On Being a White Woman in a Diverse Classroom

By Allison Burgeson

I grew up in a small rural community in northeast Indiana with next to no diversity in any of the schools. Now, I’m a white teacher in a diverse school of mostly Black and Latino students at Paramount School of Excellence Englewood Middle School. It has not always been easy to teach in a community so different from what I grew up with, but it has been a wonderful growing experience for me and my family. As I witnessed the distress in the Black community this summer, I was forced to try to articulate my own feelings about race in our community in order to explain it more to my own children openly and honestly. I began with a lot of reading, because what else do we teachers do better? I thoroughly enjoyed learning from the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge. This made me uncomfortable, but it was necessary and has made me a better person and teacher.

I am working hard to make myself a better teacher for students of color. A huge part of that work started with acknowledging my own ignorance. There is a lot I do not know about the lives of my students of color because they deal with racism and other challenges I have never, and will never, face. When I accepted the fact that my experiences as a white student in a primarily white school were not the same as my students of color, I became a better listener.

A good listener doesn’t just listen to the words coming out of students’ mouths. To really listen, you have to pay attention to all of the clues your student is giving you. Trust me, whether it is with words, looks or actions, they are most likely telling you everything you need to know. To listen well, I had to put my personal feelings and opinions on hold. 

Thirteen years ago, in my first year teaching out of college, I was 22 years old with fewer life experiences than I realized at the time. I arrived at school one day to find a kindergarten student just screaming unintelligibly at another student. At the time, I was a much less experienced educator. My initial reaction was of anger towards the student. I watched as a colleague calmed him without using judgement or fear as a discipline tactic. Later, I found out that the student had witnessed the death of a close family member. I could not fathom going through that as an adult, let alone as a 5-almost 6-year-old kid. I did not have the knowledge at the time to be able to assist that student in the moment. I learned a lot about myself that day. The way we react to a student in a situation must always assume respect and understanding. I struggle with this even today. I still have to work hard to make sure I react calmly and with empathy to student behaviors.

This is an important skill for any teacher of any students. Students sometimes lash out and might say mean or hurtful things out of anger or pain. We as teachers cannot take all of those words as personal attacks. Listen and look for the root of the problem. Often a student is lashing out because they are frustrated with the work, don’t understand a concept, didn’t get enough sleep, or is mad at someone else entirely. I’m not endorsing allowing students to act out — I’m encouraging teachers to control their reactions to the behaviors. Stay calm and listen.

In addition to learning to listen better to my students of color, I also now make sure I am seeking out and listening better to my colleagues who are people of color. If I don’t understand something a student is dealing with because we don’t share the same background, a colleague might. It is hard to ask for help, but I must humble myself at times to do what is best for my students. I have yet to find a colleague who isn’t ready and willing to jump in and support a student, which helps me be a better teacher, too. 

Becoming a better listener has allowed me to build a better relationship and open line of communication with the families of my students. When I call a family out of concern, I’m careful to keep to the facts and not wrap it up in my own emotions — the only feeling families should sense from me is caring. I have learned that my ideas about parenting and family life are strongly shaped by my personal experiences as a white woman, and I had to let that go so I could listen and accept the experiences of my students’ families. I acknowledge that being a white woman means I grew up with privileges, whether I knew it or not at the time. When I was approached by an authority figure, I didn’t have to worry that they would make assumptions about me based on my race. When I went out with friends, no one eyed us warily. I did not have to work 10 times harder just to prove that I deserved to be in a white-dominated world.

As a white privileged teacher of students of color, I know my students need to see more people like them in my position. Fortunately, many of my students do see teachers of color. Paramount School of Excellence Englewood has a small but very racially diverse staff. That diversity is intentional and purposeful. For those of us who cannot be that model, we must do better and be better listeners and allies for the families in our school communities. All of my students are amazing human beings who will grow up to be positive agents of change in the world.
Allison Burgeson is a 5th grade teacher at Paramount School of Excellence Englewood.