Looking Up and Over my Fear

2.25.13 By Travis Bristol

[This post is the fourth of a series in which Travis shares comments and feedback from the 10th grade students he taught during his first year as a teacher, and reflects on his own practice.  Please click here to read the original post.]

I’m 5’11” despite my driver’s license affirmation that I’m 6’0”. Given this reality, there is something intimidating, almost frightening, when someone 6’3”, whom you’ve been conditioned to fear, gets in your face and it’s not to say hello. Jason McWhorter is a Black-American male, now 23 years old. After graduating from high school, he was awarded a basketball scholarship at a school in the south. Following an injury in his freshman year, his scholarship money disappeared and he returned home to Harlem. Jason is currently unemployed.

When he was in 10th grade, school administrators had transferred Jason, in addition to four other male students from the other 10th grade humanities block taught by my colleague, into my class. Jason had gotten into a fight with another student in his previous class; several weeks later, the young man with whom Jason had gotten into the fight was also transferred into my class. (As an aside, the focus of my dissertation explores the unique organizational challenges experienced by Black male teachers, one of which is the task of policing more than teaching.)

When one thinks about the prototypical “urban” male, Jason fits that profile. He sagged his pants; his do-rag was meticulously positioned in his back pocket and his fitted cap appeared to be one of his most prized possessions. I had seen Jason around the school, but had never really interacted with him. The challenges he experienced in his previous class coupled with his physical stature intimidated me. Jason’s transition was anything but smooth. In response to my re-direction, he often used a particular group of four letter words, kicked chairs, and even once flipped a desk.

In those early days when Jason entered my class, I had to remind myself that he was only 15. While on the outside he presented his “cool pose,” he—like any other 15 year-old—spent an inordinate amount of time seeking his peers’ affirmation. I began to focus less on what/how he presented and more on how I could use what I was teaching to get to know him as a learner. It’s important to underscore that some of the success I had with Jason did not occur instantly: then and now, I don’t see myself as the Great Black Hope. However, when I began to learn about him as an individual (e.g., his faith was important to him and he loved his mother), I was able to look up and over my fear.

Here are Jason’s responses to my questions.

1) What did I do when I was your teacher that engaged you/helped you learn?
English was my favorite subject already… however, because you took a personal interest in me, I enjoyed coming to your class. As a student I could tell that you really loved teaching because of your natural nervousness (lol) it was cool because the students are nervous too, so we were able to learn about each other.

2) Why do you think it was helpful?
You didn’t have the dictator attitude but you demanded respect.

3) What else do you wish I would have done?
I wish you would have taught eleventh and twelfth grade.

What Does This Mean for My Practice as a Clinical Teacher Educator?
When Jason spoke about my “nervousness,” I’m wondering if he sensed some of the sentiments I shared above. More importantly, my work with Jason makes me realize the importance of working with pre-service teachers to normalize the idea that it is natural for teachers to view students based on their socially constructed lens. However, we must actively confront such beliefs and get to know our students as individuals and learners. In the end, a posture in which we believe the myth of being in a post-racial society and present ourselves as color-blind has the potential to eviscerate our ability to make true and lasting change in an “urban” classroom.

more from Travis Bristol on the blog

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