Chris Emdin, is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and a strong advocate for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in education. He is perhaps best known for the #HipHopEd social media movement and for Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., a program in which he gathered students to hip hop in order to gain a better understanding of scientific concepts. 

In his new book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too (Beacon Press, $25.95), available Mar. 22, he looks at teaching methods used in urban educational settings and determines — through both his experiences as a student and later as a teacher — that an approach of pre-judging youth and in some cases determining some as “unteachable” was counterproductive and only feeds into classroom dysfunction. In this excerpt from the book’s second chapter, he talks about it from both standpoints.

On my first day as a teacher, after the principal led me and three other beginning teachers on a final tour of the school, I joined the rest of the faculty in the auditorium, preparing for the students to arrive. As we waited for the doors to open, the other new teachers and I struggled to mask the emotions that roiled beneath our calm facades. At one point, we peered between the bars on the windows of the auditorium to catch a glimpse of the students who were lined up against a graffiti-stained wall outside the school building. There they stood, in their first-day-of-school outfits: brand-new gleaming sneakers in an array of bright colors and perfectly coordinated clothes, experiencing a bevy of emotions themselves, poised to meet their new teachers.

A few feet from the auditorium, metal detectors adorned the big metal doors that the students would soon walk through. As the queue outside the door grew, so did the sound of the students’ voices, and with them, the tension inside the room as the huge clock on the auditorium wall slowly ticked to 8:30. A fellow new teacher, impeccably dressed in the principal’s recommended khakis and blazer, looked up at me. “Do you hear them out there?” she asked nervously as the school doors opened and the students began to stream in.

I responded to her question with a half-smile and shrug, intended to show that I wasn’t intimidated. On the inside, it was a different story. I had heard about how tough these “urban kids” were going to be. At one point, I realized that my nervousness was evident as I observed my hand tremble; I quickly slipped it into my pocket. The fact that I had lived in neighborhoods just like the one in which the school stood, and may have walked past these students hundreds of times as I strode up and down these same streets, did nothing to calm my nerves. Somehow, the stories about angry and violent urban youth who did not want to be in school and did not want to learn stripped them of their humanity, erasing the reality that they were just children on the first day of school.

Fear-Based Narratives

The stereotypes we brought with us into that school auditorium shaped our understandings not only of the students we would be teaching but also of what it means to teach. Rather than approach teaching with the confidence that comes from knowing your mission and the joy of being placed in a school where one can fulfill it, we approached the arrival of the students with an unhealthy apprehension about what the next academic year would bring. We hyper-analyzed everything the students brought to the school in search of anything that would affirm the negative stories we had heard about them. Before they even spoke, we read their exchanges with each other and marked them as either teachable or not. We gave each other knowing glances based on how students walked through the auditorium. We would breathe a collective sigh of relief when a student appeared to be “teachable,” and nod knowingly when a student looked like trouble. The seemingly shy and demure students, by virtue of not being the prototypical urban student described to us by the media and in popular narratives, became the teachable ones. These students elicited smiles and positive emotions. On the other hand, the students who spoke too loudly and seemed to be exuding too much confidence or “urbanness” were immediately judged “problem students.”

The process of identifying the good and bad students became a game of sorts for me and the other new teachers. What we didn’t realize as we began to play this game was that our seemingly impromptu categorizations of young people came from very real ideas about youth that we had subconsciously ingested. As we got deeper into this game, its complexity slowly revealed itself. The more my peers and I became preoccupied with positioning students as teachable or not, the more invested we became in the process. Our everyday conversations in our first year of teaching became reaffirmations of the categorizations we had developed on the first day. We were in many ways no different than European settlers in their first interactions with the indigenous, sharing observations of their unrefined culture and violent nature. We spent our lunch meetings and after-school professional-development sessions trying to one-up each other with stories about how challenging our students were. We spent so much time and energy exaggerating these stories that we became distracted from our initial goal to affect change. Our preoccupation with positioning ourselves as good guys in a war against the young people meant that we were fulfilling our chief function as cogs in the urban-education machine. The more we told tales of dysfunction, the more we worked to maintain it. This process eroded the unbridled passion that brought us into the field of education, transforming us into agents of a traditional school culture that worked against young people.

The process was subtle and took different forms for each of the teachers who stood in the auditorium that morning. For many of the White teachers, the process held an unmistakable element of racism. Phrases like “these kids” or “those kids” were often clearly code words for bad Black and Brown children.

The teachers’ venting sessions reminded me of my experiences in high school and how I was forced to obey rules without an opportunity to question whether they supported the way I learned. As a high school student, the more I engaged in school, the more I learned about the rules that guided the institution and realized that they ran counter to the ways I experienced the world. The more I realized that there was a gap between who I was as a young Black man and who the institution and the teachers wanted me to be, the more I rebelled against school and all it represented. In many ways, this is where the association between being academically successful and “acting White,” studied by education researchers like John Ogbu, comes from. These scholars argue that black youth view doing well in school as acting white, without considering that teachers may perceive being Black as not wanting to do well in school. The issue is not that youth of color see academic success as limited to Whites. It is that they typically see white teachers as enforcers of rules that are unrelated to the actual teaching and learning process. Consequently, they respond negatively to whatever structures these teachers value even at the expense of their own academic success.

In my experiences in school, I underperformed in classes in which teachers privileged ways of engaging with content that stifled my creativity and did well in classes where I wasn’t forced to obey rules, but had an opportunity to learn. By my final year of high school, I had been identified as a troublemaker even though I wanted to go to college. Once I left high school, and with the constant reminder and awareness that I needed an education in order to be successful in the future, I learned to assimilate into the culture of traditional schooling. Unfortunately, this process meant that I spent almost all of my time in my final year of high school working to erase my everyday realities and dismiss the knowledge that I gained in my out-of-school world. The process of indoctrination was difficult, and I often rebelled against it. On occasion, when the work of conforming got too taxing, I would ask teachers questions to challenge the structures they had in place in the hope of improving the classroom environment. However, questions like, “Can we stand up and stretch if we need to?” were met with firm requests to sit back down and looks from the teacher that said much more about what the teachers thought of me than any words could. In response, I would take the bathroom pass and walk the hallways, thinking that I had won a game of sorts with the teacher. I got a chance to walk around and stretch and there was nothing that could be done about it. Unbeknownst to me, I was the loser in a larger game, missing out on what was being taught in the classroom and drawn into another game of cat and mouse with security officials who patrolled the building in search of students like me who were leaving class out of boredom, frustration, or just a chance to breathe. Either way, all of us who left our classrooms in silent protest against the oppressive structure of the classroom came to a point where we considered whether or not it was easier to sit in class and play the game of attentive student or challenge the rules that were being enforced by the teachers. A few decided to play the game, but many more either did not, or could not. The ones who played graduated high school, went on to college, and some even became teachers.

Years later, when I became a teacher, I learned much about the structure of urban schools and grew to become the embodiment of the very teachers who placed me in the vice that had squeezed all of the fight out of me as a student. Then, as I’d navigated the landscape of formal education and played a game whose rules were enforced largely by white folks who teach in the hood, I became conditioned to be a “proper student” and began to lose value for pieces of myself that previously defined me. My unabashed urbanness—loud, conspicuous, and questioning of authority—became lost. This was encouraged when I got into the teaching profession. When I took my first job in a school with students whose faces looked much like mine, the most memorable advice I received from an older teacher was, “You look too much like them, and they won’t take you seriously. Hold your ground, and don’t smile till November.” To be an effective Black male educator for youth of color, I was being advised to erase pieces of myself and render significant pieces of who I was invisible. That’s what was needed to enter into teaching, which was increasingly being presented as a war against young people.

Excerpted from For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.