“Tough” is the Compliment We Pay White Teachers That Condemns Black and Brown Students

My nine years as a teacher in public schools have been eye-opening. The injustices that students from low-income backgrounds and students of color face in the education system have been common knowledge for years. And yet, it has been astounding to experience firsthand just how deep our biases go and how they cause us to misdiagnosis problems in education and create solutions that do not serve our students. Many caring, well-educated people lament the disproportionate discipline of students of color, but most people, upon hearing that I taught through Teach for America, respond with some version of “Wow, you must be tough.” When I first started teaching, these responses gave me a feeling of pride on one level and made me feel ashamed on another.


They validated my exhaustion from doing the really hard job that teaching is and made me feel, well, tough. I also felt, however, that I was betraying my students by allowing comments filled with misperception and bias to go unchecked.

I would respond feebly with, “Yea, working with the kids was great, but it was hard to work in a failing system and see kids misserved on a daily basis.” While the praise was well-intended, it was also coming from the negative perspective our society has about low-income students and students of color. It was coming from the perspective that those students are tough to teach.

Every time I allowed this narrative to continue, I was, through my silence, perpetuating stereotypes.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of changing this often middle-upper class White perception. Not only is it inaccurate, it is dangerous. It contributes to and justifies the school-to-prison pipeline. My experience in Teach for America, teaching at a “high-performing” urban charter school in a low-income neighborhood and teaching in an affluent, suburban charter school refute this inaccurate narrative. Indeed, the disparities in all three of these environments have nothing to do with what the students were capable of achieving, and everything to do with what the adults believed they could achieve.

Teacher Training Can Perpetuate the Belief Gap

At the traditional district school my teacher preparation consisted of my principal telling me not to smile for the first three months. At the urban public charter school I was trained in how to forcefully tell students to sit up and to give “violations” for slouching, calling out, speaking while entering the classroom, not urgently taking out a pencil, and wearing scarves. At the suburban public charter school I was trained to insert movement, reading, writing, and student discussion in every class. “Violations” did not exist. My training at the first two schools that “those” students weren’t capable of responsibly owning their academic experience and likely communicated the same thing to my students.

Hallway Norms Can Send Messages About How We View Students

In the failing traditional district school, “safety” officers yelled at students to get to class, sometimes using a megaphone. In the urban charter school, high school students were required to remain completely silent in hallways and entering class. Once when some students entered a science class speaking at a normal volume, I overheard the teacher say, “Next time you enter class that way I’m going to play Welcome to the Jungle.” He sent all students out of the room to re-enter silently, glared at them, and lectured them about their behavior. Many students probably received “violations.” I was the only adult to address him about the racism in his language. At the suburban, largely-White charter school, students walk and run down the hallways, one student each year carries a boombox, and normal teenage chatter carries into the classroom. When the bell rings, students settle into their work with gentle prodding from their teachers. Proponents of charter schools with silent hallways argue that it is to maximize instructional time. They do not realize that the damage done by creating prison-like hallways wastes countless minutes.

We Condemn Some Students’ Disrespect More Than Others

At the failing traditional district school a student once called me a name when I told him he could not go to the bathroom to get a tissue. His choice of language was disrespectful, but I was also being disrespectful of his needs. I was taught to control student movement as much as possible in the name of “achievement.” At the urban charter school a bunch of students once decided to hum with their mouths shut so it was impossible to figure out who was humming. It was a brilliant protest against our silencing of their voices. But, the school responded by cracking down and routinely suspending many students. At the suburban charter school there were no “violations” or detentions. A student once called me a THOT but wouldn’t admit that he knew the term’s meaning and his dad threatened to sue the school if we suspended him.

The school environments we create for low-income and students of color could not be more different from those we create for White, middle class students. Many people find the disparity in student achievement unacceptable, but believe the solution is to control low-income students’ every move to maximize learning or train them in “grit” or “professionalism.” Most people would not admit it, but these solutions see the students as needing “fixing” rather than shifting the way we teach and view students. Even the well-intentioned and well-educated seem to love to watch White people “fix” Black and Brown students just like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. This view misses the reality that the way our schools and society treat students causes the “misbehaviors” we proclaim to solve by “cracking down” or silencing their voices. We fail to see that there is just as much disrespect and misbehavior in suburban White schools; we just don’t see them as tough. Once I learned to stop trying to control my Black and Brown students and instead learn from them how and what they wanted to learn, building on their many strengths, I never got cursed at again.

The root of the problem is not the behavior or motivation or grit of low-income students and students of color. The root of the problem is how we, the adults, view and treat them.

The common praise that uses “tough” as a compliment for an adult teacher of urban students and “tough” as a critique of young students exemplifies this problem. It both contributes to and justifies the disproportionate discipline of students of color. When students rebel against schools that waste their time or control their every move, we must see why. When we don’t, we are misserving and misunderstanding our students. Well-intentioned White people can start working to undo this injustice immediately by questioning the language we use to describe poor Black and Brown students.

Then we must ensure that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos does not roll back the Obama regulations designed to protect students from discriminatory discipline.

And then we have a lot more work to do, but we can start by questioning the bias within ourselves and our schools.

Betsy Leach is an instructor in the Contemplative Education program at Naropa University specializing in Multicultural Education. She spent her first nine years as a teacher teaching Spanish and Spanish for Heritage Speakers K-12. As a consultant, she facilitates workshops on culturally and linguistically diverse education, responsive family engagement, and cultivating an awareness of implicit bias in order to create more equitable, inclusive organizations.


Photo Credit: Movieposters.com

More Comments