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Cristina Hart

Dale Mezzacappa

Dale Mezzacappa / The Notebook

‘You Woke?’ In orientation, new teachers confront issues of race

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It is a time, said Cristina Hart, for “courageous conversations.”

On this Thursday afternoon, about 30 newly hired Philadelphia School District teachers filed into her elective session during their weeklong orientation. It was called “You Woke? An Exploration of Culture Clashes and Conflicts in the Classroom.”

The orientation took place the week before the wrenching events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed while protesting against white supremacists. But Hart, a 22-year veteran of the District and an experienced teacher coach and mentor, had long ago decided that too much goes unspoken in too many classrooms in Philadelphia and other urban areas.

Angry, disengaged young people, mostly students of color, resist. The teacher, usually but not always white, struggles to respond. To understand. To teach.

“One of the things I noticed at Bartram [High School] mentoring new teachers as [Teach for America] got started is that there is a gap in experience and in culture with what the teachers have lived and what our students lived,” she explained. “Basic things. Like coming to school prepared.”

Bartram, in Southwest Philadelphia, is one of the District’s challenging neighborhood high schools, marked by declining enrollment, high poverty, low math and reading proficiency rates, and the constant churn of students and teachers.

Hart designed this seminar to help fulfill her requirement to do a project to promote her own professional growth.

“We’re recruiting people to educate our students,” Hart said, “and in order to educate our students, you’ve got to understand our students.”

In her session, the new teachers – black and white, male and female, some right out of college and others with experience elsewhere – split into groups and were asked to define certain terms. Some groups tackled racial resentment. Others got minority stress. A third group looked at prejudice vs. racism.

Three white males were tasked with defining racial resentment. They wrote: “White privilege allows us to see the issues through an ‘individual’ lens, while not recognizing the structural factors preventing groups from ‘picking themselves up by the bootstraps.’" The implications? “How our students view us [as] white men.”

For themselves, they said, they need to “recognize our privilege and bias and [that] we’re working within those systems.”

These teachers agreed with the consensus in the room: Despite systemic barriers placed before people of color, there is a tendency to blame an individual’s troubles on moral failings or individual shortcomings. That is not as likely with white students.

“There’s a belief,” one teacher said, “that if one person can overcome this, why can’t everyone else? But we should be asking how we can make it more likely that a larger number of students can overcome the situation.”

Another group of teachers, which included white and black members, tacked the difference between racism and prejudice.

Prejudice is “predisposed views or beliefs that one’s own race is superior.” Racism is “unequal distribution of power based on race."

The “You Woke?” seminar was among more than a dozen elective sessions from which the 650-plus new teachers could choose. The others ranged from "Trauma 101" to using Google Classroom, "Mental Health Stigma and Supports," and various approaches to setting classroom expectations and maintaining discipline. The focus on trauma and behavioral health issues, done in collaboration with the District’s Office of Student Services run by Karyn Lynch, was also new to this year’s orientation, which was held Aug. 7-11 at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in the Far Northeast.

The new hires could choose three of the electives to supplement the mandatory sessions on pay, benefits and teacher evaluation, their specific area of teaching, and general District policies.

Different, though overlapping, tracks were offered for “novice” and “experienced” teachers. Based on a survey, 60 percent of the new hires are coming with three years of experience or less, and 40 percent have been teaching for four or more years. The human resources office did not have a breakdown of the new hires based on race and gender.

A breakdown of the 2016-17 Philadelphia teacher force showed that about half are white females, 20 percent black females and 20 percent white males. Less than 5 percent are black males, with smaller percentages of Latinos and Asians.

That breakdown is quite different from the demographics of the District’s enrollment, which is predominantly black and Latino.

With about 8,500 teachers and a retention rate of about 90 percent, the District must hire roughly between 800 and 1,000 new teachers each year.

Meredith Mehra, the District’s deputy chief of teaching and learning, said this is the first time, as far as she knows – her own experience goes back just three years – that conversations about race and equity had been incorporated into the District’s new teacher orientation.

In 2016, based on feedback from teacher coaches and the new hires, “we acknowledged this as a gap in our programming,” said Mehra. “Our stance is this – we’re new to incorporating this content in our programming and we know we’re not going to be perfect at it. However, we can’t allow that to be a barrier in tackling these important conversations that shape who we are as educators and citizens.”

About 150 teachers attended the "You Woke?" sessions, Hart estimated, which was offered five times during the week.

Hart urged them to take a deep look inside themselves: Who and what do we privilege in the classroom? It’s not just based on color, but on behavior.

“The world has no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls,” one African American female teacher said.

Those interviewed after the session said they appreciated the insight and the honesty that the sessions provided.

“It was my favorite session so far,” said Brian Gallagher, one of those in the group of three white males. “I was pleasantly surprised on the idea of focusing to be aware of those things and being able to deal with those issues.”

Gallagher grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from St. Joseph’s Prep, but waited to go to college, taking various jobs before enrolling at Community College of Philadelphia. From sociology classes, “I gained a strong desire to help the youth of the city. I thought education might be best for me.” He enrolled in Temple and just graduated with his teaching degree. He will be teaching 7th-grade English language arts at McDaniel Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where the student body is almost entirely African American and low-income.

Kadijah Hankerson, who is African American, will be a special education teacher at Dobbins High School after working for several years at one of the approved private schools where the District sends some students when their needs require it. She also appreciated the session.

“I thought it comforting to hear non-minority educators be honest and acknowledge a lot of the challenges minority students are saying,” Hankerson said. “Just acknowledging that barriers exist will have a tremendous effect on how they educate them.”

Lauren Thomas, who will take over the choir at the High School for the Creative & Performing Arts, is an eight-year veteran of school districts in South Jersey.

“I did a group in my old district, a minority students’ association, and these are exactly the topics that would come up,” she said. “I love this. It is very necessary for teachers. It is reality."

Hart, the session leader, grew up in Yeadon, Delaware County, and taught in Newark and Camden before coming to Philadelphia. During her career, she grew tired of the “savior” teacher narrative so prevalent in popular culture.

“I think that having conversations around equity and social justice are essential to understanding our students,” she said, “but also making it very clear that we are not sitting around waiting to be saved. We are waiting for quality instruction.”

And quality instruction, she said, requires all teachers to know history, confront their own biases and prejudices (we all have them), and work to create a classroom based on honesty and the expectation of achievement.

Interviewed after the protests in Charlottesville, Hart said she hoped that what happened would provide more of a catalyst for these honest conversations.

“Absolutely, these things need to be confronted head-on,” she said. “For too long and too often, we don’t want to address it. It is difficult and uncomfortable. That just empowers people to continue to be hateful. We have to confront the hate. But in doing so, we have to be thoughtful and intentional.”

Meet five new District teachers

Dale Mezzacappa