When I told my work colleagues that I was leaving my job teaching in north Minneapolis to move to a job teaching in a suburb, I got a mixed bag of responses. While most of the responses were positive, there was one response in particular that continues to nag me:
“I would never teach a bunch of rich white kids.”
I asked her why not. She looked at me as if my question had such an obvious answer and said, “The kids here need good teachers.”
That’s something Michelle Pfeiffer would say.
But Michelle Pfeiffer didn’t say that. A second year, bright-eyed, 23-year-old white girl said that to me. Without thinking, she instantly labeled me as a “sellout”. And that’s exactly the problem—she didn’t think. She made the assumption that rich white kids have no problems, so they would be much easier to teach than our students of color. Therefore, I was a sellout because I was leaving our students for easy students. And she was not a sellout because she was choosing to stay, apparently forever, to save the poor non-white kids.
After getting over the initial shock, I realized this teacher didn’t have any bad intentions with her comments, but it didn’t change the fact that I was still deeply offended. Are rich white kids less deserving of good teachers? Are all white kids in the suburbs rich? Will you only find kids of color in the city? If you leave, will your kids be completely predisposed to fail?
My colleague’s romantic ideas of teaching irritated me. Where did she get this idea that students of color need to be saved by a white or privileged person? Would it be too far of a leap if I blame Hollywood? They gave us Dangerous Minds after all, my first exposure to the white savior narrative. What she and Hollywood have in common is that they unwittingly perpetuate the idea that we, poor people of color, are incapable of success or do not want success unless we are lucky enough to have a white person swoop in and provide us with the help we so desperately need.
It made me wonder, did my white teachers feel like they needed to save me to?
The truth is, I left because I needed to make more money. I needed to leave the charter school system which, in my experience, pays a significant amount less. In my search for a better paying teaching position, I applied to many schools in several districts including the suburbs, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. As the weeks went by, calls came in from many different schools in the suburbs, but none from Minneapolis or St. Paul. I was then offered a teaching position in a few different schools. All of the schools were similar in pay so I ultimately chose the school that seemed to best support my teaching philosophy. And that was that.
Several things I could have said to this teacher have crossed my mind since our conversation in April, like “Don’t all kids need good teachers?” or “Be careful when you start sentences with ‘I would never.’” Sometimes I consider opening the conversation up again because her comments struck such a nerve with me. However, I have to stop those ideas though because I’m coming from a perspective of a 35-year-old. Perhaps she just needs some time to develop her own thinking through her own experiences. Perhaps she just has some more growing to do. Perhaps I need to check in with her in about ten years to see if she would now start a sentence with, “I would never.”
But I won’t do any of those things. To change the Michelle Pfeiffers of teaching is simply not my job, nor is it my wish. My job is to teach and I’m going to continue to do a damn good job because all my students deserve a good teacher—even the rich white kids.