It’s spring in Oak Park, so that means it’s 50 degrees out, the threat of snow still looms, and students are starting to look ahead. Kendale is scouting his college, Terrence and his mother are preparing a guardianship arrangement for him, and Jada is fighting with her mom about her prom dress.
I’m sure most students think that once they graduate, their high school enters a type of suspended animation. Nothing happens without them. When I was in school, I assumed my teachers didn’t do anything other than teach me, go home, and sit quietly until it was time to start the next day. Junior year, one of my English teachers revealed that she was going on a date that weekend and my brain broke. I also assumed that teachers were completely satisfied in their jobs.
In this week’s episode of America to Me, I learned there is plenty for them to be unhappy about. What struck me most were all the stories from faculty and staff members of color at Oak Park and River Forest High School who feel stymied in their careers because of stereotypes.
First up is Jessica Stovall. She’s been piloting her teacher feedback system in an elementary school in the Chicago Public School system. The system is focused on analyzing the types of conversations teachers have with students of color. When those conversations are about learning, not just behavior, students are more engaged and don’t internalize negative ideas about themselves. Sounds great, right? Sounds like something literally every school with students of color should implement, right? I bet you’re sitting there thinking OPRF is jumping at the chance, right? RIGHT?!?
Oh, you sweet, naïve cherry blossom. OPRF is basically acting like a guy on Tinder who will flatter you, make plans, then never, ever keep them and act like you’re the bitch when you call him out on his behavior. The school’s administrators have taken to straight up lying to avoid Jessica’s contribution to the racial equity conversation. Jessica is further set back when members of the school board ascribe to her all of white collaborator Aaron Podolner’s anger and aggression. They repeat his words back to her as her own. So not only is she being erased, she’s being punished for his approach because why wouldn’t a black woman be the angry one?
We also meet some of the black cafeteria staff. They’ve certainly noticed that only certain members of their team get promoted or even are allowed to handle cash or the keys to the cafeteria. It has noooooooothing to do with race, of course. If you can’t even let your damn cafeteria workers advance, what kind of school are you running here? It’s a cafeteria.
Other black teachers, including Anthony Clark in the special ed department, remark that OPRF is very comfortable with black teachers … handling certain departments. Gym. Special ed. Oh, I guess that’s the end of the list. Clark describes being seen as a “the black student whisperer.”
Tyrone Williams is an AP history teacher. He had an AP exam prep booklet printed for his students and asked the graphics department to put a cartoon of him on the cover in a superhero cape. Instead, he was handed something that I can only describe as … minstrel-esque? It’s a jet-black skinned caricature of a grinning black man with hair nothing like Williams’. He says his name alone is enough for parents to make judgements about him, and he wonders why some ask that their kids be moved from his class before they’ve even met him. The head of the history department describes it as “white flight.”
I’ve been teaching improv and comedy writing at the Second City Training Center for more than a year and a half. Before that, I taught with Second City and After School Matters for almost three years. For many of my students at the training center, I am their first woman of color instructor, if not their first instructor of color, period. Not to brag, but I’m a pretty great teacher. Yet I’ve had entire classes band together to try to get me fired because they decided I was unqualified and was teaching them “remedial exercises.” I’ve had white male students insist I should let them teach the class. I’ve had white students yell and curse at me because they disagreed with my notes. I had to DELETE other examples here because there were so many, and I was about to hit my word limit.
I tell other teachers about my experiences, and they cannot believe it. I’ve seen their faces drop when I share with them the language some students use with me and how they continually question my expertise. I have started to list my resume on the first day to prove to students I know what I am doing. My white peers don’t have to do that.
What I’m saying is, I get how the black teachers at OPRF feel even if the stakes are much lower in a ha-ha-make-’em-ups class.
Jessica Stovall says that there is no agency for making change at OPRF. Then she corrects herself and says there’s no agency for making change if you’re a woman of color at OPRF. The episode features clips of a 1975 documentary featuring Janet Wells, one of the school’s first black teachers. She says she hopes things will be better in 15 to 20 years, that once white people realize black people are just as good as them and they’ve stopped being afraid, then we can finally live together.
Who is going to tell her?
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