In 2 weeks I will start a learning journey with a new group of 4th graders. My students represent the United States in their ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic class, family make-up, and personalities. We are America. But, at the head of the class, I am a very particular American.
My European heritage, white skin, and upper middle class lifestyle is pictured as typical. Despite rhetoric celebrating our multicultural heritage, we still put up a picture of someone like me when we want to show “American”. And, because I fit that image, I have a privilege in this country that most of my students do not. I need to keep this privilege in mind as I plan for our year together. So, I’m going to start (and hopefully keep up with) a series with the theme “white teacher” to give me a place to think about my role in perpetuating white privilege and my responsibility as a teacher of less privileged people.
It’s going to get uncomfortable for me.
It already is.
My instinct is always to point out that I didn’t always have it this good. As the youngest of 10 kids, I learned early on how to share and what it meant to budget. But never in my life have I gone without the essentials – food, shelter, education, healthcare. Never. In fact, I have taken a few risks in my life knowing that there was always someone I could turn to if I failed, and my family was always there when I fell.
So, my life is little like the refugee students who have left their extended family and social network behind to start over. It’s nothing like the child who is taken from a parent unable to work through her own struggles enough to care for the kids. I don’t know what it’s like to visit your father in jail or suffer through the conflicting emotions when he is released. I’ve never had to make the choice between feeding my kids or paying the rent. No one ever glared at me because they thought I didn’t belong in this country. I’ve never been followed around in a store. I always knew what schools expected of me, how to behave on a job site, how to interact with government agencies to get what I needed, and where to find information. My neighborhood is well-lit, my house is wired for high speed internet. I have enough money in my checking account so that I don’t have to pay additional fees and can cash as many checks each month as I want to.
Fourth grade isn’t exactly the place to talk about all of the social and government policies that create my white privilege, but it is certainly the place to begin to make observations about how the world works and reflect on how we each engage with the community. My morning meeting, Social Studies, and literacy lessons will all support this critical observation work. My goal is to become a better teacher for every student who walks through the door. I’m looking forward to connecting with teachers around the world doing the same work.