I have a confession to make. I had a belief/assumption going into this teaching endeavor that turned out to be untrue-for the most part anyway. For reasons right or wrong, I assumed that being a male was going to be an advantage in my classroom. I thought that since many of my students grew up without positive male role models in their lives that the mere presence of me would help them in some way. I could not possibly pinpoint why I thought this or HOW this gendered presence would be an advantage. I simply thought that it would be.
Fast forward through two short months in the classroom and I have to come to see myself differently than I ever thought I would. Or rather, I have come to see myself through the lens of many of my students. They see me in three layers that all build upon one another. I preface this by saying that not ALL the students see me this way, but plenty do. They see me first as white. Second as a male and third as a teacher. To break this down further, I have to look at each layer.
White. I had no idea-and I bring forth my naivete in all its glory here-that students would be so visceral in their hate of white people-gender entirely aside. They are distrustful, rude, and often unwilling to listen to ANY white authority figure in the school. How they came to this notion is kind of unclear to me. It may be a learned behavior since it does not seem that they have had many interactions at all with white folks in their young lives. Like so many other types of intolerance, it may simply be a function of lack of familiarity. It may also be a function of hearing negative things and absorbing negative imagery within their families and within the African-American community about us white folks.
Male. I erroneously thought that since many of the students lack positive male stability in their lives that my presence would be immediately positive. My feeling was that my gender might help bring some light (surely no pun intended here) to their female-dominated lives. It would provide perspective, depth and a new feeling among them that men could be trusted adults, people worthy of sharing and developing with as young teenagers. But since I am seen as white first, the gender is secondary. To watch the same exact teacher/student interaction in my school between a white male teacher and student and an African-American male teacher and student is enough to make my heart scream-in equal parts anger and jealousy.
Teacher. I believe that teachers are seen as one step above police officers in the mental hierarchy of the students. We are fighting for the bottom wrung on the totem pole. Teachers are seen as authority figures who have the power to put students into positions that are viewed as unjust and unfair. While there is no validity to this claim in a rational and philosophical way, it still persists. I know from my own experiences that teachers were not highly regarded professionals-mostly because they had power and access to my parents to get me into trouble. While this feeling obviously subsided with increased age and intelligence. it still remains nonetheless for a current generation of students looking to do as little as possible and NOT get into trouble at the same time.
All this being said, I recognize that I operate in the netherworld of “most hated.” And that is fine with me. To be honest, it almost excites me. It gives me the rare opportunity to change and expand minds. Content area totally aside, I see this as an opportunity to let these students know that being white, male, and a teacher can be a good thing for them to come into contact with. I can be a white person that turns their visceral hate into more positive feelings. I can be a male that gives them a trusted ear, a sense of caring and a stable presence. And lastly, I can be a teacher that helps them understand the stake they have in their own successful futures by empowering them through their education.