A New Student Made Me Rethink My Classroom Culture — and the Ways It Marginalizes Students

Though I never had the words for it, I knew I was different from my peers when I was a kid. As the son of Indian immigrants, I looked for ways to push back against the pressure to assimilate and conform while growing up in white schools. There were few role models who looked like me outside of my family, and the only cultural representations I saw were insulting stereotypes that mocked Indian culture. Eventually, I found comfort in friends who looked like me and had a similar immigrant upbringing, but it was that feeling of difference that helped me to connect and identify with others who sat outside the dominant culture.

I sense this same feeling of difference in a student who recently transferred to my school from a predominantly Black school in Milwaukee. Early on after his arrival, I emailed his mom to get her take on how he was settling into his new classroom. She told me that although he enjoyed the new school, it was a culture shock from his previous school. Understandably, coming from a majority Black school in the city where every student looks like you to a majority white school in the suburbs can be a hard adjustment for a student to manage.

His transition has made me rethink the culture of my classroom, and my role as an educator in creating that culture. For a long time, I believed that building a strong classroom culture and holding all students accountable to that culture was the right way to teach. Now, I’m not so sure.

A Tale of Two Students

My new student’s acclimation to the classroom makes me think back to a situation I encountered a few years ago. I had a pair of students — both girls, one white and one Black — who loved to chat with each other every time we lined up to go to lunch. Despite numerous reminders about what a line should look and sound like, or where their spots were, they’d always find their way back to each other. When I asked them to stop talking, I’d get two very different reactions. The white student would look at me apologetically and promise to stop while the Black student would question me or point out that others were talking too, assuming that I was purposely targeting and punishing them.

These responses led to very different reactions from me, which were informed by what I thought of each of them as students. It was easy to accept the white student’s apology as genuine and thank her for it, while the black student’s more passionate response escalated to a situation that led to arguments, loss of recess and eventually, a phone call home. Neither student ever changed their behavior and these incidents continued throughout the year, so why should their different approaches have mattered to me?

Once I stepped back and thought about these responses through the lenses of culture and race, I began to question how I handled the situation. Was I reacting differently to the Black student because she was Black, or because of how she responded to me? Would I do the same thing if the white student responded to me the same way her Black friend did? Soon, it became clear how much the cultural patterns I’d adopted from my teaching and schooling experiences in white schools centered behaviors and cultural patterns the school deemed appropriate — and further marginalized students who chose not to play along. I’ve been more attentive to this in the years since, but with my new student, I’m seeing it play out again.

The Culture Our Choices Create

To be fair, my new student isn’t doing anything I haven’t seen from fifth graders during my 18 years of teaching. He likes to tap his pencil on any surface that makes noise. He shouts out questions and answers whenever he thinks of them. He loves his new Chromebook and would happily spend the day with one earbud in, listening to music as he works. But much of this interferes with the expectations and agreements our class has set, and now I’m noticing how much the identity of the student matters when it comes to understanding his behavior as well as his classmates’ reactions to it.

While I consider his motivations, I am also continually aware of the needs and perspectives of the rest of my students and how they view my interactions with him. When he violates a classroom expectation, I can understand his need to do so as an act of self-preservation and resistance or expression of individual identity, and I can allow him some flexibility. But at the same time, I wonder what message the rest of the class is getting, and how they are processing what they see.

Does it confirm a bias in their own mind about who breaks the rules and who acts out? Have I best served my new student by allowing him that freedom, or have I reinforced a sense of difference and otherness? It doesn’t feel like there’s an easy or even right answer to any of these questions. However, understanding these choices, and how these decisions may undermine and exclude our Black students, gives us an opportunity to reinvent our practices and create more equitable schools.

Finding the Right Path

Over the last few years, I’ve used portions of the book “Stamped” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi to help my fifth-graders understand the origins of racism and enslavement in America. In the book, Reynolds and Kendi describe segregationists, assimilationists and anti-racists. The basic framework is that segregationists don’t like people who are different from them, assimilationists will like you if you act like them and anti-racists like you for who you are. This framework has helped me analyze my choices and see ways in which schools continually undermined students who don’t fit the dominant culture.

While we work to avoid actively segregating students within the school building, much of what schools attempt to do is assimilate everyone into white, middle-class culture as the pathway to achievement. While I can understand this approach, I wonder if this assimilationist approach to racial and cultural differences perpetuates racial disparities in our schools’ outcomes. At the very least, it appears to me that it isn’t meeting the needs of my new student.

As someone who has been acculturated to those norms, I feel a responsibility to try to create something new that doesn’t simply assimilate students of color into white culture and instead accepts them for who they are. But what kind of culture is that? Where the path leads is unclear to me.

Making the Commitment

My school district has made a commitment to addressing equity for the last several years. We’ve investigated historical racism and systematic marginalization, examined our own identities and biases, and explored culturally relevant and anti-racist curricula and pedagogy. We can look at our data and see that we continue to underserve Black students and we can talk about systems and structures that fail to support those students. However, within the confines of the culture in which I work, that training hasn’t given me the tools or the opportunity to make decisions in day-to-day situations that create a less biased, less racist classroom culture.

For my white colleagues, the lack of opportunity to interrogate this culture and explore the racial contexts of decisions they make each day is an ongoing challenge. Despite our commitment to this work over many years, I continue to hear from Black students in my school who see white teachers as racist. I don’t believe my colleagues harbor racial animosity or actively discriminate against Black students, but as upholders of a system that asks students of color to subjugate their identities to fit in a culture that does not always embrace them, we all hold responsibility.

For myself, I can’t unsee the role and impact of race in how I manage my classroom. I recognize that schools often force students to assimilate into the dominant culture and that I’m guilty of feeding into it. Knowing what I know now, I’m trying to establish a paradigm shift that focuses more on inclusion and less on the reinforcement of dominant cultural practices. In the past, when a new student arrived, I might have said something like, “I don’t know what things were like at your old school, but that’s not what we do here.” Now I’m asking, “What was your old school like, and how did that work for you?”

I’m hopeful this paradigm shift presents a meaningful step forward towards co-creating an inclusive classroom culture that affirms individuality and multiple ways of being for each of my students. If nothing else, it feels like a small act of resistance my younger self wished for.

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