DEAR DR. COMER:
I am a white schoolteacher. I got to know a black child in the fourth grade in our school but not in my class. She recently said to me, "I never get called on in my room. I think I would be ignored even if I stood on my head."
I was shocked. I have never heard her teacher make a derogatory racial remark. But I don't know her that well. I feel an obligation to help the student but I don't want to make matters worse. I would appreciate your suggestions. D.F. DEAR D.F.:
Before you act, study the situation as best you can. You mention that you got to know the student. Do you have a special realtionship with her -- know her parents, live nearby? Does she like you a great deal? Are you especially fond of her and have you let her know it? Are you a fourth grade teacher of another section?
It may be that the student thinks she likes you more than her teacher -- at least on the day she made the comment -- and is trying to arrange to get into your class. She may like you both. She may be asking how much you care -- "Would you rescue me if I were in trouble (being ignored)?"
I have mentioned before that children in this age group, 8 or 9 years, are still learning how to handle divided loyalties, temporary disappointments and unhappiness, concern about rejection and other feelings. They sometimes test in innature ways until they are helped to handle their feelings in more mature ways.
On the other hand, she may be right on target. If so, the problem is more difficult. Is it the teachers' racial attitude? Does the teacher simply favor and call on certain students -- perhaps on the basis of family income, personality, ability -- and not call on the less favored? Regardless of the reason, such a situation is unfair and damaging to children. It's the cause of much underachievement and "acting-up" behavior in schools.
Discuss the situation with the student. You might let her know that you would like to be helpful, but wonder out loud about the questions I raised above about her relationship with her teacher and with you. If the tone of your questioning is too accusatory or doubtful, she may back off her story even if it is true. your tone should convey a desire to be helpful and fair.
Even if there is no merit to her story, it's the kind of incident which teachers should share with each other in staff meetings, in-service training programs or in informal ways. Thinking about the way children function makes it possible for the adults aroudn them to help them grow. It prevents misunderstandings which can lead to conflict and disregard for each other and the students.
If you feel that there is merit to her story, you might want to talk to her teacher. If you plan to mention the student's name, you should tell her beforehand. You should approach your colleague with an open mind and in a spirit of helpfulness. If the situation exists, there is a good chance that the teacher isn't aware of it. If there is a risk that your colleague will be angry with the child, you probably shouldn't identify her.
In the case of an outright racist or otherwise unfair response, it would help to express your disapproval and to indicate the effect such an attitude and behavior can have on student. It would also help to report the matter to the principal, and if no action it taken or conditions do not improve, inform the child's parents.
It's important that the adults involved make an effort to achieve fairness in behalf of the student rather than to convey anger or a desire to punish anyone. Such an approach can reduce the risk of extreme conflict. Obviously, there is some risk in this for you, but good and concerned teachers usually take risks.