Can a white teacher connect with black students?

Damien Ford, a veteran teacher who works as an educational associate at the Baltimore School for the Arts, talks about the value for African-American students to have African-American teachers as role models.(Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Each school year, at least one male student shares with me a version of this story: While walking — sometimes to school, sometimes to or from work — the student is stopped by police. The police officer turns out the student’s pockets, empties his book bag if he has one, demands ID, sits him on the curb and makes him wait while they check him for priors or outstanding warrants. All of this happens absent probable cause.

I’ve heard a version of this unnerving story so many times during the two decades that I’ve been teaching in Baltimore that I’m no longer surprised by it. It’s also an experience that I’ve never had and a reminder of the unfair advantages white privilege still confers in 21st century America.


I applaud Baltimore City Schools’ recent push to attract and retain more black teachers. Students benefit when they see, first-hand, models of black success. Learning from black educators who’ve confronted injustices — micro and macro — similar to the ones students have faced, or may face yet, empowers young people. It also helps students visualize their own career possibilities. I see this dynamic at my own school where black colleagues exert a powerful, positive and nurturing influence on students.

Several Harford County school board members are concerned about a drop in minority teachers in Harford County Public Schools, as reported Monday night by the school system.

But, as a white male, does my whiteness ensure that I will always fall short of truly connecting with, motivating or inspiring students in Baltimore? Will I always be the kind of teacher students can’t relate to?


It’s true my whiteness does create barriers that have to be negotiated in the classroom — around race, class, privilege, trust and the kind of faith that has nothing to do with one’s religious affiliation. If I wasn’t a teacher, these barriers would likely prevent me from getting to know kids like the students in my school. But a classroom, out of necessity and design, melts many of these barriers away. It's one of the wonders of the job.

Over the years, I’ve advocated for students in court, visited former students in prisons as far away as Hagerstown, played football or basketball with students during lunch, conducted home visits, cried at funerals, danced at proms, shared many laughs, and, as a coach with the Baltimore Urban Debate League, chaperoned a debate team to Slovakia for an international tournament. (In a train station in Bratislava I watched our team — four gifted, razor sharp thinkers — silently put on their hard faces and stare down a group of white skinheads looking to intimidate us, until these shiny-domed misfits looked away and moved on.)

The Baltimore Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has spent almost two years doing research and talking to parents and more than 70 organizations across Baltimore about how this city can ensure all children read proficiently. We have found that another math, the "math of the collective" can produce results. Beyond quality instruction, children need access to books at home and in their communities, they need to be healthy physically and emotionally, and they need to attend school daily. There are

The connections I’ve formed with kids over the years have been rich and rewarding. Along the way, students have schooled me on the latest idioms, deepened my understanding of what it means to be a person of color in America and inspired me. Because, regardless of one’s race, watching kids strive for better — sometimes in the midst of catastrophic challenges — can leave one awed.

And, despite my whiteness, I still feel like I understand the concerns many Baltimore teens have on their minds. Kids in Baltimore worry about trivial disagreements turning deadly; they worry about losing family or friends to violence; they worry about interactions with a police force that keeps black men and boys on edge with frequent investigatory stops; they worry about feeling unwelcome when they venture across the borders of a city still mired in de-facto segregation; they worry about finding jobs and the ever-present specter of a discrimination that could make all of their striving for not.

School districts across the region are hiring thousands of new teachers every year. How long can we expect them to stay?

Although these are worries I’ve never had to reckon with, I can still listen, empathize and steer young people toward making good decisions that are in their best, long-term interests.

I also recognize that as Baltimore teens hurtle toward adulthood, they won’t get the myriad second chances I got and needed during a drifty, reckless adolescence. Most of the kids at my school don’t enjoy the benefit of soft landings. Their margin for error is precariously thin.

In a district where African-American children made up roughly 80 percent of the student body last year, only about 40 percent of the system’s roughly 4,900 teachers were black. District officials say something must change, for the sake of Baltimore’s future.

I’m no superhero, and I have no illusions that I’m saving the world, but of all the competing priorities teachers are expected to meet, getting to know the students in my classroom remains far and away the best part of the job.

And while my whiteness undoubtedly affords me unjust advantages in our society, I assume my whiteness does not preclude me from building meaningful connections with students of color.

Adam Schwartz is a writer and teacher who has worked in Baltimore City Public Schools for 20 years, most recently as a teacher at Career Academy High School. His email is whyadam1@yahoo.com.

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