For New Teachers in Urban Schools: Succeeding Means Constant Conversation about Power, Privilege, and Culture

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source:  Green & Write, May 20, 2016


It is long been noted in Green & Write and elsewhere that students of color benefit from having teachers with similar backgrounds. It is also widely documented that while 80% of American teachers are white, only 62% of students share that characteristic. This disparity is even more pronounced in urban areas, where students of color often encounter white teachers who have had very different lived experiences.

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In his recently published guide for young teachers, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… And the Rest of Y’All Too. Christopher Edmin notes that most teachers in urban areas don’t come from the same neighborhood or ethnic background as as their students, and that this dissimilarity has a detrimental impact on the teaching and learning accomplished in these classrooms. Edmin is among several educators who have made it a point to bring the conversation about the challenges that exist between white teachers and students of color to the cultural forefront and offer some advice that might save teachers some growing pains and save students the experience of feeling misunderstood or dismissed in their learning environments.

Get to know the neighborhood

 Teaching is about connecting and communicating. These skills are difficult for any teacher to master, but those who work in neighborhoods that don’t resemble the ones in which they grew up have a much harder time, at last initially. Etta Hollins at the Hechinger Report elaborates: “I am not saying we cannot teach students different from ourselves. I am saying that we have to pay attention to these differences. To do this, teacher candidates need a deep understanding of the communities in which they work. They need to know the different situations in which children live.”

Edmin suggests that teachers intentionally create community with their students. Sharing meals together or inviting community members into the classroom can have an impact on the trust between teacher and student. He also encourages educators to spend time in the area around the school, going to churches, business, and community events, “to better understand the community and to learn teaching strategies from the people their students admire.”

Question rigid discipline policies

 To counteract the impact of some of the challenges faced in many urban schools, administrators often create environments of strict behavior codes and zero-tolerance policies. As noted in an earlier Green & Write piece, the militarization of black schools creates a repressive environment that is not conducive to the intellection and emotional development that students need.

Even subtler disparities between culture and discipline can have an impact on students. Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous describes her transition from a black third-grade teacher who celebrated her abilities, to a white fourth grade teacher who saw her as disruptive: “The same confidence I’d shown in Ms. Lucas’ class was viewed by Ms. Reisman as arrogance, as immodesty, and she bristled at it. I sensed her dislike of me and responded to it with hatred of her, with defiance. My 8-year-old spirit raged against the notion that I was suddenly un-special, that everything I knew about myself, everything in me that was smart and talented and funny, was completely devalued under this woman’s gaze.” Mia was behaving as she’d previously been encouraged to behave, and achieving as she’d previously achieved, but because her teacher had rigid notions of appropriate classroom conduct, her enthusiastic efforts were dismissed. White teachers should not only question the efficacy of formal discipline policies and the assumptions embedded in them, but also make a daily practice of reflecting on their own expectations for classroom decorum and whether these align with students’ experiences and values.

Don’t try to be colorblind—start examining your biases

 It is difficult to identify and question one’s assumptions and blind spots regarding race, class, and culture. Common among educators is the idea that in order to do right by their students, teachers must not acknowledge these issues in the classroom. However, this “colorblindness” is hugely detrimental to the teacher-student relationship. In a recent EdWeek article on the subject, Stephen Sawchuck points out that, “in their interactions with students—whether explicit or subtle, well-meaning or ignorant—teachers can compound the biases that many experience.” Instead, teachers should pay close attention to the linguistic, familial, and cultural norms of their students and approach each interaction with the humility to learn about where they are coming from before reacting.

 This is where teacher preparation programs play an integral role. Participating in challenging dialogue and cultural competency training can prepare pre-service teachers for adapting to classroom environments that are different than where they grew up. Unfortunately, there is no national inventory that details what individual teacher preparation programs or even states require. However, researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings has found key elements that make these teacher prep programs successful: “The basic tenants are that such teaching is academically rigorous, it respects and engages with students’ cultures and backgrounds, and finally—in what has put it squarely in the political cross hairs of the culture wars—it contains a sociopolitical aspect that helps students to understand, critique, and behind challenging inequities in their lives.”

It seems that awareness of and constant conversation about structures of power, privilege, and culture is beneficial for all members of the classroom community, teachers and students alike.



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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.