The 4 Groups of Teachers for Learners of Color

Reading more of the handful of responses to my survey on race in English Language Teaching (you can take it if you are an ELT, let me know if you want to…), I’m getting the strong impression that there are basically four groups of teachers with respect to how they treat learners of color. I am investigating this with respect to ELT, of course, and more specifically with adult educators, but I wouldn’t expect this to be any different for K-12 environments or outside of language teaching.

I’m going to work on this and add to it, but this is my initial sketch of the four types of teachers for students of color. I will need to do research to come back and fill this in with data, and some of that research will be my own.

These groups will go from worst to best.

A quick note: this isn’t really about teaching ability per se, since I’m not sure that’s fully quantifiable. That said, if you’re in the first or second group, it’s unlikely you’re all that effective an educator for the students who might just need the most support, and it’s their experience I am most focused on.

Group 1: The Susans

That would be Susan as in Susan Smith. Apologies to kind people out there named Susan.

These teachers are actively antagonistic to the progress of students of color. They may or may not have voted for the current president, but at the very least they think he might have some points about “sh*thole countries” and Puerto Rico.

A student of color who excels is a fluke, a student of color who is deeply engaged in the classroom is disruptive, and every other standard stereotype you can think of.

I am enough of an optimist to believe that these teachers are few and far between in most educational institutions, although I am and many other students of color have encountered them. They are the foot soldiers of racism rather than the mere beneficiaries.

What do they need?

To leave the profession and go someplace where they don’t have to interact with people of color. So, Vermont, maybe. Or Finland. But those places are probably too “socialist” for them, so maybe they can go to Wyoming.

Group 2: The Beckies and Brads

I actually believe, though I will have to do considerable work to prove it, that this is the largest group of teachers in this country, and even in racially-mixed cities like the one I call home.

These are the teachers who are both “colorblind” and “colormute,” who, in an ELT context, talk about culture but never color, and, crucially, consider their decision to teacher students of color to be somewhere between inherently altruistic and heroic.

Whereas the Susans are most likely white, these teachers could be people of color themselves, as neither internalized racism nor a desire to avoid conflict are exclusive to Caucasians.

These teachers will say they treat all of their students the same, which may or may not be true, but considering that all students are different, this hereby erases students’ full humanity, be it racism, sexism, or what have you (though I’m focusing on the first of these).

Because these teachers feel they’re owed thanks from their students by virtue of their presence, this group is probably the hardest to change and the most resistant. The Susans wouldn’t even bother to read this article (or whatever I do with my opinions within it), and are sort of a lost cause. The Beckies and Brads give the Susans cover when the Susans wear blackface to the Halloween party, because it’s not that bad if they’re dressing up as someone they admire.

The Beckies and Brads are honestly why I decided to write this. They are aware of racism and will condemn a Charlottesville, and they might nominally agree that some institutional educational policies are unfair, but will find it difficult to ever acknowledge their role and complicity in the system and its outcomes.

They are the people who, when they learned I was merely asking about race (not even racism) in ELT, told me that discussing race was, itself, the cause of ongoing prejudice, or the otherwise “smart” people I’ve spoken to who think their own discomfort with race is reason enough to avoid the topic entirely.

I could go on and on about the Beckies and Brads forever (and I might, some day). They are the biggest problem, in my view. They are Dr. King’s “white moderate” (even if they’re not actually white or politically moderate), yet they are never going to admit to their membership in this group. And they’re tragic, to me, because many of them could be good teachers for learners of color, if only they engaged in some deep introspection.

What do they need?

They need their defenses broken down. Of all the groups here, this is the largest and perhaps more intractable change that must be sought, and the main roadblock for true racial equity in education. I have a few pet theories on how this can be achieved (Transformative Education, for example), but denial is a hell of a drug, and I can’t say I really know the cure.

Group 3: The Nkechi Amare Diallos

Who is Nkechi Amare Diallo? That surely sounds like an authentic African name. And although I said it was entirely possible to be a Becky or Brad as a person of color, surely someone suffused in an African culture couldn’t be anywhere other than the final and best group, right?

Well, google the name (or click this link) and tell me who she is.

(waits)

Yeah, exactly.

So, back when she was Rachel, the thing about her is that, until she decided to act a fool very publicly (and one suspects there’s some serious mental and emotional stuff going on there), she was genuinely trying to do good work for the community. I don’t know how good her work actually was with her… unique mindset, but she wasn’t just talking. She was employed leading a local chapter of the NAACP from day to day. She seems to genuinely love black culture. It’s just that it’s not a really healthy kind of love.

Leaving her aside for a minute, the teachers in this group are people who have probably read some research and theory on deficit mindset and other such concepts, and they are Not Going To Let You Forget It, like any evangelist recently converted to the church of Scientology, LDS, or Crossfit.

They know their facts to an encyclopedic level and they take their work seriously, telling everyone in the Susans, Beckies, and Brads about how they could be doing better, and making at least the Beckies and Brads very uncomfortable.

But there’s something missing.

Ultimately, these teachers are on the right track, so as much as I am teasing them, I would only criticize them gently, since they’re a lot better than the previous groups.

The fact is, though, that there is often a humility missing, especially when these teachers aren’t members of racialized groups themselves (or even when they are).

Doing education work correctly requires a certain amount of pride. If you have no confidence in yourself in the classroom or while you’re researching or writing it will be readily evident to a student or observer. Yet, in my opinion, the people in this group need to take a step or two back and assess whether or not they’re positioning students and educators of color for leadership. In other words, are they centering the marginalized or centering themselves?

I freely admit I was this person in my early days of teaching, walking into my classrooms in South Korea being treated like a celebrity (I was the first black person they’d ever seen). I thought I could really help them in my own naive way. I’ve grown out of this mindset, but I really did care about the students and wanted to treat them with love and kindness. This group, while often incorrect, is not acting out of malice, and even the best of us (which I am not claiming to be) slip into this from time to time.

Think about it, though. If a performatively woke teacher takes the lead, it’s a better situation than being led by someone who out and out ignores the reality in front of them or being led by one that revels in the status quo.

And hey, careers in education are tough – I’m not saying turn down a promotion or a publication. But being an ally isn’t really about leading so much as it’s about supporting, or, more precisely, it’s about using your own privilege and platform to help others lift themselves.

What do they need?

Just some guidance, really. They’re trying, and most of them aren’t truly fetishizing other races or coming back wearing cornrows after vacation (although some of them are…).

I feel as though group 3 needs to take the reins of educating group 2 (who probably comprise most of their relatives), since that work usually falls to group 4 and group 4 has enough work to do.

Group 3 is doing good work, but just needs to ask themselves if they’re really listening to the marginalized or speaking on their behalf.

Group 4: The Taranas and Bayards

The people in this group don’t really have cute nicknames, though I chose names for the sake of symmetry. If there’s an example from another field, it might be someone like Tarana Burke, or a Bayard Rustin, people whom you probably need to Google, which is sort of the point.

Look, teaching, if you’re in front of the room, is a performance to some extent. You can’t really do it well if you don’t command attention. I certainly feel most at ease in front of a class or else I wouldn’t do it. And maybe the examples I cited here really wanted to be stars and it didn’t work out that way, though I doubt it.

The Taranas and Bayards are authentic and committed, and most likely the only group that leads to seismic change. You can be of any color and become a member of this group, but you have more (and different) work to do to join if you’re white.

These are the people that group 2 thinks they are, the actual heroes of the profession. And we need them.

What do they need?

More support, more money, and more group members if our education is ever to truly become equitable for students of color.

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I plan to come back to this and flesh it out with some numbers and anecdotes. But this is my preliminary assessment of the groups of teachers out there with respect to how they teach learners of color. I expect to analyze how to move people from group 2 and 3 to group 4 in the future, and how group 1 can possibly be rooted out of the profession altogether. But for now, I’m happy to have offered my opinion on the state of things.