Pamela Lewis isn’t like most of her fellow teachers. Lewis is black. She’s from the North Bronx and grew up in housing projects. She attended schools in which it was not a given that students would go on to colleges and careers.
So, in a country where only 17 percent of K-12 public school teachers identify as minorities, she believes she has rare and valuable insight into the issues facing students of color. In her book to be published this month, Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City, she argues that educators should refuse to be colorblind and should give deep consideration to their students’ racial backgrounds.
“I pray this book will help you to never be so naive as to think that racism has no grip on your classroom,” Lewis writes. “I simply ask you to see us, and to promote our children’s ability to see themselves. Installing black pride is not a threat. It is a necessity.”
Teaching While Black makes a broad call for a more culturally responsive curriculum. In detailing Lewis’ own experiences during her first decade of teaching in New York’s public schools, it takes readers inside classrooms where students are sometimes distressingly poor and deeply uncomfortable in their own skin.
The Huffington Post spoke to Lewis about her new book and why more teachers should embrace race in the classroom.
What made you decide to write this book?
I’ve read a few teacher memoirs over the years, and they’re typically by white men and women. I wrote Teaching While Black because I wanted to show a perspective from a teacher of color. I’m experiencing the joys and stresses of teaching differently than other teachers — [teaching] as a black woman from the same community as my students. Being a woman of color, I bring different things, including my own history and my style, to the table.
I really wanted to write the book with students of color in mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past few days after seeing a few things happening on social media. It seems like there’s an awakening among many black folk. We really feel like it’s our time to control our own destiny when we see things happening around us. We’re kind of fed up, we’re angry, we’re passionate about what we’re seeing because we want change to happen.
Why did you decide to go into education?
I really always knew I wanted to help my community. That was a driving passion — I’ve always been somewhat of an activist. I knew I wanted to help people of color, and it became very clear that the way to do it was through education.
As someone who grew up in the same type of community as a lot of your students, what are the things you’re able to see in your students that someone else might miss?
One thing that sticks out for me is understanding the need to change the self-perception of black and brown students. I speak about this lack of self-love that many of our children face as a result of living in a white supremacist world. I think sometimes if you don’t have that perspective, you might not necessarily pick up on how many times it rears its ugly head.
If we had more black and brown leadership that knew how to speak to these issues, then we could have a massive shift in our children’s state of minds, which would only bring forth greater achievement.
It’s not that I don’t think white teachers can be change agents. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But at the same time, don’t tell me you think you totally get my students in the same capacity that I could. It’s nothing against you. We need to have more faces of color showing students where we came from and how we still were able to achieve despite where we came from.
I don’t want students to grow up thinking that white people are the gatekeepers of education. When they only see white teachers, they think education is whiteness, and that sends a message, and that’s the wrong message to send.
I read a report that talked about how teachers of color are more likely to leave the profession. What, in your experience, contributes to this trend?
I think that the same way that our current school system is disengaging to our students of color, it’s disengaging to our teachers of color as well. There are many teachers or potential teachers that take issue with the current system of micromanagement or the lack of respect for teacher expertise.
It’s not that only teachers of color feel that. I think that pressure is something all teachers are feeling. But considering that there’s a legacy of us being controlled in this country, the history that we bring to the classroom makes it even worse and makes it even more difficult for some of us to handle.
Research shows that New York City has the most racially segregated schools in the country. How do you think that impacts your students?
We have people who are poor among all races. But when you live in areas of concentrated poverty, and all the people around you are not just poor but all black and brown, it sends a message. They think all poor people are black and brown. The only time they see people who are not of that color, they are their teachers.
To them, if you’re smart, you’re “acting white.” If you’re pretty, you “look white.” It’s really screwing up their self-image.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.