Sometimes teaching is about unlearning.

The woman who founded the school where I first taught (back in the early 90s) held the philosophy that “the school should fit itself to the child.” Many of us have experienced what it feels like to have to fit yourself to the school — that seems the natural course of things. Three generations of women in my family attended the same high school and we all read the same books in 10th Grade. If you are a student whose voice, or sex, or race, or sexual/gender/cultural orientation, or religion aren’t visible, aren’t represented, in the faculty, curriculum, or co-curriculum, then you are forced to fit yourself to the school, and not the other way around.

But I didn’t know any of that when I started teaching, at least not in a conscious, intellectualized way. I was shaped by privilege and whiteness and that’s what I brought to my first teaching job. Our high school had 60 students and no racial majority. I was the only English teacher. The racist teacher narrative whispers insistently that some students care about doing well, and others don’t. I had noticed that my white students always revised their essays for a higher grade, just like I “told” them to, but my black students didn’t. “Why don’t they care about their grades,” I puzzled. Did they not like my class? Did their grades not matter to them? Do they not care about going to college?

That summer, I attended a subsidized boot camp for beginning teachers. For two weeks, I was on a boarding school campus with other newbies, more homework than one could imagine, incredible speakers, and a worship-inspiring mentor English teacher. One night, we were assigned a chapter from Lisa Delpit’s, Other People’s Children. One passage, in particular, turned me cold with horror. In it, Delpit describes how white middle-class children are raised with questions that are understood as demands, “Why don’t you take your bath now?” Where middle-class black children are raised with directives, “Get into the tub now.” White teachers, ignorant of familial cultural differences, assume their way is the only way, and this impedes their ability to deliver an equitable education to “other people’s children.”

I returned to school in September. A month into school, I returned the students’ first essays to them with comments that contained questions about their work, and directives about their next steps: “please revise this essay per the comments and turn it back in a week from today.” And lo and behold, everyone cared about their grades. I understood that I had fit the school to the child, finally, and I could see clearly the unlearning that I needed to do in myself to create a true learning environment for my students.

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