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
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
"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
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
"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
Ah, an elementary solution to a complex education question
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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