For today, I’m reflecting on a series of students I taught when they were first graders. I spent 6 years teaching first graders after a decade with fourth and fifth graders. First graders are wildly different from who they become several years later. As a result, there were experiences I had in first grade that I had not encountered with older students.
I taught, then, in a school that was extremely diverse. Last year’s demographics, according to our county website, were:
- Asian = 17%
- Black = 15%
- Latino = 56%
- White = 10%
- Other = 2%
Many of our students were first- or second-generation immigrants. Most spoke at least one language other than English. Some two or three other languages. It was a rich cultural experience to be in that school.
Our faculty, not surprisingly, was nowhere near as diverse. We were overwhelmingly white women.
The children I am thinking of today are all girls and all of them are Black. For several years I had one Black girl each year who challenged me. They fit a stereotype of the Angry Black Girl.
The first year I didn’t notice it. There are always challenging students for a wide variety of reasons. I worked to get to know this girl and her family, to build relationships with them. It wasn’t an easy year but it was a good one.
The next year it happened again. I still didn’t really notice and approached the situation as I would with any student. Get to know them. Build relationships. Offer choices. Keep the academic challenges high with necessary supports. Again, a good year, on the whole.
By the time I hit the third year in a row with a Black girl who seemed, to me, to be angry and unhappy at school, I finally had to take a step back. I finally saw a pattern.
Look again at the statistics above. Black students are about 15% of the school’s population. In a class of 20 students, that means one or two will be Black. That meant my only, or one of very few, Black students was standing out in a less than positive way.
What was I doing? How was I contributing to these girls’ challenges? Was it something in my perception and expectations of them that set them up for this? What was I not doing to make them feel safe? Accepted? Believed in? To be totally honest, I’m still not certain. I am certain that I was a critical factor for these children. That my beliefs and actions were impacting them in ways I didn’t see.
I’d love to know what those girls are doing now. They are in high school. If their future teachers did a better job than I of seeing them and all their strengths, they will be soaring. If their future teachers didn’t, they may still be soaring but it would be in spite of their schooling.
Those girls helped me look more deeply at my own biases. At the expectations I had for all of my students. They made me more aware of how much I need to analyze and be conscious of my perceptions. They taught me some critical lessons.