When I walk into my classroom on the first day of school each year, I am always nervous. It’s not because I don’t know what to do or say, or because I am unsure if things will go well. I don’t know why I always have butterflies in my stomach, but maybe it’s because there are all these students sitting quietly in their seats, faces turned toward me, waiting for me to begin.
There is a palpable anticipation on their part and they are looking to me to set the tone for how our class will proceed. That first day, every student is new to me. And though they might have heard about me from older students and I might recognize some of them, this is the first time they are a student in my class. And it’s a little awkward. They don’t usually get my jokes that first day or realize that I am most comfortable when I’m being goofy. It takes us a little while to form into the class that we will eventually become. They have to learn about me and my quirks and I have to learn about them. But mostly, it takes us a while to really gel as a class because I have to earn their trust.
My first few years as a teacher, I didn’t understand that teaching was all about building a relationship with my students. Naively, I thought it was about lesson plans, grading papers, and classroom management. I eventually learned that what good teaching really comes down to is me going out of my way to show students that I am on their side, that I am for them and that I believe they can do the work. I must do this over and over and over. My first job is to “win them over;” after I’ve done that we can get down to the business of learning Geometry.
I used to think it was obvious that I was on their side… I’m their teacher! Of course I want my students to be successful, of course I will help them if they need it, of course I have time for them! But I teach high school mathematics. By the time students get to my class, they have already decided that they either like math or they H-A-T-E math. It then becomes my challenge to convince those students who feel uncomfortable and even a bit suspicious of me that I truly am on their side. I don’t have any control over my students’ past experiences that shape their views of mathematics. I have to take each student as he or she comes and many come with a history of feeling like an outsider in math class.
Somewhere along the way I realized that there is a very particular power dynamic that exists in a classroom between teacher and student. Not only am I the only adult in the classroom, but I am also the one that assigns work, controls their grade, and judges their behavior as acceptable or not. These are perfectly valid reasons for any student to be wary of me during the first few weeks of school; students who have had bad experiences in previous classes will be even more justified in wondering if I can be trusted. Am I the kind of teacher that is going to sigh deeply at them when they come in two minutes late? Am I going to make sure they feel my frustration when they sheepishly admit that they don’t have their homework… again? Even worse, am I going to shame them in front of others because they don’t understand a concept?
Because I am the teacher and I have the power, I have to be very careful with my words, my tone, my actions, and even my facial expressions. It’s up to me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted. I can’t just say it once and expect them to believe me. It will not do to simply assume that my students rightly interpret my subtle attempts to show them that I care. I must over-communicate my position that I am on their side and that I believe in them because, given their likely background, they will have a hard time trusting me. I first have to acknowledge that the power dynamic exists and then work within that construct to help my students flourish.
There are also power dynamics that exist in our larger culture. These range from obvious ones like the dynamic that exists between high wealth and low wealth groups, to more subtle ones like the tension that can exist between people who were born and raised in a place and those that are newcomers to that same area. And there are definite power dynamics that exist in our culture because of race, but this is one of those things the majority white culture doesn’t particularly want to acknowledge. I get it. By admitting that whites have a kind of privilege not enjoyed by minorities, it feels like I am happily identifying with my ancestors who took it for granted that they were privileged. It feels distasteful and, honestly, it makes me feel… dirty? It’s hard to explain the emotions that swirl around in my head/heart/stomach, but it feels similar to the nervousness I feel on the first day of school. I don’t want there to be a power dynamic and I certainly don’t want to benefit from it. It feels very uncomfortable to admit that I have some sort of “power” that is accessible to me simply because I am white.
But admitting that a power dynamic exists doesn’t mean that I am endorsing it.
And so, just as I’ve realized it is on me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted, it is on us, white folks, to show our minority friends, acquaintances and even strangers over and over that we can be trusted. It does not matter whether we want this power dynamic to exist–it’s there. Perhaps the first step in shifting the power dynamic is to look for it in our own lives and then work to elevate the voices of those around us who are often ignored. Perhaps we can begin to shift the balance of power in a significant way as we listen to one another and consciously decide that we are not content with how things are. Perhaps one day, the idea of white privilege will legitimately be a foreign concept to my children’s children.