The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A black professor offers advice ‘For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood’

Christopher Emdin teaches at Columbia University. (Ryan Lash)

Christopher Emdin says he wasn’t trying to alienate anyone with the title of his new book: “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too.”

But he did want to start a conversation that he knew wouldn’t be entirely comfortable. A conversation about the failures of well-meaning teachers whose approach to education – in Emdin’s view – often does more harm than good for their black and Latino students.

He also wanted to give those teachers concrete tools to do better. So he wrote a book that is part cultural criticism and part how-to guide, not just for white teachers but for teachers of any race whose students’ backgrounds differ from their own.

“I’m not against white teachers. I’m not against white people. In fact, I’d make the argument if we don’t have white folks teaching in the hood we’re screwed — who’s going to teach? But I need those teachers to feel some tension, some discomfort,” Emdin said in a recent interview.

White teacher: I thought I could reach my black students. Then one told me why I couldn’t.

The book title, and its pointed challenge to white teachers to examine their own practice, is meant to help teachers turn classrooms into places that are more hospitable and effective — and even joyful — for kids who often see school as a hostile place that’s disconnected from their lives.

“It is intended to draw folks into action,” he said. “I’ve been in schools across this country and literally seen sorrow. I’ve gone to classes and seen kids and they see another brown face in a position of authority, and they are like save me – get me out of here.”

Emdin is a member of the faculty at Columbia University’s Teachers College, one of the nation’s premier schools of education, where he has built a national reputation for using hip hop music to teach science.

He is also a native of Brooklyn and the Bronx who grew up going to public schools, where he said he learned that if he wanted to succeed academically, he had to disavow essential parts of himself – the loud parts, the parts inclined to challenge authority.

“You learn to suppress who you are, but more dangerous than suppression, you learn to devalue the things that make you you,” he said.

One big problem, he writes, is the dominant narrative in public education about do-gooder teachers working to save poor kids from their troubled communities. It’s a narrative that teaches young people that they hail from worthlessness, and that in order to make it in life, they need to leave their homes and themselves behind.

“Students quickly receive the message that they can only be smart when they are not who they are,” Emdin writes.

Another problem is the cultural disconnect between teachers and their students – a disconnect that too often leads to miscommunication, frustration and disengagement, none of which is good for learning. “On time and prepared for learning,” for example, can mean very different things to a teenager than it does to her middle-class teacher.

In many ways, he writes, these are the same problems that Native American students faced a century ago at boarding schools that aimed to assimilate them into white culture. Modern urban schools are similarly designed to assimilate students, he wrote, referring to urban youth as “neoindigenous.”

His solution is something he calls “reality pedagogy,” built on the idea that teachers have to see and appreciate their students’ strengths and build real, respectful relationships with those students before they can effectively impart lessons.

“If we are truly interested in transforming schools and meeting the needs of urban youth of color who are the most disenfranchised within them, educators must create safe and trusting environments that are respectful of students’ culture,” he writes.

Emdin suggests teachers can dip their toe into reality pedagogy by asking three or four students to join a small group that meets regularly with the teacher outside of class for a few minutes to offer feedback on lessons.

“That’s simple. That doesn’t require an iPad and coding. That just requires making the space for young people who are experiencing your teaching to give you suggestions on how to do it better,” he said.

The result, he said, is that the students know that their teacher cares what they think. The teacher gets professional development from people who are watching him work day in and day out. And the dynamic in the classroom begins to shift.

“It can change the game,” he said.

Emdin also suggests giving each student responsibilities in the classroom, so they know they have something important to contribute to the group. And he says it’s critical for teachers not only to allow students to be themselves, but also to teach them how to code-switch — how to be “social chameleons” who can navigate other cultures, too.

He urges teachers to leave their schools and get to know their students as three-dimensional people outside the classroom, and to know their communities as places that are not bereft of advantages but filled with strength.

It’s an approach that takes a lot of time, he acknowledges. “But you know what’s harder work? Yelling at kids all day. It’s easier work to just go observe the kids, hang out with the kids and use that to change your teaching,” he said.

He describes taking a white teacher to a black Pentecostal church to see how skillfully the preacher engaged the congregation, and how the preacher managed to have a plan for the service – and to depart from the plan when the energy in the room demanded it. “The preacher’s ability to have control over the service while allowing the congregants to guide his preaching can be replicated in the classroom,” Emdin wrote.

Emdin learned many of the lessons he is now trying to impart when he began his career teaching middle-school science in the Bronx.

“My first two years were a disaster,” he said. He was teaching in the community where he grew up. He knew the slang and the music. Yet he still couldn’t connect with his students.

“I had those challenges. Could you imagine somebody who did not come from that community? There’s no way you can tell me that person is going in there not having some sort of cultural barrier,” he said.

It wasn’t until he shed his idea of what a teacher was supposed to do, and started being himself, that things turned around. He began playing basketball after school with his students. They talked about all kinds of things, easily, and the connection translated into the classroom.

“My teaching improved. My students reacted differently, test scores increased, I didn’t have to yell anymore,” he said.

That’s what he hopes his book will be able to give other teachers who are struggling to connect with their students — even if the title, or some of the ideas, are difficult to stomach. When a white graduate student at Columbia, wrestling with his ideas about the failures of white teachers, asked him if she should stop teaching and go into policy, he said no.

“What you do is understand that the tension that you’re feeling is not a negative thing,” he said. “Anything that helps us collectively grow will at some point make us feel uncomfortable. I think tension is actually the seedbed for growth.”