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Competence Comes In All Colors

COMMENTARY by Stan Simpson
July 20, 2005

Five years ago, Gary Anderson - an eager and earnest college graduate - decided that a two-year stint teaching in a predominantly black, overwhelmingly poor Newark, N.J., public school would be a life-changing experience.

Anderson is white, raised in West Hartford and educated at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Outside of church and summer camps, he had limited experience in urban environments.

"When I'd introduce myself and told people what I was doing, they'd give me a look like `You're not going to last,' or `You must be crazy,'" said Anderson, 27, in a telephone conversation from Somerville, Mass. He is working on his master's degree in public policy at Tufts University. "In some ways, I'm sure they probably saw people who looked like me who didn't do too well."

Anderson was a participant in program called Teach For America, which recruits and encourages bright college students not majoring in education to give the teaching profession a try.

In the first few days of class, Anderson quickly understood there would be trust issues. The school wasn't known for its parental involvement. But when Anderson hosted his first `Meet the Teacher' meeting, which normally drew a scant turnout, 14 of 20 parents showed up.

"I'm sure it's because they heard this 22-year-old white guy was teaching their kid, and they wanted to see what I was made of," he said, suppressing a chuckle. "I was just glad to have 14 parents show up."

Sunday's Courant front page jolted readers with the provocative headline "Can Whites Teach Blacks?" a reaction to the turmoil that overtook Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School in Hartford this year. Several months after the school was heralded as a model for its efforts to reduce the racial achievement gap, its retiring and popular black principal was replaced by a white principal. Acrimony stirred when she filled all the vacancies on the diverse staff with white teachers, giving rise to internal concerns that she held African Americans in low regard.

Anderson's story is one that can add some depth to the loaded question of whether whites can teach blacks. Of course they can. And while it's simple-minded to label all white teachers as inadequate to teach black kids solely because of their skin color and ethnicity, it's also naive to not recognize that there are teachers, of all hues, who have no business in education. Their low expectations and their inability to connect with their students make them a liability.

It's also foolhardy not to recognize the educational asset of having a diverse teaching staff. You have to wonder how the dearth of black and Latino educators - who make up only 7 percent of Connecticut's teaching force - contributes to the striking institutional racism that still exists.

Just take a look at the complexion of kids in high school advanced-placement classes and those in "special education" courses. Minority kids are also more likely to suffer disciplinary measures and suspensions than whites.

"We need a more diverse teaching profession to reflect the diversity in our schools. We believe all students benefit from having teachers of color," said Woody Exley of West Hartford. He runs the Alma Exley Scholarship, in memory of his wife, a former consultant with the state Department of Education. The program gives scholarships to minority college students in Connecticut preparing to be teachers.

Anderson said he forged meaningful relationships with his students and their parents and believes he made a difference.

"From the first day I made it known that I was there to help them achieve," he says. "And [that] they were there to achieve. That's the understanding we had with one another. I really developed a special relationship with that class. I'm not going to lie and say that every day was perfect or that it was an easy experience, but I certainly think it was one in which the students and I, and the parents, developed a mutual respect."

Good teaching is like good management. You know a good teacher or boss when you see one. The good ones communicate. They value the people they're coaching and encourage them to achieve personal goals.

"I don't believe that only black teachers can teach black students," said Leslie Perry, 60. An African American, he retired this year after 36 years teaching in Hartford. "You have to believe all students are capable of learning. When they sense that you care and will listen to them, they will listen to you."

Ah, an elementary solution to a complex education question

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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