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Recognizing racism exists in today’s schools

Efforts to improve education system ignore the real problems, a veteran New York City teacher says
In her new book, Pamela Lewis underscores the importance of filling classrooms with teacher role models who look like their students of color.
In her new book, Pamela Lewis underscores the importance of filling classrooms with teacher role models who look like their students of color.

When it comes to racism in our public schools, many people pretend it doesn’t exist, says Pamela Lewis.

In her new book, Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City (2016, Empire State Editions), Lewis says a misplaced focus on test scores hides the true causes of underperforming inner-city schools: poverty and race.

In this memoir recounting her experiences as an inner-city teacher, Lewis underscores the importance of filling classrooms with teacher role models who look like their students of color. Ignoring race only exacerbates the problem.

“Not seeing race preserves racism by implying that it doesn’t exist,” Lewis says, “and thus the notion that there is no longer a need for a head start, a way to catch up to those who’ve always had one.”

Your revelations about teaching in inner-city schools will likely surprise many readers.

That’s why I wanted to write the book. There are a lot of conversations surrounding education in reference to teachers—things such as unions, blaming teachers and pointing fingers, and test data and things like that.

It was very obvious to me when you listen to the media, or even to people who aren’t in the profession, that many people really have no idea what it’s like to be a teacher of any persuasion. It’s something that you really don’t understand unless you’re in it.

Then when you add even more confusion to the mix by considering what it is like to be a teacher of color, it introduces an entirely different level and layer of complexity and madness. It is something that you really cannot relate to unless you are experiencing it.

And even though there are hundreds of teacher memoirs out there that try to do the job of explaining it, there weren’t very many classroom teachers of color writing memoirs.

So, on one hand, I could relate to some of the things I’ve read, but then there were these other conversations—important conversation about race—that just weren’t even discussed in any of these particular memoirs. That was what ultimately made me decide to write it.

Since then, I know there have been a few other teachers of color who have written memoirs. I think it’s a bit ironic that they are all coming out around the same time. Maybe it is because we have all been pushed to our limits in terms of feeling as though we were excluded from this discussion.

You say that people don’t consider how the race of a teacher can affect a child’s psyche, or how having mostly white teachers can harm a child’s belief in the ability and intelligence of their own people. What does that mean to you?

In New York City, the school system is extremely segregated. As diverse as we believe New York City to be, the communities aren’t. You have pockets of black people, pockets of Hispanic people. I can go to Washington Heights and be around Dominicans. I can go to Harlem and be around African-Americans. I can go to the South Bronx and be around Puerto Ricans. I can go to Lower Manhattan and be around white people.

This was my reality growing up in the public school system as well—the students and their families are not accustomed to seeing anyone who doesn’t look like them.

And a lot of times, because their teachers are the only white faces that they see, it automatically equates to “whiteness means intelligence.” These faces represent authority.

Sometimes this creates tension because there is opposition to that authority. Sometimes it actually works in the favor of white teachers: when they are seen as authority figures, it’s their way or the highway and the students have to listen to whatever it is that they say.

Race and the color of our skin is constantly something that affects the dynamics in the classroom every day in so many different ways.

Teachers of color are dramatically underrepresented nationwide—82 percent of teachers are white.

And the percentage of public school students of color is rising more and more.

Why do more people of color not go into teaching?

Based on my own experiences, I’m starting to think this is not a profession that many people of color would choose, considering how controlling it has become.

As I’ve grown in this profession and become more expert in what I think I know in terms of teaching and education, I feel that I’m constantly being micromanaged more as the years progress.

It’s definitely becoming more difficult for me to stay because of the fact that I can’t be free to do as I please, to do what I know is effective. And it’s often not the administration, because they are following what the Department of Education tells them to do. I had more freedom in the classroom teaching as a novice at the age of 21 than I do now at the age of 34. To me that’s crazy.

You wrote that the public school system was an aversely racist institution. What did you mean?

I think the best way to explain it is with the idea of avoidance. When you talk about avoiding the obvious, that’s the way that racism tends to rear its ugly head in today’s times. It’s not as blatant. No one is going to say, “These kids are poor and black, so we don’t care that their schools are not funded in the same way.”

But they can say that it’s the property tax that determines how much money a school receives, when we know that a school in Harlem that’s full of black and brown kids is a poor school and, therefore, is not going to get the same amount of money as a school somewhere else.

So you don’t even have to say it’s a race thing. But we know that it is. I mean, that’s just something that we feel all the time being black in America. You see that cops are killing unarmed black men and they keep making a justifiable excuse for it, but you don’t see it happening to unarmed white men as often.

But no one is going to actually say what it is. So we’re going to avoid the obvious and pretend like race has nothing to with it, when it has everything to do with it. I think that’s what the education system does all the time. And when you avoid the obvious, children will suffer and not care enough to do anything about it.

Several times in the book you write about kids who gave up. They had reached a point their young lives where they didn’t care.

It doesn’t matter that they don’t care—we’re still avoiding the obvious. The obvious is that their parents are not bringing them to school every day at the elementary school level. Or in high school, the obvious is that they’re coming in at noon instead of 8:15. But we’re not going to address those issues. We’re just going to keep teaching to the test. We’re going to keep pressing them and see if we can get that Level 4 from these students who are Level 1. We’re not going to pay attention to the things that really matter.

Those are examples of aversive racism, because I believe that if these things are happening at other communities, common sense would kick in and people would say, “Well, let’s focus on these issues rather than worrying about what test result they get.”

Were you shocked to discover that the clique system and racist behavior carried over to your adult colleagues?

I was beyond floored. This was when I was in my early 20s. I think I was still wet behind the ears in terms of life and of me having such a higher expectation for humanity at that point—I wasn’t so jaded.

I really did not anticipate those type of interactions with adults. To be honest, I didn’t think that those types of conversations and statements would happen in the space of a school, where we have this daunting task of teaching children in poverty-stricken communities who don’t want to learn.

I didn’t think anyone who would even try to take on such a great responsibility would have time to be petty, and it was very hurtful.

I always valued the role of a teacher so much. It’s almost like I put the profession on a pedestal. And I really thought that anyone who chose this profession in life had to be a good person. I didn’t anticipate that for some it really is just a good job with benefits and that children were secondary to their ulterior motives and agendas.