Magazine article Radical Teacher

Teaching outside One's Race: The Story of an Oakland Teacher

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Teaching outside One's Race: The Story of an Oakland Teacher

Article excerpt


"Oh, the District placed you at Prescott Elementary? You better watch out--they hate white people. Especially that Carrie Secret--she's one of those black radicals, you know, the Ebonics people." This was the warning I was given multiple times in multiple ways when people found out that I had been assigned to Prescott Elementary School for my first teaching position, in Oakland, California in 1999. The "warners" were other white folks who were trying to protect what they saw as a young, new teacher from what they perceived to be a hostile place. However, I really didn't fit the stereotype. I had been involved with several organizations that explicitly addressed issues of race and education for several years, often as the only white person there. I was thrilled to be placed at a school such as Prescott, whose reputation for high achievement for African American children and adoption of the "Ebonics" program had placed it at the forefront of national debate.

I am writing this paper in order to reflect on my experiences at Prescott Elementary School. Here, I discuss the aspects of the school that are unique: the culturally relevant pedagogy, the other teachers on the staff including Carrie Secret, the professional development at the school, the Ebonics debate, and, finally, racial identity development and how it informed relationships at the school. A goal of this paper is to contextualize what was really being done in Oakland schools in contrast to what the media reported as teaching Ebonics. (1) I also hope to show the importance of successful mentor teachers of color in the development of new teachers at a mission driven school.


When I was first assigned to Prescott, I drove to the school to see what it was like. It was summer and the school was gated and locked. From the outside, it looked like a barren and dismal place. There was no grass, no playground, only a huge, concrete excuse for a yard. The main building and the portables were all a drab shade of industrial yellow. When I was finally able to enter the school weeks later, the difference between what I had seen from outside the gate, and the reality of what it was really like inside was like night and day. The walls inside the main building were covered with a vibrant mural tracing leaders of African American history. Even before the school year started, kids were everywhere, helping teachers set up their rooms, playing in the yard, and welcoming me and the other new teachers. The children, primarily African American, but also Latino and Asian American, seemed to feel so at home at the school, as if they had a real sense of ownership of the place. Because I wasn't initially assigned to a room or grade, I took the opportunity to walk around and introduce myself and help the other teachers. When I did finally get my own room, filthy from being used as a storage space by construction workers, many children, from kindergartners to graduated middle schoolers, came by to help me unpack.

My class was a second and third grade Sheltered English class which consisted of a very diverse group of students reflecting the multilingual community of Oakland. While Prescott as a whole was primarily African American, my students were Guatemalan, El Salvadorian, Cambodian, Filipino, and Arabic as well as African American children. My classroom was in a building off the main school that housed three classrooms--mine, Carrie Secret's, and that of another teacher whom I had also been warned about--Aileen Moffitt. I had been told that I should align myself with Ms. Moffitt because she was "the only white person that has ever been accepted at Prescott."


The political nature of the school soon became obvious. Walking into the classrooms and viewing the bulletin boards of the veteran teachers, I could easily see how central African American history was to the school. …

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