Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 15 2008

White affinity groups and comparison contrast

Our director of intercultural affairs held an assembly last week to discuss Umbrella, the club for students of color at my new high school. He explained that they were not excluding white students because they were racist, or because they wanted to talk badly about whites, or plot the overthrow of the school, but because it was more comfortable for them to talk to each other about their experiences as people of color in a predominately white environment. He spoke about how much harder it is for African Americans to discuss race when whites are present because they have to shield them from feeling guilty. People who think that Umbrella is unnecessary, point out, “No one at our school is racist.” The students do say unintentionally offensive things at times. They are so protected from the reality of so many people that they often don’t really understand how much more difficult life is when you are on the wrong side of the socioeconomic stick. I have been offended in assemblies when I hear kids say insensitive things about people and places they know little about. During the assembly about Umbrella, students advocated for affirmative action because they are color blind and it is reverse discrimination. I could have seen myself saying many of those things when I was in high school. Now I realize that staying in school at a place like I worked for TFA is a huge challenge compared to staying at a fancy, supportive, private school. We bend over backwards to make sure that no one falls through the cracks. I have time to differentiate instruction, provide extra tutoring, develop engaging lessons and contact advisors and students at the first sign of trouble. The students are surrounded by others who are engaged, intelligent and ready to collaborate. It is amazing how much my students can help each other because they are all listening and processing. They receive help from remarkably successful parents as well and usually come back to class knowing more than when they left about the topic we are studying.

At the assembly the director of intercultural affairs spoke about the challenge, “If we wanted a club for white kids you would say no.” He decided to allow this very thing to prove that the concept of an affinity group can be useful. One of the reasons they spoke about having the group was to celebrate various heritages such as German or French or Irish. I think that few students really care or identify with the country their ancestors came from in Europe. I do however think that some of them could be benefit by thinking about their privilege and the rest of the world. I left the assembly and returned to my room unable to do work right away. One of my favorite students who loves discussing politics with me came in to get help right afterwards and instead we launched into a discussion about my feelings of guilt for abandoning my students and coming to a place where people are so privileged. I absolutely love my new job though. We talk about cool math all of the time and the kids love the things I find on Wikipedia to show them about math. I have students solving challenge problems that I can’t even do in mere minutes. My colleagues are brilliant and dedicated and I have so much to learn from them. I’m learning so much and laughing so much. My kids tell me thank you at the end of each class.
I could use an affinity group to talk about my feelings of guilt for placing myself right back into the world of white privilege from which I came. Save for a few students and staff of color which our school tries so valiantly to attract, we are a white affinity group. When black students tour the school they pair them up with black tour guides. One student challenged this at the assembly (isn’t it great that we can have a discussion with 300 people?!) but others defended it because people do have questions about what it is like to be so much of an outsider. I could empathize. It was strange to be the only blonde in Peru and Morocco. My colors defined me more than any other part of myself. It was the same at Locke High School and I struggled with race in Vegas as well when the teachers noticed that black males received the most Dean’s referrals.

At open house, a prospective parent asked me to compare and constrast my Teach for America school to my new fancy private school. I told him the story about the time when we were instructed to not wait for police if we saw a weapon on campus but to “tackle those mother f*****.” The staff laughed but I knew it wasn’t really a joke. Right as I’m telling him about this staff meeting, another parent walks in and is quickly reassured by another math teacher that I’m not speaking about the private school, but a place I used to work. It was funny and we all laughed and laughed again when he retold the story to others after open house. But honestly it isn’t really that funny that he was so immediately worried about the parent thinking that my description of the old school applied here.
The inquisitive parent handed me his business card, told me he was in politics and asked if I’d written anything about my experience. I’d like to write a nice piece, well thought out and not just random ramblings but for now I might just point him to this website. People are curious. They do want to know what we find out about and despite most people’s best intentions they have absolutely no conception of what goes on. I get told all the time that it would be better to put experienced teachers in the worst spots. I tell them that the other option for teaching Pre-Calc in Las Vegas was a long-term sub who didn’t know the math. One suggested that we co-teach since she assumed (wrongly) that the sub knew about teaching and I knew about math. If there were the resources for that suggestion, our class size wouldn’t be 35-45 kids.

Maybe I still do have something to write about.

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    Learning more about life than math…

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