It’s one thing to theoretically write about how academic expectations for Black and Brown children are noticeably lower than they are for their White counterparts, but to witness it in real life is heartbreaking.
My heart broke today.
As an English teacher, it’s one of my favorite times of year: National Spelling Bee time! Even students who usually aren’t excited about class activities show enthusiasm at the thought of potentially winning their class spelling bee and ultimately representing their class and school on a larger platform. Every day this week when the students had a double period in English class, we held their class spelling bee to determine the winner and runner-up.
Understand that there are students in each class who are deemed the “smart” kids and who feel they are a shoo-in for this spelling bee gig; the winner was one of the “smart” Black boys. However, this year there were upsets galore and the biggest involved a Black boy who, even after arriving late to school, entered the competition during the second round and wound up being the runner-up!
The reaction from the runner-up’s classmates was telling, yet expected. They were all shocked. After all, he is not exactly the most studious of the bunch. He learns differently from others and is known best for falling asleep in class and avoiding work by asking for the coveted bathroom pass.
It was the reaction of the other teacher in the classroom regarding his runner-up status, however, that reeked of low teacher expectations.
The teacher could barely contain her shock about the student coming so close to winning the class spelling bee. It wasn’t a delightfully shocked tone of voice either. There was just too much surprise in both her tone and facial expression. I was offended and couldn’t help but call her out on her implicit-bias-filled reaction by asking her straight-up, “why exactly ARE you so shocked that so and so is the spelling bee runner up?” She just stared back at me and shrugged her shoulders while saying, “Well, y’know…” “No, I don’t know. Enlighten me,” was my response. Needless to say, she fell mute. The thought, much less the reality, of this Black boy shattering her dim view of his abilities and actually excelling academically rendered her speechless. Unfortunately, the low teacher expectations that she exhibited today is common in classrooms with Black children across the United States.
From Black Enterprise:
New research from professors at American University and Johns Hopkins University reveals what isn’t exactly news: that white teachers expect less of black students, putting white students at an advantage and disadvantaging black students…black students do not receive the same positive bias, or benefit of the doubt, enjoyed by white students.
What shocked the teacher in my class today welled up tears of joy inside of me. I was so proud of my student. You should’ve seen the looks on everybody’s faces when he spelled word after word correctly! The dropped jaws were literally a sight to behold. I saw my student morph before my very eyes from an unconfident boy who has never done well in school to one of the “cool” kids who earned the respect of his peers. Unfortunately, he also earned the baffled side-eye of one of his teachers. The latter is an experience no student should endure, yet one which Black students — Black male students, especially — endure repeatedly.
This phenomenon is not new. As a young girl in the second-grade, I was embarrassed in front of the entire class during a geography game. When it was my turn, the letter was “O” and I said “Ocho Rios”, a parish in my parents’ homeland of Jamaica where I had just been for weeks earlier that summer. My White teacher, Mrs. Krushell, told me that there was no such place and that if I didn’t have an answer, I should just pass my turn instead of wasting time and turning the game into a joke. I went home in tears, told my mom, and thanks to my mom, by the next day, Mrs. Krushell got a detailed lesson on Jamaican geography. She apologized but even at the age of seven, I knew that even though I was considered to be a “smart” Black girl by my teacher, I still wasn’t “that smart”. I definitely wasn’t smart enough to know something she didn’t know, much less to have first-hand experience traveling to this place of which she had never heard. The nerve of me.
Today’s experience coupled with the preponderance of educational research available further solidified my resolve that Black students being taught by Black teachers is not simply a good idea. It is a high-need and the only hope that Black children have to be pushed to reach their full potential in school.