Justin Grinage: there’s been wide societal inequalities that have existed for decades and schools and classrooms don’t exist in a vacuum. And so those same inequalities exist in education. And in fact, schools can actually //further perpetuate those divides.
Solveig Rennan: Welcome to Under-Told: Verbatim. I’m Solveig Rennan for the Under-Told Stories Project. We record hours of interviews in our work reporting for the PBS NewsHour, but only a fraction of the conversation makes it onto the broadcast. This podcast series allows us to delve more deeply into the full story, so you can hear changemakers around the world – in their own words. You’d only need a few minutes as a fly on the wall in Mr. White’s classroom to see how much his students appreciate him.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: You looked like you were having a lot of fun today.
Thetis White: Yes, I was.
Solveig Rennan: Thetis White’s class is diverse—filled with students from different races and backgrounds, who are all taught by a Black man. That’s not uncommon at Monroe Elementary in Brooklyn Park, a diverse suburb of Minneapolis… but it is rare in Minnesota as a whole, where fewer than one percent of teachers are Black men. Our correspondent, Fred de Sam Lazaro, reported on education disparities for the PBS NewsHour last year.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Experts say the low number of teachers of color contributes to wide educational disparities in Minnesota. The state has historically ranked near the top in test scores and graduation rates. But those numbers mask wide differences between white and, in particular, Black students.This year, about 52 percent of white students met state standards for math, compared to 18 percent of Black students. And, on reading, 60 percent of white students were proficient, double the percentage of Black students.
Solveig Rennan: Here’s Mr. White himself on why he became an educator:
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Are there are there students in your class whose experience you look at and say, that was me? And I’m going to do something different. In the way I was taught.
Thetis White: Yes, that is. When you bring that up, that is very often keep that in the back of my mind. I actually even share those experiences with my students because I try to let them know that I’m going to be that different teacher that gets in the going in the right direction. Some love education. A lot of the times when I was growing up, you know, I didn’t have teachers that were very personable. You know, it was like a bad you had. You had something to do and you had to get it done without. I almost want to say without any emotion behind it, they just showed up. Now, not all my teachers were like that, but for the most part, that’s how they were. They just didn’t. I want to say they didn’t even sometimes look into your background of your community and where you came from. It was just not understanding a lot of culture.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And you’ve resolved. And the reason you’re even teaching, you say, is to do something differently. Yes. Oh, give us an example from your day to day routine that illustrates. This point of being sensitive to where a child comes from.
Thetis White: I think no one is telling. Not only that you care, but you love them. That makes a big difference. And especially being able to show it to emotionally confidently, you just see the change in the student. They will do more or try even harder because you are showing them that you actually really do care. I do worry about some of my students at the when they go home, you know, I’m only in control of their school day and what I try to do is and make sure that the environment here is safe, welcoming warming, but also again, going back to that love like they feel the love they actually want to come back.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Mm-Hmm. Can you tell us a little bit about your own background and what led you to become a teacher?
Thetis White: Where should I start, my story’s a little bit different, I say, because. You know, I coach high school football and youth football for over 15 years. And one of the biggest downfalls for me coaching was I would see students that had a lot of potential, especially, you know, with what they’re doing, especially playing football. But a lot of them were not. They just weren’t cutting it in the classroom. I have had many students that would probably be considered, maybe a division one athlete or maybe even a top Division Two athlete, but they just never had the grades to get to where they where they want to go. And also, you know, witnessing some of your students that you’ve coached growing up, you know, not even live past one just because of what happens in the street. That was a big deal for me. I just kind of got tired of watching it. You know, even raising my own children thinking about, like how I could set a better example for them as well. So once I got into school or I went back to school, which wasn’t that very long ago, I just had my mind made up that I just really wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make more of a difference. I wanted students and also players to understand that you are just more then and you can do more than just run and catch with a football or be an entertainer, because predominantly a lot of us see that as an outlet. And I understand. But we there are so many avenues that can get you that same type of. How can I say he? You can end up doing a lot more. Especially for your community. And, you know, having more people look up to you by wanting to go into a different direction right now, just because I’ve gotten into teaching, it’s I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and let me know that this was a great thing and they needed to see. And I also my nieces like I’ve been, I’ve been a big. My niece is now in school because because of me, she wants to be a teacher because she saw her own potential. But again, going through black men teach, you know? How my story is still different is because I went to school without any kind of support. What I mean by that is, you know, it was a choice that I made. I just I just felt that I needed to do something more than just be a football coach and working at UPS. Now, UPS did me a real solid by helping me with my tuition reimbursement, which was awesome. But it also, you know, puts some type of stability and made sure because I worked overnights too. And so when when I let people know that I worked overnights for seven years while going to school and still maintain a three point six three GPA as an adult, that like that is a a very big accomplishment.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And you were a father as well?
Thetis White: Yes. Father of three. And that was another thing. Just being able to my son, he you know, he he took off once he saw that, Oh wow, my dad is going back to school and he’s not only going back to school, but he barely even sleeps. And so he noticed that my daughter as well, you know, now she’s she can ask those questions because she’s the youngest, especially when it comes to being in school like that. What was it like? Whoa, I can’t wait to go to college now versus, you know, not being able to have that conversation, which which which was which are children. You know, that is a huge deal.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Do you think that there are? Ways in which children of color, particularly black children, you know, are shortchanged by this system and in the end, how does that work? How does that manifest itself?
Thetis White: Well, I think the only reason why they’re short changed is because they just don’t have anyone to relate to a lot of the time. You know, and it’s no disrespect to any other teacher, because I understand that we do have a lot of teachers that are, you know, that are understanding, but they just don’t have that experience of being where I come from and what I mean by where I come from. Low income, not having the exposure to reading books, not even having a library card. You know, when you don’t have those things that can, that’s a big difference.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Why is it difficult to get people to teach and particularly to get teachers like yourself who is an African-American female?
Thetis White: I think the biggest reason is just the experience that they’ve had going through school. When you don’t, you know, especially in Minnesota, you know, I grew up in Minnesota. I had I had some very impactful teachers. I’m not I can’t black white, but the one when I say that though, I didn’t have my first black teacher until I was in seventh grade, didn’t have my second black teacher until I was in ninth grade. My third, my third black or African-American teacher until I was a junior in high school. So all through my education, I had three teachers of color. But that experience is it sums it up itself. If you don’t have anyone that’s especially telling you that you can be a teacher and only telling you that, oh well, you’ll be good and workshop. You know, unfortunately, that’s what a lot of the feedback that I got. I didn’t have anything other than that I was. I was pretty decent in sports, so I did have that to fall on, but again when I went to college for the first time in Hibbing, Minnesota. There was nobody up there to help me, honestly. And of course, I failed miserably to myself. My thought to myself, I was just young, didn’t understand. And of course, I didn’t have anyone that looked like me telling me that I could be who I wanted to be at that point in time.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Hibbing is an almost entirely white iron range town in the northern part of this state. Mm hmm. Yeah. And so what did it mean to have African-American teachers in in your life? I mean, did you click with them or more comfortably in some way? frr
Thetis White: I mean, I got two stories for that. Yes. One, my freshman English teacher, we definitely I definitely clicked with him. He was young and he was able to relate to everything I was talking about when I say everything, he would pick up on it and be like, Hey, are we supposed to be having that conversation in here like things like that versus another teacher? That is not of African-American descent has just kind of just led. You kind of do what you’ve got to do just because they don’t want to deal with you as much. When I started to really see that and again, that when it was happening at that time, I didn’t understand it. But now that I’m old enough to understand it, that’s definitely the experience that I don’t want for my own students. I want them to be able to have that relationship, but also not just for my book my black students, not just for them. My impact is also going to be affecting my white students as well. They will have a positive image of what a black man is supposed to be versus them just having that experience of watching TV.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Thetis White is now finishing his third year of teaching fifth grade at Monroe Elementary. After we left Mr. White’s classroom, we spoke to Justin Grinage, who never got to have a teacher like Mr. White when he was a young Black student.
Justin Grinage: I didn’t have a teacher of color. My entire K-12 experience seriously at an inner city school, inner city school I didn’t have my first professor of color was sophomore year at the University of Minnesota.
Solveig Rennan: Grinage is now an education professor at his alma mater. We sat down with Grinage to hear about his experience studying race and education.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: We’re talking about the achievement gap between white students and and students of color, in particular black children in this in this state. Why is it very broadly speaking? So wide in the state of Minnesota, which otherwise has such a stellar reputation for education.
Justin Grinage: Broadly speaking, it’s because there’s been wide societal inequalities that have existed for decades and schools and classrooms don’t exist in a vacuum. And so those same inequalities exist in education. And in fact, schools can actually like further perpetuate those those divides. Those inequities are so large scale it has to do with. So I like to use the term opportunity gap, and I know achievement gap for a lot of people signals sort of like there’s test score gaps. But I like to look at it as an opportunity gap because it points towards systemic and historical inequities. And so. There’s something then called an educational debt, which points toward the fact that. Because there have been, you know, inequities and in various domains in society, economic inequities, housing inequities, et cetera, that students are students of color in particular are put at a disadvantage because schools don’t necessarily function to close those gaps in any meaningful ways. And so you can have a you can have a suburban school and an urban school. Suburban school is more highly funded. In general, urban schools are underserved, get less funding. And so from that standpoint, those students in that urban school are at a disadvantage.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: You know, one of the things that we’ve been hearing a lot in this story is the demographics of the teaching workforce. In this state, it’s overwhelmingly female and it’s overwhelmingly white. Yes, that’s the ground reality, no matter what is going to take years to change, I suspect. Do you think part of the solution or part of the deficiency is a lack of sensitization and adequate training of this teacher workforce? To better understand the background of the children who present in their classrooms.
Justin Grinage: I think teacher education can always do better at the same time. It’s multi-dimensional in terms of the various factors that perpetuate these gaps. And so one one aspect of it is we need highly qualified teachers that are going to stay in the profession and that are going to dedicate themselves to enacting social change. And I think partly the pandemic. I’ve sort of seen this like high attrition rates where teacher teachers are just burning out. So that’s a problem. But then I’ve also seen above, I’ve also seen this upswell where there’s actually, you know, there’s narratives going around where like teachers are heroes. And I think that renewed sense that the profession profession of teaching is important has inspired, I think, a lot of new people to look at that as a as a viable field, viable career for them.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Mm-Hmm. We’ve heard. Said that teaching has a terrible reputation when it comes for what teachers are paid for remuneration. Is that a hindrance, do you think, especially if you’re looking to diversify? The, you know, the work force and, you know, and bring in the most, you know, talent, make it make it a an aspirational profession.
Justin Grinage: I think, yeah, I think it’s a factor. If we’re looking at diversifying in terms of racially diversifying the teacher workforce, then other factors do then come into play in addition to, you know, the salary. And that is the idea that some students of color, if they’ve had bad experiences in their K through 12 schooling where they actually did experience a lot of racism and they and they have kind of a negative view of school that can actually like impact if they see themselves as a teacher or not. And so one of the reasons I wanted to become a teacher was I wanted to go right back to St. Paul and say, OK, I’m a I’m a black man and I think I can do important work in this school district and be a mentor for for students of color in ways I never had. Ultimately, I didn’t end up in St. Paul, but I still had a, you know, a long career of teaching. And I think it was a hugely valuable part of my life, which then inspired me to get into teacher education as a professor. But I think for a lot of a lot of particularly new teachers of color. Sometimes they’ll enter into school systems and they’ll experience racism in a way that sort of deters them from being able to stay in the teaching profession. In addition to that? I think school districts are very focused on recruiting teachers of color as they should. However, I don’t think there is as much attention being paid to retaining the teachers of color that they that they end up hiring. And so ends up being this high turnover rate where districts are always trying to hire and recruit new teachers of color. But the teachers of color that are currently employed in their district are suffering, and a lot of times they end up dropping out of the profession.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Can you give us some examples of how teachers of color experience racism? We’ve heard about them experiencing loneliness, being the only one frequently. But give us some examples of how this problem manifests itself in a day, you know, on a day to day basis in a typical school building.
Justin Grinage: So many examples I’ll just draw from my own life. So my first, my first day on the job. I was hired alongside several other teachers. I was the only teacher of color hired that year, however. And so it was like workshop week and we were just getting ready for the new school year and there was an activity where we were doing like a gallery walk where there was a bunch of art all across the building that students created about cultural diversity. And so we were we were walking around the school looking at the art, just meeting, meeting. I was meeting new teachers. Teachers were saying hello after the summer, and then this pattern kept emerging. And I would go up to a teacher and introduce myself. You know, I’m I’m Justin, how are you? And. About three or four times they assumed our security staff. Right. And so that’s very something very subtle. And I think it reveals a certain racial bias that folks may have. But it had a huge impact on me because what ended up happening was after several times, you know, when I was being called a security guard, I’m like, these people don’t even think I’m a teacher. And it impacted my mental health. Because I started to like, say, OK, how are people perceiving me, should I even be a teacher? And I kind of got this complex like, Oh, I’m not good enough. And so that’s a subtle example, but like those things can accumulate. And I think that has a major impact on if teachers of color stay in in the profession,
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Just establishing credibility, in other words.
Justin Grinage: Absolutely like. Well, and there’s there’s also sort of like the flip side of it too. So because. I’m a teacher of color. I was often tasked with. Working with with the students of color in a way where I think a lot of my white colleagues assumed that I was an expert at like. Forming relationships with them and getting them to not misbehave and getting them to achieve at higher levels. And I think a lot of extra stress was put on me just because of my racial identity and the fact that I think a lot of white teachers were like, Oh, he’s black, he can work with the black kids. I think that happens to teachers of color where there’s a lot of extrautie duties that can be put onto you because of because of that idea of your racial identity and somehow you have this magic magic wand to wave it and say, Oh, I’m black, you’re black, I’m going to be able to help you. And that’s not always the case. I mean, it’s more way more complex than that. Teaching is obviously way more complex than that, right?
Fred de Sam Lazaro: So you represent the whole race. In other words, I’ll take care of. But there is some truth to the fact that you are. And that just doesn’t apply to black blackness, necessarily depending on your ethnic group, but you are more culturally competent to understand. In many instances, the child’s culture than white teachers are, if only because they’ve never been trained enough, right?
Justin Grinage: Yes and no. So
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Where do you draw that line, I guess?
Justin Grinage: It’s just it’s interesting because. OK, so I’ve been seeing sort of like a pattern where teachers of color, staff of color will be put into positions to be like racial equity experts. And that is a certain training that not all staff of color are teachers of color may have received in their in their higher education experiences. And so I think that assumption sometimes is just because you are a person of color, you can understand racism better than white folks, and that could be true. But at the same time, if you’re being asked to be a racial equity expert or a racial equity leader in the school, that’s a very specialized training that you need to be able to be successful in facilitating those kinds of conversations. And so. I’ve seen I’ve seen this where there’s been a upswell of like obviously there’s been an upswing of focus and a focus on racial equity in the aftermath of George Floyd, which absolutely should be the case. We need more racial equity training in our teaching staffs. But I think that because teachers of color and staff of color often put in those leadership roles. If they don’t have that kind of training, that can then additionally put extra stress on them because that work is really hard.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Are there other examples that you can that immediately bubble up to mind? I’m trying to understand, you know, the the experience of, you know, teachers of color in these environments?
Justin Grinage: Absolutely. I’ll just give an example. So Asian-American teacher, friend of mine, he told me a story about, you know, during his interview, actually where the principal. Had basically said that there was some problems happening, behavior behavior wise with some of the Asian students in the school. And he basically said to this Asian-American teacher in the interview. So you’ll be able to deal with all those problems if we hire you here. And so something just subtle like that. So immediately when the principal said that to him, he’s like. What can you say in an interview? Obviously, look, yeah, I can I can help out. I can help. But in the back of his head, he is like, Well, what are they expecting of me? I don’t know. I’m only thinking about the Asian students and all my students in my classroom. I’m not thinking about all of the Asian students in the school, and I’m not some. I once again can’t wave a magic wand and and be able to, you know, all of a sudden solve all the racial problems that are happening. So once again, I think that plays on the idea that we’re very much stereotyped in ways that don’t allow us. To be our authentic selves in schools, because I think that we’re always sort of like, at least from my perspective in the back of our mind, we’re always kind of aware of how we’re being perceived by our white colleagues.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Yeah. Yeah, so it puts a lot of added pressure on the day to day routine, in addition to all the other hassles that come with teaching or other the challenges.
Justin Grinage: I will say so. One of the ways that I, after my first year of teaching like I actually thought about quitting it just it was a stressful time. And one of the things that helped me stay in the profession was that was the fact that I became really good friends with four other teachers of color. We were all early in our careers and we actually formed a group to help other teachers of color in the school district and to help ourselves to find spaces where we could like be authentic selves and talk through the problems that we were having. And so if that didn’t exist, I probably would have quit after my first year
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Coming back to where we started, I mean, this is when you’re relating things that are not obviously unique to Minnesota, they’re, you know, it could be any place you say in so many ways. Are there instances elsewhere in the country of initiatives? You know, that have managed despite the toxic political environment, to move the needle at all.
Justin Grinage: Good teachers are working really hard to try and within their sphere of influence, enact social change and racial equity. One of the ways that. I think you could go about this is to have some common goals that are that are small and scale that could be sustainable over time and collectively you. As a teaching staff. Find strategic ways to achieve those goals, so I’ll give it, I’ll give an example. I worked in an English department, there’s about 20 of us in our department high school. And we decided to use some of our, you know, planning time to change some of our curriculum to best serve our students. And so we we’re seeing this pattern with our students where there was a lot of racial micro-aggressions happening. There was a lot of what’s called colourism happening. So there was like darker skinned students sort of like being made fun of because they had dark skin. So we we decided what we were going to do was create a series of lessons that teach about racial microaggressions and the history of colorism. And then we were going to teach those lessons across the across the grades nine through 12. To help students better, you know? First of all, to reduce the racial micro aggressions and to help our students of color navigate those experiences. And so we worked all year on educating ourselves about the topics that we were reading articles and then we were at the same time simultaneously writing up lessons to address that issue. And over time, I mean, I can’t say that we eliminated racial microaggressions in the school. But I think a lot of students felt empowered by being able to first understand what a racial microaggressions was and second to know that their teachers understood that they were having these negative experiences. So that’s that’s I think on that scale, like small scale collective resistance. I think it has it can have a powerful, sustainable impact.
Solveig Rennan: Our interviews with Thetis White and Justin Grinage were originally featured in our story called Racial Disparities in Education,, which aired on PBS NewsHour on October 27, 2021. To check out the full story, go to undertoldstories.org. This episode was hosted and edited by me, Solveig Rennan, and produced by Simeon Lancaster. The interview was conducted by our director Fred de Sam Lazaro. You can find every Under-Told: Verbatim episode, virtual reality 360 experiences and our entire library of Under-Told news reports from around the world at undertoldstories.org. Under-Told: Verbatim is brought to you by the Under-Told Stories Project based at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. As always, thanks for your support.
Our interviews with Thetis White and Justin Grinage
Thetis White’s class is diverse—filled with students from different races and backgrounds, who are all taught by a Black man. That’s not uncommon at Monroe Elementary in Brooklyn Park, a diverse suburb of Minneapolis, but it is rare in Minnesota as a whole, where fewer than one percent of teachers are Black men. Experts say the low number of teachers of color contributes to wide educational disparities in Minnesota. The state has historically ranked near the top in test scores and graduation rates. But those numbers mask wide differences between white and, in particular, Black students.This year, about 52 percent of white students met state standards for math, compared to 18 percent of Black students. And, on reading, 60 percent of white students were proficient, double the percentage of Black students.