.”

4. “I have students who do their work, and they shouldn’t be shortchanged by those who don’t.”

I must have said thousands of times, “Schools are not just for good kids, but for all kids.” Teachers have neither the right nor the responsibility to decide who deserves their attention. Every student, regardless of his or her behavior, has the right to learn. I sometimes think that the “good” students will succeed in spite of us, and the “poor” students will succeed because of us. And, except in rare cases, we don’t get to choose our students. Great lesson design can accommodate them all.

5. “What difference can I make? I only have them for a short time every day.”

No student can learn without hope. Academic hope comes from believing that what you learn will make your life better than it is now. For some socially disadvantaged students, hope is in short supply. It doesn’t matter if we have a student for a day, an hour, or ten minutes. Inspiration and hope come from unlikely places.

Maybe, to that child, your ten minutes represents the best time of his or her life. Your only real choice is teaching as if you’re making a difference—because hopefully you are. Students of color come from a variety of experiences, cultures, and homes. All general classifications about them are wrong. No generic characteristics that we assign to an entire group will ever describe any.

Do you have any myths to add to this list? Please share them in the comments section below.  

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Richard L. Curwin is an experienced education practitioner whose work explores issues of student discipline, motivation, behavior, and classroom management. He is currently the director of the master’s program in behavior disorder at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and has shared his behavior management strategies with educators and parents across the world. His books include Affirmative Classroom Management: How do I develop effective rules and consequences in my school?, Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools, and Discipline With Dignity: New Problems, New Solutions, 3rd Edition, all published by ASCD.

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