Teaching at a Racially Divided School

A slicer encouraged us to post stories about race…

When I was in my 20’s, I taught briefly at a racially divided school in an impoverished town in Delaware.  It was November of 1985, and I was the third reading teacher to be hired that term to work with middle school students.  The first two teachers had quit.  I should have known that the situation would be problematic and over my head, but I was idealistic then, and I hoped to be an inspiring, caring teacher for kids who might not otherwise get good attention.

In my classroom, the kids regularly fought – white against black, black against white.  Neither race made up a majority.  I tried to do lessons that would engage the students in thoughtful conversation, but they were more accustomed to doing worksheets, one after another, with little interaction or processing. During lessons, when I called on a student, I would be interrupted by the shout, “You called on him because he is white!” and “You’re picking on him because he’s black!”  I couldn’t win, and I was exasperated by the disorder and disrespect.

Once, there was a fight in the hallway between a white student and a black one, both of whom were bigger than I, as they had stayed back in previous years.  Trying to break up the fight, I was slammed against the lockers.  The onlooking students cheered.  Eventually, the fight broke up, but I don’t remember how.  I do, however, recall the moment of being humiliated and out of control of the situation.

I had great difficulty teaching at that school, not because the kids were white or black, but because their prejudice against each other ran so deep.  (In contrast, I had already taught successfully four years at a prestigious private school, and that was much, much easier.) Unfortunately, I learned that I could not teach any students at any school, as I had hoped.  After a number of months, I quit that job, leaving room for a fourth reading teacher to fill my place that year.  I couldn’t overcome the hatred that was in the way of learning, and I gave up.

3 thoughts on “Teaching at a Racially Divided School

  1. Such a travesty that we still don’t have solid answers to these societial problems. We need solutions, now. But there is no one right answer. We know leadership, money and passion all help build successful places of learning. We know we can make a positive impact but it does not happen quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing this difficult situation in your teaching career. It sounds intimidating and rough. I wonder what the demographics of the school are today? I wonder what the history of that school and the neighborhood were? There are so many questions that come up for me and I think often we are so desperate to find and apply solutions that we rarely have time or resources to investigate the root causes of our most pressing obstacles. How do you think this experience impacted your practice? What kinds of career decisions arose from having had this experience? Please don’t feel obligated to respond to my questions. I’m honored that you took up the challenge and appreciate your openness here.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. There’s too much to respond to! I am grateful you took up the challenge (to write about race) and did so perfectly honestly. I also really appreciate “edifies listener’s” thoughtful response (isn’t she the best?!). I plan to write something myself in response, I hope soon. Its not easy.

    Liked by 1 person

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