During my first-year teaching in NYC Public Schools, I had an experience that was not just racism.
I was fresh, ambitious 24 year-old, and teaching was my first professional gig. I was so excited to give back to students in the underserved community of East New York, Brooklyn. I wore a blazer, a t-shirt and jeans to work. My daughter and I took a livery cab to my job at 6 A.M. every morning, and we got home at 10 P.M., after my graduate classes at a Brooklyn College. It was a grind, but I was committed.
My co-teacher was a veteran teacher from Long Island. She’d been teaching for over 20 years, and worked in this underserved neighborhood the entire time. She was white, but she wasn't the first white coworker I had. My aunt was white, and I grew up in a diverse working-class suburb outside of Chicago. Race wasn’t an issue for me. It was first year of No Child Left Behind, and we were required to teach to the third grade tests. Our students could not be promoted to the fourth grade unless they passed the test, so it was of the utmost importance to teach them how to adapt to a new educational system. Their progress at school depended on it.
My co-teacher had a warped impression of our students and myself. Her tone towards both the children and myself was indicative of deep character issues. She displayed erratic behavior daily, including outbursts toward the students, and an inability to get along with her coworkers. She made it clear that she thought we were less than.
It was a tough first year for me. Because of the numerous behavioral issues my students had, I had to become the stability and the consistency for the entire classroom — including my co-teacher. Was she racist? Probably. But in hindsight, her issues were even deeper. She was spoiled, entitled, and a product of an educational system that was badly in need of reform and failed to effectively educate about biases.
When she stormed out halfway through the year, declaring that she wasn’t feeling well and needed to take her maternity leave early, I was relieved. Though the remainder of the year was challenging, I was grateful that I could control this variable for my students. I was grateful that with all the personal challenges that they were encountering that they no longer had someone who looked different from them berating them or making them feel bad about themselves.
Most of the time, race is somewhat of a factor in daily interactions. As is sexual identity, marital status, and even what you are wearing. It is important to remember that it is not the only factor, and as coworker, supervisor, and employee, there are several factors at play that cause certain behaviors. Racism is only one ingredient in a host of variables that cause challenging work environments. Racism is system generated. Racial bias is from an individual. This helps differentiate how you react or internalize a person's behavior. Either way, it's understanding the person's issues are much deeper that allow you to focus on what is important.