Years ago, when my daughter was in high school (she is now 26 years old) her teacher offered extra credit points if the students dressed up for class on a particular day. At the time, I was serving as an elementary school principal in a neighboring system from the one in which we live and, of course, I took issue with this on so many levels. Yet she wanted the extra points, so, I bit my tongue (I knew when to pick and choose my battles) as she selected a pretty outfit from her closet and went to school on the designated dress up day.
When she returned home, however, she was upset.
Her friend, who was sort of a tomboy and really didn’t own a dress, so, she wore something from her mom’s closet. This girl’s mom worked with preschoolers, so her choices were limited. As a result, the teacher did not award the extra points to my daughter’s friend. Ouch! And so not fair!
We live in a school system that is primarily white middle class. Recent statistics indicate that 26% of our students are non-white and approximately 30% of our students are provided a free and reduced price lunch. We are the true picture of a successful suburban community with approximately 82-85% of our high school students performing in the proficient/advanced range on our state assessment in reading and math. I consider our system to produce competent graduates.
This teacher’s reaction upset my daughter and many of her friends. I, on the other hand, was livid! My thoughts on extra credit are fodder for another blog post. My thoughts about the assumptions the teacher made and how he made my daughter's friend feel so very diminished that day will be addressed in this post.
This post is about the assumptions we make as educators and why we need to stop making them.
My daughter's teacher assumed that “dressed up” should depict a certain “look” on a young lady in our Pennsylvania middle class suburban high school. He also assumed that the students had that “look” hanging in their closets. The teacher meant well. He wanted his students to have a quick and easy way to earn some extra points. His intentions, however, were hanging neatly in the closet right next to his privilege and he didn’t even realize it.
Let’s go to another school system. This time, we’ll travel to Virginia.
My sister’s granddaughter is in elementary school. She attends a school in the Stafford County School System. This system has a profile very similar to the one where my daughter attended. This little girl’s teacher gave her an assignment that is common: Each child takes a turn to care for a stuffed animal for the weekend. The child is to take pictures of all of the experiences the student has with the stuffed animal during the weekend. Then, the student is to bring those pictures to class along with some sort of summary the following week. In my grand niece’s case, the animal was a Cat in the Hat.
Again, this teacher meant well, however, she made assumptions.
She made assumptions regarding the students’ access to materials, technology, and Internet services, the amount of support the student may have from an adult to create the project, the type of weekend the student is going to experience (that the student will want to share it or it will be appropriate to share), and the type of environment to which the stuffed animal is going to and from.
We make so many assumptions based upon what we, as educated individuals, can do or would do with our own children that we forget what it is like for others.
Why do we make these assumptions? I believe it is based upon the fact that those who are making the assumptions are privileged and yet, they don’t even realize it. That’s why it is called “privilege.”
And yes, we are going there. It’s uncomfortable, but we have to talk about it.
So, what is privilege?
Sian Ferguson defines privilege as, “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.”
Privilege is often linked to a characteristic related to our identity such as our race, gender, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, language we speak, geographical location in which we live, cognitive abilities, or our religion.
When I consider what happened to my daughter in her school and my grand niece in her school, I truly believe these are cases where bias and privilege is at play. Then, I really begin to think about our students of color and it makes me distressed.
Consider what happens within our school system when we teach the history of our nation. How do we convey who is responsible for the remarkable events that have occurred in our nation? What do our history books say? What do the pictures show?
The Teaching Tolerance website places a focus on some of the day-to-day occurrences within schools. For example, when our students go to the nurse, what color are the Band-Aids the students are offered? Band-Aids are made for students’ flesh tones of many colors. Does your school have Band-Aids only for those students who are white?
Those of us who are white don’t always think about such things, do we? That’s why it is considered “privilege.”
When we don’t have to think about whether or not the student owns the clothing, it is a privilege.
When we don’t have to think about whether or not the student has the ability to take a digital picture of all of the places she’s taken her Cat in the Hat, it is a privilege.
We need to begin to think before we act. Is your privilege showing? We need to check ourselves. We can’t make assumptions that other’s lives are like ours and we can’t try to make someone else’s life just like ours either. We need to learn about our students’ culture and build a relationship with them based upon their culture, not what we want their culture to be. I am not saying we shouldn’t enrich a student and deny them opportunities to be enriched. I am saying that we can’t place the student in a position where they are uncomfortable trying to be someone they are not.
Where can you begin?
Here are some things to consider:
This is not personal or about making you or your staff feel bad about how students are treated.
This about realizing that we are now teaching a generation of learners who are more aware of justice for others than those of use who are teaching them.
This is about reaching out to our students in a manner that makes them feel connected and capable.
This is about guiding our learners so each is unconditionally loved and supported in order to reach his or her maximum potential and achieve his or her dreams with your support.
You’ve got this!
Dr. Frances A. Miller,