In the front of the room, Mr. P was talking. Technically, this was “my” class – I was the assigned teacher – but I’d stopped teaching and started functioning as a co-teacher/ support a few days earlier. Now, I was moving about the room, answering quiet questions, checking on student work, when one of the Black students touched my sleeve. I leaned down to hear her question. Without taking her eyes off of Mr. P, she whispered, “Thank you.” I knew exactly what she meant.
One week ago – on day one of this challenge – I wrote about the moment when Mr. P and I decided to team teach a class. And not just any class: we decided to team teach a new interdisciplinary course called “Anti-Black Racism in the Canadian Context.”
Some background: I am an experienced teacher with a permanent contract in our school board, and I am white; he is an experienced teacher who is not yet a permanent teacher in our school board, and he is Black. I grew up in the US; he grew up in Jamaica. Last June, when courses were being assigned, there was only one – ONE – Black teacher in this school, and he was not able to teach this class, so the principal asked me. I’m not Black, but I have been working towards anti-racism; filled with both trepidation and excitement, I said yes. To be honest, I was kind of proud that he thought I could do it.
Over the summer and the first semester, I read a lot, talked a lot, and thought a lot about how I could teach an Anti-Black Racism course to a group of students from many racial backgrounds. I researched and learned. I was determined to do my absolute best. The course began on a frigid February day, and I started by acknowledging my precarious position. No matter what I said or did, I was still a representative of white authority standing at the front of the classroom. Even though I planned to have an inquiry-based course, the structure of our system means that I was still “in charge”. It was uncomfortable, but we could live with discomfort.
And then came Mr. P. He had been hired to cover a position at our school this semester. We started chatting about literacy instruction almost the moment we met. Each of our discussions was better than the last, our pedagogy in synch, our hopes and expectations for students overlapping. He is wildly knowledgeable and wonderfully expressive. Within days, he was popping into the classroom; days after that, he started co-teaching with me. By Friday of last week, he was leading the course, and I had stepped into the background.
I’m pretty opinionated about what constitutes good teaching, but watching what happened when a person with lived experience of racism taught the course was humbling. I have been taught by Black educators, listened to Black colleagues, sought out Black perspectives. I am aware of the need for diverse voices – especially Black voices – in our schools. I knew all of this. But – oh, how I wish you could have been in the room last week when he talked about Bob Marley or recognized a Jamaican poet I had quoted. I wish you could have seen the moment that he addressed the racist coverage of the war in Ukraine. I wish you could have heard him talk about what it was like for him to come to Canada as a Black man. I can teach all sorts of things, but I can’t teach that.
Friday afternoon, the principal came by to tell me that Mr. P was needed in the room where he was originally assigned – a support position: valuable, but flexible enough that he had been able to spend a week in our class. Still, that couldn’t last forever, and I knew what had to happen: I asked the principal to transfer the course into Mr. P’s name. I didn’t know that the change would happen right away, but it did. This morning, with little warning, I said goodbye to that group of students and to the Anti-Black Racism course.
I’m a little heartbroken – if one can be a little heartbroken. I would love to keep teaching the course for many reasons. I think I’m mourning my preparation. I know I’m mourning my own chance to learn from Mr. P. I’m absolutely mourning the students and the connections we were making. I love the classroom, and I will spend the rest of this semester with only one traditional class.
On the other hand, a highly qualified Black teacher is leading a diverse group of students to a new understanding of race and racism while he shares a powerful lived experience. And that is worth celebrating.