Thursday, March 10, 2011

Some English Guy Who Think's He's Better Than Everyone Else

           Two weeks into my teaching career, a student interrupted me to tell me that my voice made me sound like I “was a robot, or some English guy who thinks he’s better than everyone” – and that was coming from a student who liked me.  He then proceeded to ask me about my heritage, and upon finding out, he exclaimed “Wow!  I’ve never met a just white person before!”

I may be a robot but... I love you.  *Beep Boop*

            Since then, I’ve been asked about my voice several times, most recently by a freshman who wanted to know if I was “from Europe.”  I am from northern California.
            Granted, this is not the first time I’ve gotten questions like these.  Once, a bank teller interrupted me in the middle of my sentence – “So I’d like to cash a ch-“ – with a rather pointed question: “Uh, so where are you from?”  This caught me slightly off-guard, and I answered with an upward inflection at the end to signal my confusion.  “Oh,” she said, “I thought you were, like, from Australia or something.”  Then, she had the nerve to not even laugh when I awkwardly launched into a Crocodile Hunter impression, god rest his soul.

            This experience notwithstanding, it feels odd to be treated like a foreigner; the great irony is that the way my students speak would be perceived as “foreign” by the vast majority of people in this country.  “Meestur, can I go restroom?” is a phrase I hear at least once a day.  In my training with Teach for America, we had numerous diversity-themed sessions in which it was drilled into us, over and over again, that the communities we were entering would be alien to us, that there would be culture shock, and so on, but not once was it mentioned that my students would have to acclimate to me as much as I to them.
            In my credentialing classes, people never use the phrase “Standard English” without making finger quotes around the former word.  I understand my fellow journeyman teachers’ desire to appear sensitive, but I think that education classes are completely out-of-touch with reality in this case; the reality that our students don’t speak English, and desperately need to learn it.

"Finger Quotes"

            The current hypersensitivity surrounding language and culture in education classes is a rejection of an earlier model of teaching in which teachers thought of their craft as a process of purging misinformation out of students’ heads while filling it up with correct information.  When the “information” in question is cultural, this invites disdain on the teacher’s part.  I’m being abstract here, but what it really means is that an “old-school” teacher (and, probably, the majority of Americans) would blame a child who didn’t write well on stupidity and laziness, with no understanding of the deeper issues that led to that lack of ability.
            “Of course our Latino students don’t speak Standard English as well as the rich white kids,” the thinking goes.  “They don’t have parents who went to college, they don’t go to museums or listen to NPR, and they don’t have private tutors.  What we need to do is celebrate the language they have attained, instead of trying to foist one on them that has arbitrarily been designated as better.”  Therefore, instead of discussing how to teach Standard English to our students, we hold long discussions about how Black English (a.k.a. ebonics) is a fully-developed language on par with any other, and may even be a legitimate language of instruction.

NPR tote bag: Not often seen in East LA

            Except that newspapers aren’t written in ebonics, and while education classes may recognize its complex and consistent internal structure, that doesn’t matter to employers.  There is nothing terribly wrong with acknowledging that our students are not stupid and lazy, but we run the risk of allowing our sympathy with our students’ plight to become an excuse for coddling them.  We can recognize that it’s not their fault that they don’t speak Standard English and still expect that they will, and should, learn it.  If we fail to do this, we are denying them access to power.  The brand of cultural sensitivity endorsed by my school of education is encouraging me to stunt my students’ potential.
            The best way to build true understanding with our students is to be fully transparent about why we expect them to speak a foreign language in our classrooms.  A student in my writing class began an essay with “Ummm so imma write about…”.  I pulled him aside and said, “This is unacceptable.  You know you can’t write the way you speak, don’t you?”  He was confused by this, and demanded to know why – what was wrong with using familiar words?  Why wouldn’t I allow him to speak his own language?  “Because,” I said, “other people will think that you’re stupid, whether you are or not.”  If that makes me sound like an English guy who thinks he’s better than everyone else, then kiss my arse, guv’nuh. 


  1. [Insert certain class] becomes so lost in the forrest of awkward [white] guilt/quasi-cultural awareness/and ivory tower tail-chasing, that we rarely come to the logical question of, "Ok, so there's a cultural power gradient, fine. Now how do I get these kids farther towards power and farther away from culturally-excluded?"

    Thanks for expressing this, meester phil.

  2. Incredibly insightful and something I've been thinking about, as well. I can't say I've had nearly the same experience you have but even tutoring a high schooler with dyslexia and ADD who is well versed in "standard" English, I wind up having the 'you can't write how you speak or people won't take you seriously' talk all the time.

  3. My father who came to America in 1907 speaking no English, was taught correct English by teachers who felt that their proper role was to help immigrant children become Americans. They believed in the "melting pot" and that to succeed in America one needed to speak and write standard English. I think it is a mistake for our schools more than 100 years later to abdicate that mission. My father succeeded in life because he could speak and write well and became a very successful salesman, raising three college educated children who also became successful.