It’s the end of the semester and that means students are starting to panic. I have the usual knot of dread in my belly as I wait for a student to dissolve in tears or explode in a fit of rage over something for which s/he refuses to take responsibility. Yesterday an enraged student took a shotgun to a school in Colorado and shot a female student when the teacher he planned to kill wisely left the building. I’ve visited three middle schools so far this month and I have four more visits next week. At first I worried I wouldn’t have enough energy to interact with kids after grading mountains of essays and journals and reports and portfolios. But yesterday I realized that public schools are sites of love for me. I often say that teaching is like parenting in my mind: it’s a one-way street. Teaching can be rewarding, but many students treat their professors like their own personal valet. You’re there to serve and in the mind of many students and college administrators, the customer is always right. Tressie McMillan Cottom writes,
But hurt feelings can be bad for business. And a lot of powerful people think colleges should act more like businesses. When they do, students act more like customers…If I want to piss off the majority of higher education’s customers, then defying the natural superiority of men by being a female authority figure…would seem like a good way to go…
Teaching what people would rather not learn is especially tough if you are a woman or a minority professor. Research shows that our customers rate Asian-American, Hispanic, black, and women professors lower than white male professors across all subjects. Most disturbingly, student evaluations of women of color are harshest when customers are told that the results will be “communicated to a third party for the purposes of evaluation.” Our customers are not only disinclined to like tough subjects; they’re also inclined to take their discomfort out on minority professors, who are the least likely to have the protection of tenure or support from university administration.
Now, I teach Ethnic Studies to students who are Black and Latino. When I do have white students in my classroom, they’re usually there because they have a progressive attitude toward race. I don’t generally get any push back from my white students. But I do consistently have black male students who don’t feel they have to respect black women. And when I go into a middle school here in Brooklyn, I do wonder how long it will take for some of the sweet boys I meet to turn. They often approach me after my presentation has ended and they’re full of praise (“You’re a really good reader!”) and quiet revelations (“I’m working on a novel, too”). Yesterday I spent close to two hours at a school in Bushwick and from the moment I arrived, I was warmly welcomed and embraced. I don’t think of myself as an egomaniac, and not all schools put up signs and displays with my photo and book covers. But there is LOVE in those libraries and classrooms and auditoriums. It’s palpable. And maybe that’s why I’d rather be an aunty than a mom—I get all the adoration with none of the drudgery. I don’t feel taken for granted as an author. And even when kids are buying my books, they act like *I* am giving them a gift. And as I prepare to leave, the host teacher or librarian will almost always say, “The kids are going to remember this forever.” With my college students, I’m often left wondering if I’m even making a dent—if they even care about the work we do together in class. It’s not a nice feeling. But the semester is almost over and I at least have the assurance of knowing I did all I could to help them learn. I’m just going to keep soaking up the love I get from these middle schools. And once all the grading is done and my students’ demands/complaints have stopped, I will go back to doing what it is I do best: write.