Managing the Classroom: Teaching Race and Gender

It is a constant struggle to teach diversity in the classroom. I am finding that as soon as I think that the rules of engagement are understood, I get reminded that they are not. In a perfect situation the classroom environment will include trust, respect, and an understanding that knee jerk opinions are not part of intellectual discussion. However, I find that occasionally I get “schooled” by some comments that give me pause.

This term I am teaching a Youth Politics seminar with less than two dozen third through fifth years and Gender and International Relations with less than sixty students. I am also managing and co-teaching a course with 225 students and will speak to situations that I have encountered. To protect my students and myself, these scenarios will be reflective of the last year and not necessarily this particular term.

When I am teaching touchy subjects like gender and race, I find that I have to be ready for different types of reactions. There are the students who feel validated by the reading and other students who feel challenged, sceptical or even angry. I lead my classes in a lecture and discussion format, so I engage with the students and their comments lots. I am a strong believer that they are part of the learning team in the classroom: texts, lectures, current events, and student discussion. There are costs to not lecturing and leaving the classroom. I engage the students more and because of this—they have more opportunity to participate. I will not change this, as I find that this is how I teach.

Lately, I have been most challenged with the responses to students’ reaction and use of language. I strongly adhere to the idea that language is powerful and certain words are “loaded” in the same way that certain topics are value-laden. This is not a shared sentiment by all students. I need to check myself and remember that I am also there to facilitate discussion, engage student interest, and, oh yes, teach materials. There is usually a student or two has an “anything” goes sort of attitude and I have to balance all the students’ needs and my own politics. This presents a challenge.

I find that the one thing that I have no patience for is overt racism. Even typing up this sentence reminds me that I have issues with covert racism, too. Oh, choosing our battles in the classroom is tricky. I can easily engage with discussions of gender, but race. I find that the overt racism can make my heart skip a beat. I cannot explain if this is because of the fact that I am a Latina teaching a mostly homogenous student population or if it’s more. Whatever it is, it is compounded by the fact that so many of the Canadian students seem to think that racism is a thing of the past or something that only Americans are guilty of—and in the South, for that matter. And, my friends, these are statements and beliefs that I have heard in my classroom.

Some days it is quite easy, I am at the front of the class walking back and forth juggling ideas, course material, student comments, and student reaction. My love of teaching  keeps me in check and I enjoy seeing the ways in which some students are really excited about the materials. Then, there are other days when one student is out of line or that presents me with a teachable moment. It might be that I need to remind the student about decorum, collegiality, or boundaries. Occasionally I have been known to call a student out and just say, “What you just said was offensive.” Of course, the next thing I do is contextualize the statement and then move on to the next point in the lesson plan or lecture.

It’s these occasional moments, though, that I reply over and over in my mind for the next few hours. I am thinking aloud here and being ever so careful—since this is the blogosphere and any one of my students could google me and find this post. I welcome other educators to give advice about those thorny moments in the classroom.

This post was originally posted on Equality 101, which is now defunct.