Bringing Politics Into the Classroom
The Atlantic|December 2020
Why it’s impossible—and irresponsible— for teachers in minority communities to ignore the subject
By Clint Smith

The first day of my first year of teaching began with a bundle of nerves and a half-eaten honey bun. At 5:30 a.m., I drove from the cheap apartment I shared with five roommates to the high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where, 22 years old and just a year out of college, I’d been hired to teach English. My trunk was full of colorful posters, flip charts, and laminated quotes from my favorite writers. I was hoping to make my stuffy, windowless classroom a more inviting space for my students.

As I drove, I practiced how I would present myself, searching for the sort of first impression that would make me seem authoritative yet approachable. Could I be the “cool” teacher, inviting students to share what was happening in their lives, but also a figure of authority? Could I be empathetic, sensitive to the difficulties transpiring in their lives, yet not let such circumstances create a spiral of low expectations? Could I emphasize the importance of doing well on the state exam, while also making sure my students knew I didn’t believe that learning could be measured by a multiple-choice test on a single day of the year? I am only slightly embarrassed to say that in search of insight and inspiration, I had watched several Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman movies in the weeks leading up to that day.

These memories came back to me while reading Becoming a Teacher, by Melinda D. Anderson, an education journalist based in Washington, D.C. Anderson follows LaQuisha Hall during the 2018–19 academic year, just after Hall had been named Baltimore City Public Schools Teacher of the Year, and into the following, pandemic-disrupted year. Hers was hardly a representative experience. Except that in important ways, it was.

Anderson’s profile, part of a Masters at Work series of slim volumes, reaches back to Hall’s uncertain first days in a high-school classroom, more than a decade and a half ago, to trace a transformation. A core theme of the book is a notable, and by now almost unavoidable, shift in perspective taking place among Black educators—and other teachers, too—working in places that have endured decades of systemic racism, economic disinvestment, generational poverty, crime, and violence. Starting out as a 21-year-old transplant from North Carolina, Hall hadn’t understood what became steadily clearer to her: The work of teaching, for her and for her teenage students, was most meaningful when it was part of a larger commitment to addressing the realities of the historically oppressed and under resourced communities they were growing up in.

To be ushered by Anderson into Hall’s current classroom at Carver Vocational-Technical High School is to see drawings of African masks ornamenting the wooden door, and posters of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” and Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” hanging on the walls. The library is jammed with young-adult novels by Black and Latino writers who know how to speak directly to readers navigating difficult lives, often without much support—and plenty of whom have lost friends to prison and tragic death. “West Baltimore can be a crushing place to be a Black teen,” Anderson writes. In her classes, Hall calls the boys “kings” and the girls “queens.” They can count on their teacher not merely to give them grand titles, but to challenge them in ways that build their confidence both as students and as citizens.

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