Teachers of Color, White Suburbs: Teaching in a PW Secondary School

When I began teaching, I only wanted to teach in urban schools. My Ed.M. affirmed that commitment: as part of an Urban Teaching cohort, I completed my student teaching in the city and remained there for much of the last 10 years.

Then, I left for my sabbatical in the suburbs (I’ve written about it in various capacities in this space, so I encourage you to do a search for the tags “sabbatical in the suburbs” if you’re curious) and have returned to an urban school, but it’s actually more “urban-lite” than those earlier urban experiences.

I have interacted with some young teachers of color recently who are debating applying for positions in the suburbs at predominantly white (PW) secondary schools. I strive for honesty and objectivity. Then, I realized it’s probably easier (for me, in this case) to work out that advice in a blog post and refer them to it when I can’t seem to get the words quite right.

Why Teaching in the Suburbs is Beneficial:

  • You will never know your disciplinary content more than when you’re there; for lack of a better phrase, people know their s#$t. Seriously. They were probably English majors, or History majors at some fine institutions, they were “splendidly educated” (to quote Morrison), and they generally know how to communicate that knowledge to kids and colleagues; but don’t get starstruck. They are human just like you.
  • Your colleagues have probably been teaching for a while: thus, you can probably ask them anything, and for anything, and they’ll have some ideas about how to do it (or how not to do it), and, if they’re really awesome colleagues (like mine were), they’ll open some magical filing cabinet, or crack open a binder and give you a copy of something that’s useful, or not, but it’s something and when you’re scrambling for resources, something is everything
  • You get to be the teacher of color that, if you’re comfortable with it, can begin to help folks address their misunderstandings and stereotypes. They’ve offered you the job for some reason, and it’s usually more than a need to increase diversity: they’re usually not going to just roll the dice and pick a potential teacher that doesn’t have the teaching chops. Suburban schools just don’t make decisions like that; they’d rather leave the position open than hire someone that won’t be a good match for the school. That means you should speak up in meetings, you can offer insight, you can carve out a space for yourself within the school community if you want to. But don’t feel like you have to; there’s a difference.
  • You will understand aspects of excellent instruction and you can begin to/continue honing your practice. You’ll see a continuum of teaching excellence there (and you should see a range). Watch the teachers who kids rave about, the teachers whom your colleagues respect, and start tinkering with your own practice. Have conversations about what you see, ask questions, find answers…intellectualism often flourishes here.

And What’s Not So Great:

  • You’re probably going to be, if not the only (like I was), then at least one of a handful of people of color. That means that people will ask you stupid questions, both unintentionally (from students) and intentionally from faculty and staff. You have a choice about how you can respond: my reaction was usually to raise awareness with kids (because you might be the only Native American, Korean American, African American, etc. they might ever know that’s not on television or in the media), but not to preach. With adults, I tend to pick my battles: I feel like if schools are going to bring you out there, they shouldn’t expect you to be teaching everyone about YOUR PARTICULAR EXPERIENCE, which is your experience, and probably nothing like anyone else’s experience. But, you’re most likely going to have to do this. It’s going to be hard and exhausting and some days you’ll wonder if we all live in the same world, but it’s going to happen. Just know that.
  • You will regularly need to confirm and reaffirm your expertise, both for your students, for your colleagues and for yourself. I’m not saying teaching in the suburbs is like teaching in a country club or anything, but, if you’re used to teaching in an urban school, it’s a HUGE jump from that environment into a suburban one. The ways of delivering instruction are different, classroom management is different, expectations are different. And again, I’m not saying that teaching in the city is deficient, because it’s not; rather, it’s just…different. The difference is so dramatic, however, that if you don’t give yourself permission to get accustomed to it, you’ll think that you’re a fraud, that you’re never going to “get it,” and that you want to leave. Don’t. Leave, that is. And don’t stereotype threat yourself, because I think that can happen in teaching the same way it can happen with a standardized test (if you want to know more about stereotype threat, check out the brilliant Claude Steele’s work). Just keep swimming until you get some ideas about the lay of the land. Figure out who you can trust, look for allies, do more listening than speaking on occasion, also.
  • Kids of color are going to seek you out. You’re there for the kids, for all kids, yes, but, in all likelihood, the kids of color are also part of a small population, have sat in classes where teachers and peers have said crazy things and those kids have had to either correct, defend or be silenced, and they’re looking for understanding. They’re going to assume you can provide it for them. You will feel that you have to provide it. This feeling is both a good and bad aspect, because that also means you’ll be asked (either directly or indirectly) to advise clubs, go to meetings, speak up for them. I tended to do those things because kids need adults to be brave, even when I wasn’t feeling so brave. It’s amazing how fired up I can get when I remember that the kids need an advocate.
  • You will have to create your community. You might have other people of color that you can collaborate and commiserate with, but they might be in all different parts of the building. They’re probably either feeling like you’re going to feel, have felt that way, or have figured out how to make a life in this space (and, let’s be real: you should think of it as making a life, not surviving–at least after the first year). Invite them to hang out at lunch, or for coffee, or for some intentional time. Then, just bug out. You likely have a million other tasks on your to-do list, but add this one and you will reduce your sense of isolation.
  • You will be exhausted. Teaching is exhausting anyway, but the additional exhaustion you’re going to face from either deciding to speak up or say nothing can be overwhelming. If you teach texts that deal with race (i.e. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, say), you’re going to have days when you come home, don’t want to talk to anyone, find some outlet for your feelings, and process your rage, your feelings of hopelessness, your decision to teach there. You have to decide if you can handle it. Personally, that piece was the one I didn’t think about, but the exhaustion was more potent and played more into my decision to leave than I anticipated. Now, mind you, I still feel exhausted (see the post about race I wrote earlier), but I’m not doing the work alone. That matters.
  • You also have the right to say no: that this experience isn’t for you, regardless how much money that particular district has and is willing to throw at you. Your emotional health is invaluable, and no one is going to blame you if you choose you. Sure, some people will throw shade about you giving up such a great opportunity, but what’s great for them is not necessarily great for you; remember that great schools and kids exist everywhere. You just need to find the place that is best for you, or best at that moment, or however you choose to define it (because those places and terms aren’t necessarily fixed).

Verdict: I do not regret my sabbatical one bit. For me, the positives were invaluable and while I did have to address those deltas, my teaching practice is much stronger for it. I realized how effective of a teacher I can be–and the teacher I strive to be every single day–after that time in the ‘burbs. But I have no desire to go back. I think that being the only Black woman on faculty was too difficult for me to deal with; I had that experience when I went to college and that was hard enough. I’ve no desire to relive that time. Rather, I’ve taken the good lessons from teaching in the ‘burbs and found a school that’s more diverse, that has excellent colleagues in their own right and provides me with the peace of mind that I need to keep teaching.

That was my choice, though, and my move to and from came after I’d been teaching for a while. I’m not fresh out of graduate school and itching for a job. I offer these reflections after some time spent in both contexts, in hopes that they begin to generate more ideas about what to consider when making what was, for me, a difficult decision.

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Filed under Equity, Suburbs

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