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Part IV: White Tears in Urban Schools–from a White Woman’s Perspective

Since 2017, I have written a few articles focused on White tears.  Specifically those of White women and the ways in which school leaders, managers, coaches, and staff respond to them, particularly when the response obstructs focusing on the needs of Black students in urban schools. So far, this has been a three part series; this article is Part IV.

  • In Part I, the article focused on Black educators sharing their thoughts on what happens when White women cry in schools.
  • In Part II, Black leaders share alternate ways to view White tears, with different expectations for staff that are White and for those that are of color.
  • In Part III, I respond to varying critiques and questions about Part I and Part II, responses primarily from White readers.

Now in Part IV, I examine White tears from the White woman’s perspective and share some of the lessons I have learned along the way.  To be clear, the intent is still the same: to ensure that managers, leaders, coaches and staff that engage with Black and Brown children in urban public schools work toward outcomes that matter most for students: achievement, cultural competence, critical consciousness, community activism, and healing practices. Examining the root cause of White tears and our reactions to them, given that the vast majority of urban school teachers are White women, facilitates an opportunity to more aggressively make gains in the aforementioned student outcomes.  To be clear, more that 51% of students in public schools are students of color.  Approximately 80% of public school teachers are non Hispanic White and 77% are female. 

This reality, and the achievement data for Black children over the past 50 years is alarming.


And so, we must examine how the adults who manage schools and learning spaces facilitate increased learning or the opposite.  I do understand that the term Black-White achievement gap is a problematic one, riddled with exclusivity.  I also think the image above is a telling one, regardless of what we call it–a learning gap, an opportunity gap, an achievement gap.  The bottom line is that the way we educate Black children in this country is a problem.  But it is a fixable one.

Allow me to introduce you to Johanna.  She has been an educator for 10+ years and has worked on both the east and west coasts.   When asked for her to recall times when she cried as a teacher, she reflects on this experience:

It was the first month of school. I had no idea of what I was doing.  I remember it so clearly.  The principal asked me a very simple question.  We were talking about classroom management in my classroom, and the principal was like, ‘How did you set expectations for your class?  How did you communicate expectations for the class?’ And I had not done anything because I had no idea of what I was doing, and I just burst into tears.  I think because I was feeling overwhelmed by the role and totally stressed.  And realizing like this was something very simple that I hadn’t done that I should have done.  But I also remember leaving the office feeling empowered like, ‘Oh my gosh, now I have this thing I can do that will make things better for me.’

Lesson #1: In this instance, both the principal and the teacher took responsibility for focusing on what was most important, student outcomes.  Too often when White tears emerge, the focus abruptly shifts to running to “her aid, and she expects it… It becomes more about coming to her aid than about serving students.”  In this situation, that was not the shift.  Both the principal and the teacher moved beyond the emotion, and the teacher left the office with a concrete tool.  There is probably lots of backstory here as well, but what we do see is the explicit focus was on how to ensure children were winning, and that required both the principal and teacher to hold that responsibility as the number one priority.

Johanna recanted another experience where a more experienced colleague, Terra, highlighted information about how Black children perceived her Whiteness:

I remember I had a conversation with Terra. And it was because again in my first year of teaching.  There was a student who said something to me about being an evil White witch and that I wanted to be there to be mean to Black kids. I remember thinking, ‘I am working so hard, and I am trying so so hard to be good at this, and obviously I am failing because this is what this kid thinks.’ I remember going into Terra’s room, and honestly I was surprised.  I just couldn’t see how the student could think that because all I could see was how hard I was trying to be a good teacher, wanting him to know something in my class that he didn’t know before, that was so much my priority.  What he thought was completely different or the way that he chose to communicate about it was completely different.  So, I cried to Terra.

Lesson #2: Here is what I loved about this example: Johanna didn’t hide what the students said about her. The student was an African American male, and Johanna talked with Terra, an African American female teacher.  This example highlights the “it takes a village” element in that another teacher was part of Johanna’s village.  There is no way that a coach or manager can respond to all of the worries that cross a new teacher’s mind.  Really no one can.  But Johanna had built a bridge with her colleague Terra, and confided in her.  And fortunately, Terra did not hide her reflections.  She was very real with Johanna.  Johanna described her conversation with Terra in the following way:

She was sympathetic. She was like, ‘Yeah this job is really hard.  I’m really sorry.  You have to keep doing what you’re doing and you’re going to be ok.  You have to be aware that if students don’t like what you are doing, they are going to feel that way.’  It was a learning moment for me.  She was the one who told me ‘that for a lot of your kids, the only White people they have interacted with are teachers and police officers.’  She was like, ‘You have to understand that’s where his experience with White folks is coming from.’  And I remember feeling really ignorant for having never realized that before…And it wasn’t just about me just managing a classroom.  It would mean that no one is going to learn anymore if I didn’t figure this out.

Lesson #3: Terra was real.  And there was a risk here.  Johanna could have reported Terra to leadership, saying that Terra was being racist.  Johanna could have completely shut down.  But it’s so beautiful that Terra took the risk in being straight with Johanna AND Johanna remained open and that HERE AGAIN, she reflected on her ignorance.  She did not attempt to refute what the student may have been thinking or demonize his view on race.  She also did not personalize it in a way that resulted in self-pity.  Well, not for long.  (She is human; so it’s understandable that her feelings were initially hurt.). She saw his response as a tool with which to build.  Super important.  Possibly the most important lesson was that Terra saw the impact on learning.  Yes!  What would be the point of Terra reflecting on racial injustices if as a teacher she did not apply this new found awareness in her practices in the classroom?

Lesson #4: 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.  Given this, not only should Johanna continue to listen to Terra, and other Black conscious educators, but the school’s leadership should find ways to elevate Terra’s voice.  Because the empowerment of young people to consistently actualize their gifts in talents in tangible and long lasting ways is the ultimate outcome of education.  As Dr. King stated, the purpose of education is  “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…to sift and weigh evidence…to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his/her life.”  Empowerment moves children in that direction.

Terra said it all.  And I say thank you to Terra.




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