Identity politics in the classroom

An explanation for why black students won’t learn from a white teacher (unless that teacher puts in the work)

Why do politicians pose like this?

Images from Flickr, Twitter, and Flickr.

Look at that handsome man! He’s just one of the guys! He could be anyone – a friendly Albertan rancher, a blue-collar factory worker, a fun-loving queer.

He’s just like you!

And that’s the point. As political scientists have recently figured out, we vote for who we are, not what we stand for. Humans naturally form tribes, and we naturally trust people in our tribe, while distrusting outsiders. When we vote, we choose people like us, people in our tribe. We like when we can identify with candidates. We like when candidates match our mental image of “a good leader”.

The more identity tribes a politician can appear to belong to, the more votes they can accumulate. Identity is fundamental to politics.

But I’m teaching, not running for election…

This is not just the way people vote. This is the way people build trust, acceptance, and followership.

You are not running for election, but you are still a leader. You rely on people to trust you and listen to you every day, and as 40-year veteran teacher Rita Pierson said in her famous TED Talk,

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

If you lose the “popular vote” in the classroom, your job gets a whole lot harder.

Two questions you need to consider

1. What tribes are you representing?

You will have the easiest time gaining the trust of students in the same tribes as you. Tribes can be anything people make groups around: gender, race, religion, politics, looks, age.

You may have noticed athletic young men that highly respect their athletic male Phys Ed teacher, but disrespect their bookish, feeble History teacher. Their prehistoric brains identify the PE teacher as an ally, and the History teacher as an outsider. But the History teacher can change this.

2. What tribes are your students in?

If you are a middle-class white teacher teaching in a middle-class white neighbourhood, you are likely to have a great time. If you have a couple students in your class from an oppressed group, they are likely to have a difficult time.

Everything you do in class, from the examples you use, to the jokes you make, to the things you express approval or disdain over, sends messages about what you value. What you – the teacher, the leader and the adult in the room – value defines what is valued and accepted in the class. Just by being who you are, you set the culture, and you define whose stories get celebrated, and whose are silenced.

How do you bridge the inevitable gap?

You need to work. You need to make a conscious effort to combat all the unconscious things you do every second of the day. You need to do explicit things to show students in smaller tribes that they belong. You must loudly and consistently send the message that their cultures and their experiences are valued here too. Representation matters.

Be like Justin Trudeau! Show students that you are one of them, or at least that you accept and value their lived experiences. Some ways to bring more representation into your classroom are:

  • Actually attend community events and share photos, just like a politician would
  • Hang pictures of role models from underrepresented tribes
  • Share stories and use examples of knowledge from their tribes
  • Give your students the platform to speak and educate their peers

This is how we build acceptance. This is how we combat ignorance. This is how we repay the achievement debt.