Professionalism, Race, and Early Childhood Education (Guest blogger: Leslie Layman)

Recently while teaching a professional development workshop on addressing challenging behaviors in young children, an African American student, tentatively raised her hand and said, “I know this isn’t the “correct” way to say this, but I feel like when I am talking to young children, I have to use my “white lady teacher voice” or I get in trouble.” Nods from other women of color across the room.

A similar sentiment came up in a class I was teaching about a week later, this time the student directly referenced professionalism and voiced that she felt she was being asked to talk and act white and that the children did not respond to her when she acted “professional.” She felt the children saw her behavior as false and did not take her requests seriously.

As a white woman who teaches many students of color and as I am currently teaching my college’s preparation for practicum course, these student experiences are weighing heavily on my heart and on my mind right now.

I feel strongly that I need to prepare my students with not only the knowledge but also the social skills they will need to be successful in the workforce; however, no one should go to work each day feeling that they have to act out an identity that is not their own in order to be accepted or successful. How do we strike a balance between making sure that students understand what is expected of them and respecting the culture that they bring into the classroom and the workplace?

In my practicum preparation course, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hidden curriculum and how to bring it out into the open. We’ve been creating shared definitions of obscure and academic terms from their readings, including a shared definition of what it means to be an excellent teacher, and a critical evaluation of the skills that the textbook says an excellent teacher needs.

I’ve also been trying harder to listen. Not just make eye contact and nod while I think about what we’ll do next or what to write on the whiteboard, but really and truly listen to students describe a shared experience that I cannot share with them. When I’ve finished listening, I work to validate that experience and then untangle what it means to the student. What am I missing? What are they thinking or feeling that might not be obvious to me?

I also have to think hard about myself. What am I bringing to the classroom that might reinforce this idea that professionalism is synonymous with whiteness and how can I change my behavior to better serve all of my students?

It’s not easy work, and it is probably work that all of us teachers of early childhood education students are doing. I think it helps to think about it, talk about it, wallow in the murkiness a bit so that we can try to come out on the other side. I recently reminded my students that my expectations for them are high; high because I believe in them, because they’ve already come this far without me, and high because serving children and families is serious work. I also reminded them that they are right where they should be, finding their voice and themselves in the work that they do.

Leslie Layman is Coordinator and Adjunct Faculty in the Child Development Program at Harry S Truman College. She is interested in all things access, equity, and play related.

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