February is Black History Month and, though I don’t want to talk about race per se, my experiences as a consequence of being black in institutions where there were few other people of color seem to bring me back to this song that has no ending.
My student teaching experience in an all-white institution – with no mercy from the high school supervising teacher or the practicum professor from the university – was so traumatic that I fainted in front of the class when I was being observed for my final evaluation. It was just too much pressure.
In my first teaching position after college, then, I was determined to right the wrongs of my student teaching experience. With only one other black teacher in the English Department, I had to pass the rigorous scrutiny of the Department Chair, who frequently just popped in to my classes unannounced to observe.
One day Miss Nelson, white-haired and married to her role as Department Chair, stopped by my classroom to chat about the Parents’ Night scheduled for that evening. She smiled and assured me that there was nothing to be concerned about. In fact, she said, “Don’t be disappointed if parents don’t show up because parents seldom visit the teachers of their children in high school.” Imagine my surprise when all the seats of my classroom were filled for every hour of visiting on Parents’ Night.
Because of my history as a black woman, when I was a counseling psychologist at a community college, I vigorously resisted the suggestion that all counselors have large photos posted outside the counseling center with a short professional bio so students could see with whom they were making an appointment. While there might not have been anything nefarious about the intent, you can guess what I thought.
Thinking back on these times and realizing that this song seems to have no ending makes me want to quarantine new generations of students from our history and from our current cycle of politics. Why quarantine? Because sometimes the professionals who have always believed that education for diversity and expanding one’s world view is the way to confront partisanship and polarization get discouraged.
For those who might be feeling discouraged by the tone and reality of our current political environment, I recommend what I think is an excellent article on what educators can do to continue to provide opportunities for reaffirmation of our very humanity and that of our students. In “Interfaith Learning and Development – Building an Understanding of Religious Differences” (Leadership Exchange, Winter 2020), Interfaith Youth Core Program Manager Janett I. Cordovés and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Director of Diversity and Social Justice Education Ross Wantland write about how “provocative encounters” with diverse peers help students develop a “pluralism orientation,” resulting in the following positive outcomes, among others:
- accepting others with different worldviews;
- believing that worldviews share many common values;
- considering it important to understand the differences between world religions; and
- believing it possible to have strong relationships with diverse others and still hold to one’s personal world views.
The success of these provocative encounters depends on the ability of facilitators to both challenge and support students in these controversial learning spaces. Civility in dialogue around differences of opinions about religion and politics are high bars to attempt to reach particularly in an environment in which political identity has become the cauldron of multiple identities that not only exclude “the other,” but also make that “other” the enemy. Nevertheless, it is Black History Month, and we want to end this song.