When I was in undergrad I had this vision of going to an “inner-city” school and “making a difference.” After all, these inner-city schools need good teachers and the kids need someone who will help them-- guide them-- save them. I was taught this “savior complex” throughout my education and throughout my life. I was fed stories of white teachers going into urban schools and rescuing their students from the streets. I watched movies like Dangerous Minds where I learned that black kids are their own worst enemies, and the only way to a happy life was out of the so-called “ghetto.” I watched shows like Boy Meets World in which Mr. Feeny makes comments about people escaping to the suburbs for better schools. I was going to fix this problem. I was going to save the Black kids from themselves! I was going to make a difference!
But now I see a larger picture. I see how my thinking was flawed, and I see how not a single one of my kids needs “saved.” My kids, at a school with a high percentage of Black students, at a school with a high free and reduced lunch rate, at a Title One school, need what any other kid on this earth needs: love, respect, and to be heard.
My kids are no different than your kids or any other kids in this country, or around the world.
I have had a unique experience as a teacher. I grew up in schools in western PA that had a population of white students that was over 90%. I did my student teaching in Ithaca, New York. I taught in Palm Beach County, FL, New Haven CT, and Snellville, GA and now am getting ready for my time as an educator in Northern Virginia. As I search for a new school I find myself using the terms “good school” and “bad school” quite often. The more I say it, the more I cringe. After all, what defines a “good” or “bad” school? Many would say that my previous schools could be considered “bad” schools based on demographics alone. After doing quite a bit of reflecting on this, I decided that it doesn’t come down to “good” or “bad,” rather “well-funded” and “under-funded.”
When I look back at what I consider to be the “good” schools I have taught at, versus the “bad” schools, I realize it comes down to one thing: funding. The “good” schools have money to purchase new instruments. The “bad” schools do not. The”good” schools have the means to provide every student with a device for online learning. The “bad” schools do not. Why is it that the “bad” schools are almost always the Black schools?
How many times were negative images of these “bad” Black schools planted in your brain? They are dangerous. The kids are rude. The parents don’t care. We are educated to both STAY AWAY and that we can FIX this mess by bringing our holy White selves into these buildings and rescue the kids who go there.
I challenge higher-ed institutions to change this. I challenge them to rewrite their narratives. How is it possible that in SIX YEARS of higher-ed, my ONLY experience with Black culture was my undergrad institution’s annual Gospel Fest? (and truthfully, Gospel Fest wasn’t even taken seriously, it was just an excuse for the entire music school to drink… but I digress…) The single Black-male professor who is on staff at my university’s music school was seen in a negative light. He was seen as a Black “victim.” I never got to know him. I only ever complained about him. I didn’t understand his attitude or the chip on his shoulder.
Now I do.
We use the terms “inner-city,” “urban,” and “rough” to mean BLACK. ‘I teach at an inner-city school’ really means ‘I teach at a Black school.’ ‘I teach at a rough school’ really means ‘I teach at a Black school.’
I am going to be changing my language to match the reality. “I teach at an under-funded school.” It is not a good school or bad school issue, nor has it ever been that way.
Ever wonder why the teacher turn-over rate in these so-called “urban” (aka Black) school districts is so high? Ever ask yourself why the average class size in NYC Public Schools is 26.4 students, while the average class size of the “best” school district in the country (Naperville CUSD 203, IL) is 22 students. (For all of my non-educator friends, that 4 student difference is like night and day.)
“But every American has an EQUAL OPPORTUNITY to succeed! After all, we all live in the same country!”
I call BS.
My kids are amazing, beautiful, kind, talented humans. They love learning. They want to please me. They want to make their families proud. They want to succeed just like every other kid in every other school. And yet, I have taught at many schools that people consider, “bad.” One of my online assignments was to create a “bullseye rap.” We use a target and descriptive words to help guide them to create their own song. I didn’t assign them a topic-- they got to choose. One of my students, Jada, chose to write about herself. She is in kindergarten. She is Black. These are her, original, lyrics:
“J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. It’s Jada. It’s Jada.
I’m kind, sweet, and honest. I love my skin. I love my hair. I love my eyes. I’m strong, brave. It’s Jada. It’s Jada.
J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. It’s Jada. It’s Jada.”
The moment I realized I didn’t need to “save” my kids was the moment we really began to connect. They are intuitive. They know what your intentions are.
At the end of the day, it is up to us, as educators, to decide what message we are going to send them.
Hi! I am Nicole Guimaraes. I'm a K-2 music teacher in Falls Church City, VA. I've got an amazing husband and a fabulous dog who keep me busy. If I'm not teaching or walking my dog, you can probably find me at the gym!