Lessons are prepared, and I’m in the classroom early. How many will show up today? This is our third Black Monday. You would think a first year teacher would welcome an extra day in the week without students. Plenty of time to write all those lesson plans — for EVERY subject. I had spend hours every night preparing lessons for my 5th grade class. But no students in class – not sure what to make of this.
I am totally overwhelmed. I have about 30 African American students, and our school is 100% African American. I am the first white teacher my students have ever had. On the first day they shyly approached my desk with their parents to meet me. I could see some of them whisper to there parents, “She’s white.”
It’s October, 1969 in Memphis, Tennessee. The year after Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. The first year for integration in Memphis City Schools. My first year of marriage. And in the fall we have Black Mondays. Civil rights workers organized a boycott of the schools. They are protesting an all-white school board that is responsible for a system of predominately African American.
After my interview with the Memphis City Schools in May just after graduation, I learned I would be teaching 5th grade. As my wedding date neared I received a letter informing me that I would participate in the new integration plan; since I knew very little about the Memphis schools I really did not grasp what this would mean to me. The plan was to integrate teachers the first year of integration. The thinking was that it would be easier to put teachers in a new environment rather than students. A small percentage of the faculty in each school would become white or African American, depending on the racial status of the student body. Since Memphis schools were totally segregated by race, this meant that a few white teachers were selected randomly to be transferred to African American schools, and African American teachers were transferred to white schools.
In August, just a few days after our wedding, Larry and I moved to Memphis into a rented apartment with rented furniture. In-service began right away, and sessions were provided to help prepare all of the teachers who were being transferred. I can’t remember one useful thing I learned, and I certainly did not receive any training in my college work for the experiences I faced.
The first six weeks of school were some of the hardest days I’ve ever spent in a classroom. My first priority was to get a handle on the day, planning every minute of instruction from books I had never used, using materials and tools that have now become obsolete. As I remember the chalkboard that I filled every day with the daily schedule and exercises to be copied and completed, I’m reminded of the classrooms I visited in Africa in 1994 also equipped with a chalkboard and little else. We did have a ditto machine to make copies, but I had to write out in longhand the activities that I copied from the teacher’s manual. If you are old enough, you will immediately remember that distinctive smell of a freshly printed purple worksheet. The only piece of technology in my classroom was a black and white television set for programs broadcast on our local educational channel.
If I sound like an old person talking about “the good ole’ days”, I don’t mean to. These were not such good old days in education. No doubt about it, students were better behaved then, but I’m not sure if my class learned much that year. I’m convinced I learned way more than they did.
So how did Black Mondays effect us? I really did not understand the significance of the boycott. It was quite effective from the view of the Civil Rights movement because in November of 1969, two African Americans were added to the school board as advisors. This action eventually lead to restructuring the school board, and African Americans were elected to represent their local schools.
In the classroom I felt a subtle shift in respect from my students in the days after each Black Monday. To 5th graders it looked like a boycott could make “the establishment” bend to the will of the boycotters. Since I was white, i was part of that establishment.
To be honest, I worked a year without understanding the culture of my students. I made some efforts, looking for books that had yet to be published, observed other teachers, asked for their advice, but I never became that “hero” teacher from The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy. Just glad his book had not been published yet. I would have probably tried some of his strategies and felt totally inadequate when they didn’t work. I made a few baby steps of progress, got those sweet notes from a couple of students to make me feel good, but I was swimming upstream all year.
I made many, many mistakes that year and was always exhausted. But I still loved teaching and didn’t waver from my career path. We moved to Kansas in the summer, and they were blessed with more teachers than jobs. When I finally found a job in the late fall, I entered the Special Education field and another culture entirely — that of the state mental hospital. I just jumped from one unknown to another unknown. But I loved this new subset of education and began work on my Masters degree. Now that’s another story entirely!
If you are in your first year of teaching, I hope you are seeking support among some positive role models. You need the camaraderie of experienced folks who can pull you out of your “bummer” days and give you courage to come back another day.
For this is a truth:
It takes courage to be a teacher.
Parker Palmer says, “the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be.” (The Courage to Teach, p.11) and then later he says, “We lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.” (p. 17)
- lessons learned from the first years of teaching
- young people who choose to teach because they have the heart of a teacher
- integrated and diverse public schools and all those who work there
- fabulous technology that expands the depth of knowledge and provides multiple avenues for learning
COURAGE MY FRIENDS! I am praying for you.