Audience members in the Busboys & Poets Lounge dissected “Theme for English B,” a poem by Langston Hughes that describes a black male and how he feels his white teacher views him. Then they connected the theme to the educational system in the District.
The exercise was part of a discussion about the state of education in the District of Columbia sponsored by the Humanities Council of Washington. This was one of four discussions that the Humanities Council hosts each year and is part of “Who Is a Washingtonian” Series. The discussion raised many questions concerning educators’ awareness of minority students.
“The struggle white teachers have relating to their students remain a challenge universally,” said Shyree Mezick, executive assistant for the D.C. Commission on the Arts Humanities.
The Humanities Council is a grant-making agency that ensures public education in the humanities reaches the Washington area. Research from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that despite the increase of student diversity, whites still dominate the teaching field.
Mezick said that she has experience working with teachers on issues regarding race and diversity in the classroom as well as first-hand experience of being the only minority student.
“I feel like they forget that it’s not that simple — that race is still a part of children’s lives,” she said.
Audience members, separated into three groups, voiced opinions about teachers viewing their students as more than, “that black boy, or black girl,” as one group called it. Also discussed were the ways white teachers view black students who attend predominantly white institutions.
“I grew up in predominately white schools … where I was always met with the reality that my skin was not going to get me onto that stage,” Mezick said. “So I had to figure out what that meant.”
The audience consensus was that a change in the blend of educators is needed to parallel the diversity among the students.
“One of the biggest things we need to start examining is how do we diversify our teachers and how do we recruit teachers to go into this field and revolutionize this system within,” Mezick said.
Masresha Tadesse, director of Communication and Development at the Humanities Council, said that by the end of the night the goal of the discussion had been reached.
“The purpose of this exercise is for people to explore their ideas about this particular topic: the state of education,” she said. “We selected this topic because it’s on the pulse of what people are excited to talk about in this community. We wanted to give community members a platform to hold a conversation.”