Teaching in Black and White

Two college-level educators make race central to their teaching - by teaching together.

By Terry Burant and Michelle McClure

Photo: Susan Ruggles
Terry Burant (left) and Michelle McClure on campus.

“Who cares about the race of a teacher? As long as I can teach, it shouldn’t be an issue.”

“There is just too much emphasis placed on race. I don’t think that there is a need today to place that much emphasis on it.”

“Why can’t we just ignore race? I think I will be able to walk into a classroom and sure, I’ll notice if my kids are different races, but then I’ll just ignore it. It won’t be a problem for me.”

“I come from an all-white area, so race won’t matter when I go back there to teach.”

Comments like these are some of the first things we hear from our students in the introductory teacher education course we team-teach at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

By team-teaching, we—Michelle, a black woman, and Terry, a white woman—wanted to visibly illustrate—yes, in black and white—how and why race matters both in our own classrooms and in schooling at large each and every day.

We work in a teacher education program that is, in many ways, typical of far too many in the United States: Approximately 90 percent of the education undergraduate students are white; the majority are women from middle-class suburban communities; and most are monolingual speakers of English. Like many other educators [for example, see Enid Lee in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1, pages 19-22], we are disturbed by the ways in which multicultural education courses often default into either a wimpy “let’s all get along and appreciate one another” moralistic stance or a calendar full of celebrations; both of these approaches sidestep or ignore the effects of racial discrimination, the inequitable distribution of power, and the need for social action. We also agree with Cornel West, who said, “How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perceptions and response to these issues.”

We’ve chosen to adopt a distinctly anti-racist and multicultural approach to educating future teachers; that is, we purposefully put race and its impact on schooling in the United States at the center of all of our courses, and we encourage critique and activism. (Recruiting and retaining a more diverse cohort of teacher education students is another equally important goal that won’t be addressed here.) While there are a number of reasons for our explicit anti-racist stance, our location in the center of Milwaukee—a city where the effects of institutional racism on African Americans are too pervasive to be ignored—amplifies our need to pay attention to race in all we do, in what we teach, in how we teach future teachers.

Conversation Stopper

We’ve also found that racism is the one topic that many of our students want most not to talk about in our introductory classes. Their reticence, hesitation, and resistance suggest they have very little prior experience in talking about or even noticing race. At the risk of generalizing, we’ve observed that a number of things happened when we taught about racism in our separate sections of this introductory course in previous years. Sometimes, we experienced new levels of silence in what were once active and engaged classes.

Terry often felt like just the word “racism” written on the board immediately halted an open-minded approach to new information; it seemed students didn’t want to hear anything that might contradict what they felt they already knew. Michelle’s students vigorously challenged her knowledge, her sources, and her expertise in ways they never did before. Both of us found that when racism was on the floor, some students held fast to racist interpretations of their own previous experiences (for example, “I didn’t get a scholarship because a black student got it instead” or “My aunt, who is white, taught in a diverse school and the parents were racist against her”) in ways that they didn’t when other topics on the syllabus were addressed.

Michelle sometimes felt like her students viewed her as an angry black woman, trying to use the class as an arena for biased views. Students expressed suspicions about her competence in evaluations; Terry was called “a N-lover” in hers. Some students of color, who typically make up very small percentages of the students in our program, told Terry that they felt sick and downright abused by the naïve and hurtful comments white classmates made. An African-American student in one of Terry’s sections chose not to return to class during the last two weeks of one semester, saying she “just couldn’t take it anymore.”

At different times during the semester, each of us had left the classroom feeling beat up and tired in a way that was different than ordinary after-class fatigue. At times, we both wondered if we should be teaching about race at all. Was this a futile exercise, a waste of time, something that merely benefits us and makes us feel like we are doing the right thing as teachers? Or was it something worse: a repeated racist act against the students of color in our classes?

Because of our individual and commonly shared concerns in teaching about race, we wondered what might happen if we taught together, if our collective presence as a mixed-race team would stimulate different sorts of questions and create a more meaningful experience for our students and ourselves. Due to other scheduling commitments, we each have our own sections of the course this semester; however, we team-teach approximately half of the time and we make a point to be present in each other’s classes on the days when race takes center stage.

In some ways, our course is a standard educational foundations course for students considering teaching. Yet, we consistently highlight race. Rather than lecturing to a hundred or more students in a large lecture hall, as is quite common in introductory courses, we purposefully keep our classes a little smaller (30-40 students) and use a more constructivist, project-based, and discussion-centered approach. We ask our students to apply readings to experiential class activities. [See www.rethinkingschools.org to link to the syllabus for the course.]

Nuts and Bolts

We begin the course with a section called, “What is it like to be an anti-racist teacher?” and students self-select into book groups to read and discuss stories like Greg Michie’s Holler if You Hear Me. Students apply current arguments about the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required of teachers to the activist and anti-racist teachers portrayed in their books. From there, we examine and collectively critique different forms of multicultural education and go on field trips to local schools to see if we can identify these forms in practice. And we compare what we’ve seen in local schools to their schooling experiences. We also discuss varied definitions of race and related concepts, read Gloria Ladson-Billings’ Dreamkeepers, and end the semester examining power and control of schooling, with an emphasis on history and politics. In their final project, the students reflect about their experiences in the course and discuss why (or why not) they will continue on the road to becoming teachers.

Photo: Susan Ruggles

Contemplating Team Teaching

We began to seriously consider teaching together last spring. To prepare, we met at the end of the school year when our solo experiences in teaching the same course for two semesters were fresh in our minds. We sat side by side in a windowless computer lab for three days in June talking about our ideas for the curriculum and pedagogy, sharing the struggles we had with the course in the past, deciding on the times when we knew we needed to be in class together to share our alternative perspectives, and choosing the readings and experiences we wanted to include in the course.

In the fall, we met again to revisit our earlier ideas, to make adjustments, and to make concrete commitments about the days we wanted to be together. We were sure to visit each other’s classes early on so students in both sections would know us. We also talked candidly with the students about our goals for teaming and the ways our perspectives could contribute to the parts of the course that deal explicitly with race and racism.

Halfway through our pilot semester, we decided to step back and examine our decision to team-teach and reflect on the things we were noticing thus far in our classes. What follows are excerpts from our conversations in this venture.

Committing to Team Teach

Terry: I’ve team-taught several times over the years—high school and college—so I didn’t hesitate to team with Michelle. I am a pretty un-self-conscious teacher (maybe being 45 years old has something to do with it). I know my fault lines as a teacher: my tendency to make flippant comments and to want to make my students laugh; the way I get caught up in the coverage race, even though every semester I vow not to do so; my working-class inspired “suck it up and deal” demeanor that can come across as dismissive or uncaring; my genuine interest in my students’ lives that can be misunderstood by some students to imply that they can use excuses easily. I think my experience, ease with people, and self-knowledge work well for teaming. But I don’t think these things are absolutely necessary. The main things that matter are a certain level of personal comfort combined with professional respect.

For some time, I’ve been thinking about the power relations and racial dynamics of teaming when teaching foundations courses in teacher education. As a graduate assistant, I team-taught with a full professor—a white man—and he told me that he felt like he had a moral commitment to use his privileged or advantaged position to take a more challenging stance in the class sometimes, especially when we were dealing with racial issues in the course. He said he “knew he had far less to lose as well as greater authority, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated.” A few years later, I taught a similar course with another full professor—a Latino man—and again, we noticed that certain kinds of things happened (or didn’t happen) depending on who led the class, who commented on student dialogue journals, and so on. When Michelle and I began to imagine teaching together, I was excited to try again and to continue to pay attention to how “who teaches what” matters.

Michelle: I chose to team-teach because I believe this is one of the many good ways to exercise the practice of collaboration with colleagues in an effort to make an impact on students.

I also had my own personal, maybe selfish, reasons for wanting to team-teach. Being a fairly new tenure track faculty member, I had serious reservations about teaching another “diversity” class in a college setting. At my previous institution, a large research institution located in the Midwest, I taught one of the many foundations courses offered in the teacher education program. As a new graduate assistant instructor, I was very motivated to teach this class. Like most beginning new instructors, I had great expectations: I was going to address issues that my own teacher education program did not, issues I believed would have made me a better beginning high-school social-studies teacher.

My teaching evaluations from this first class were horrible. Many of the comments did not reflect problems with my teaching or teaching style, but rather with the course content. Despite the fact that a multitude of issues were discussed in the class, many students said, “This is not a Black History course.” “I did not sign up for a Black Education course.” “Too much emphasis is placed on race.”

Distraught from these remarks and the low scores, I reflected on what I could do differently to make the students feel less resistant. One of my mentors, a black female faculty member in the department, told me that when she taught courses that dealt with issues of diversity, she often encountered resistance as well as low teaching evaluations. She felt that regardless of what she did in class, it was always interpreted as “a black issue” or “the black experience.” Students could not filter out her race or gender, her presence in the class as a black woman, regardless of how she packaged and presented the course material.

Determined to be successful and improve my teaching evaluations, I scaled back on the topics of race and racism in the classroom. I still discussed issues of diversity, but in more of a “feel-good” way, leaving out anti-racist education altogether. As a result, I experienced less resistance and significantly improved my teaching evaluations, but I sure did not feel too good about myself in the process. I let myself down, I misled students by not attending to the pervasive aspect of institutional racism that they need to actively confront as teachers, and, more importantly, I contributed to the miseducation of the students that those future teachers would eventually teach.

When I accepted a full-time tenure track position at Marquette University, I was initially excited about teaching in a school of education that has a social justice mission, one that puts race and racism at the forefront, at least in the official documents that describe its teacher education program (even as I realized that seeing the mission reflected in actual practice might tell a different story altogether). For once, I felt that I might become part of an institution that willingly addressed the social stratifications manifested in schools and the effects on diverse students. But I was still somewhat apprehensive about teaching diversity classes in a predominately white setting.

I took comfort in seeing topics such as racial identity development, white privilege, and anti-racist education already in place in the course syllabi that were given to me as examples or guides for my classes. As I taught my first course, when I felt students were resistant to the material, I often tried to separate myself from the curriculum by stating, “These are the topics that the School of Education wants covered in this class.” So in essence, I tried to minimize tension and resistance by telling my students the curriculum reflected what the administration wanted. This strategy didn’t do what I intended: My teaching evaluations were similar to my evaluations at my other institution. And students who seemed engaged at the beginning of the semester became either resistant or withdrawn. Frustrated, I felt that I could not continue to teach such a class. Yet, as a young black scholar, I knew I had something important to share with students.

I wondered how students would respond if they had this information presented by someone white. I also believed that it would be in my best interest to team-teach this class with a white professor so I could see how students responded to the information when a white person presented it. And I would also be able to observe Terry and see how she deals with topics that I, as a professor of color, found difficult to talk about with students.

So Far, So Good

Michelle: In teaching this class with Terry, I am amazed at the license she has to speak. I honestly do not believe that I could say the things that Terry says and get away with it. For instance, Terry explained that oftentimes when people of color are associated with a negative behavior or action, the action of the people involved is generalized to all members of the racial/ethnic group. But if a white person does something negative, then it just applies to that person. To illustrate this example, Terry told a story from her family experience. She explained that she was at a family event where a relative shared that she did not trust black people any more because some young black youth were arrested for stealing Terry’s sister’s car. Terry said she responded to the relative by saying, “Yes, I understand what you mean. Ever since Jeffrey Dahmer, that white guy, was convicted for murdering young men and eating them, I just do not trust young white men anymore.” She said this with such a straight face that students really understood how this facet of white privilege functions.

Another day we got into a discussion on affirmative action. Many students felt willing and comfortable to ask questions that I know they would not ask if Terry wasn’t there. In concluding a lively discussion, one student asked, “How long must we deal with affirmative action? When can we say that enough is enough and we don’t need it?”

Terry answered, “Until we get it right. Until we see equity in educational assessment, job placement, housing practices, wage earnings, property values, and the quality of life.”

She keeps reminding our students that they need to look at the big picture of how race and racism influence education and society. She helps them see how white privilege contributes to the very reasons why they always focus on single incidents instead of systemic inequality. I am absolutely blown away, because she says things that I believe students need to hear but that I am not as willing to say on my own for fear of how my words may haunt me in my teaching evaluations. So having Terry in the classroom with me, so far, seems to generate richer dialogue and the freedom to express and explore topics that are uncomfortable but need to be addressed.

Terry: As a native of Milwaukee, I’ve noticed in our discussions that I can decode and get underneath the localized ways that white people code for race in this community, and I can address students’ comments because, unfortunately, I have that insider knowledge. Sadly, I have years of experience listening to and responding to similar comments from family gatherings and various workplaces.

I also appreciate it when Michelle and I get going in what I call our “home speak.” She has a lovely speaking voice and a really beautiful manner as a person; and, when she speaks in her Missouri-influenced language and I follow with an example from my Milwaukee working-class “tavern girl” talk, I think our students get a kick out of it. The fun we have teaching together comes through, and I think this eases tension. One of the real values I see down the road for our students is this: They are experiencing a rare opportunity here to see and hear cross-race dialogue right in their midst. I don’t think this happens in too many settings that our students inhabit.

Michelle: Working together allows us to plan in more sophisticated and nuanced ways for future classes. After one of our sections wanted to go on and on about affirmative action, Terry and I sat down and talked about what sources we should bring back to class the next day to further illustrate some facts about who benefits most from these policies.

Terry: I got the sense in our initial discussion about affirmative action that several of the students were baiting Michelle, that they did not believe what she had to say and they needed some evidence from other sources. We talked about what materials she might bring and then I encouraged her to use some of the research that she’s conducting on the effects of affirmative-action policies on historically black colleges and universities. Together, we figured that our students needed to see her as an expert in her field.

Michelle: Terry and I help each other to deconstruct the class’s activities, and the conversations that we have after class ease my frustrations and anxieties. They help me remember I am not alone and this isn’t a burden I have to carry by myself; teaching about racism in education isn’t just for people of color to do. I can share this experience with a colleague who shares the same passion and motivation to touch the lives of students and create teachers committed to the ideas of being agents for social change.

Terry: Even with Michelle there, I sometimes get that stomachache I’ve come to know is a part of teaching about race in an introductory class. Looking at Michelle across the room gives me a little dose of courage. And, that walk back from class helps mitigate the emotional costs of this work.

I’ve also noticed that the students of color in my section of the class appear almost visibly relieved to have a black woman there to back up some of the experiences they share with classmates, if even with just a look in her direction. If there is one thing I’ve never liked about teaching about race in mostly white settings, it’s the uncertain and often damaging outcome on the students of color in my classes. In this area alone, I am so grateful that Michelle and I are doing this together.

A Temporary Conclusion

We know that we can’t and won’t provide our students with all they need to unlearn years of not seeing race and racism, especially in the space of a 16-week course. Yet, by teaching together and talking about race un-self-consciously in front of one another and our students, we hope we are showing our students a living example of race at work in a classroom. They see it in our interactions; they hear it in the stories we each choose to tell and the voices in which we tell them; they find it in the knowledge we each bring to the classroom; and they see it in our willingness to honestly about race and learn from one another’s experiences.

Terry Burant (terry.burant@marquette.edu)and Michelle McClure(michelle.mcclure@marquette.edu) are assistant professors in the department of educational policy and leadership at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Terry Burant is an editorial associate at Rethinking Schools.