This review is lengthy and also gets quite personal, since I can’t help but examine For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too in the light of my own experiences as a teacher.
TL;DR: Christopher Emdin is awesome, and this book is too. It’s short and accessible, but it has such staying power. I wish this were mandatory in teacher training everywhere. Also, minor spoilers for Anne of Green Gables in the next paragraph. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
When I was a wee boy, I read the Anne of Green Gables series, as many Canadian children do. It’s fascinating what sticks with each person from the books they read in their youth. I don’t remember a lot of the series, but of course, I identified with Anne’s desire to become a teacher. And one part stays with me to this day: Anne’s resolve not to use corporal punishment, and the heartbreaking moment she breaks that promise to herself. The feeling of that moment is one that stuck with me as I went through high school and university and completed my own teacher training, and now it is one I understand more completely. While, of course, we teachers today do not use corporal punishment, like Anne most of us begin our careers with naivety and idealism, promising that we will not succumb to the rancour within the system that we want to change. And, inevitably, all of us fall.
After I graduated from my teacher education, I taught in the UK for two years. And boy, do I wish I had this book at the beginning of that journey (though I probably wouldn’t have been as equipped to recognize myself in it at that time). I chose to go to the UK, having decided I wouldn’t be getting a job back home, because it seemed relatively “safe” as far as exotic locales go. There were jobs up North too, but I don’t much enjoy outdoor activities, and I knew that if I didn’t want to participate in those, I wouldn’t fit into the community very well—something Emdin discusses in Chapter 7, Context and Content. I figured a country that produced Monty Python and shared my love of tea would be a good fit for me—and largely it was. But teaching there was still challenging, and while the school where I taught was not poor per se, the socioeconomic status of its students was definitely lower than in other parts of the UK. While the students were largely white, there was a diversity of ethnicities, from British students to Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Portuguese, and other children of immigrant parents. Combine this with an education system that is literally the antecedent of the oppressive systems in place in Canada and the US, and you have a population of students who largely don’t see the value in what they are doing every day. And I can’t blame them.
I won’t be too hard on myself: I think, by and large, I was a good teacher while in the UK. I was new and inexperienced, of course, so I made a lot of the typical noob mistakes. I yelled (a lot). I got frustrated when I felt the students were not appreciative of my brilliance and my dedication and my oh-so-intricate lesson-planning. I made myself sick (like, shingles sick). Still, I enjoyed my time there. I loved living in the UK; I loved my colleagues; I even loved the students, as challenging as they might have been. I learned a great deal and grew, both as a teacher and as a person, and it will indubitably become one of the most significant and formative periods of my career and my life.
Nevertheless, I recognize myself in many of the mistakes or missteps that Emdin shares in For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. Some of these come from teachers he has observed, but some of them come from his own experience, and I really admire someone who can own up to their mistakes. If there is a common thread throughout the chapters of this book, it pertains to one’s attitude as a teacher. Somewhere along the way, thanks to the droning of academia we inhabit during our training, and the pressures of the system we inhabit during our employment, we form a lot of assumptions about what “teaching” and effective teaching looks like. And Emdin is really keen on the idea that we need to have more of an open mind. We need to remember we can learn from our students, and that we can make mistakes—and that this is not the end of the world. Most importantly, the things we try and implement, whether they are suggestions from this book or any of the others out there, are not quick fixes. Real change and real improvements to teaching and learning take time.
I follow a fair number of educators and educationally-minded folks on Twitter, or through other venues. However, I largely stay out of the ed chats. I’m a bit disenchanted with the amount of buzzwords and lingo that fly around on social media; it feels a little like I haven’t escaped university still. Don’t get me wrong—there are so many awesome teachers out there sharing real experiences and actual ideas and lesson plans with each other, and I try to look for and pay attention to them. These pieces of gold are mixed up in less interesting conversations, at least to me—do I really care if the buzzword of the week is empowerment or engagement? Why should I compete to see who can shove more synonyms for “differentiated student-led student-centred inquiry-based rich open high-ceiling” lesson into 140 characters?
What I’m saying is that while social media offers a great deal of promise for its ability to connect educators, there is also a temptation to communicate very shallowly. Hyping up buzzwords might make us feel good and re-energize us with respect to the practice of teaching—and that might be fine in the short-term. But it’s also important to have discussions that reach past the most popular language and concepts of the day. One thing I find so compelling about For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood is how it kind of does both: Emdin certainly coins his share of buzzwords, from reality pedagogy to cogens and cosmo duos, but he also backs this flash up with substance. The result is a book that both reinvigorates my enthusiasm for teaching and leaves me with very practical ideas for experiments I can try in my classroom.
I’ve seen some criticism levelled at the dearth of research to back up this book. Firstly, I’m not seeing it—every chapter has references that Emdin draws on. Secondly, it means one has probably missed the point, because this entire book is predicated on the idea that pedagogy as it stands is biased towards academic (code for white) research that marginalizes and erases other ways of knowing. There is so much research in this book—but it’s research that Emdin has collected in ways not necessarily kosher among academics. It’s personal and experiential but no less valid for it. And you are free to disagree with that, but it’s disingenuous to expect this book to be anything else when Emdin signals it upfront at the end of the first chapter:
Reality pedagogy does not draw its cues from “classroom experts” who are far removed from real schools, or from researchers who make suggestions for the best ways to teach “urban,” “suburban,” and “rural” youth based on their perceptions of what makes sense for classrooms.
Fun story, since clearly I haven’t spent enough time being personal in this review already: during my teacher training year, multiple professors told me I should think about applying to the Masters in Education program. They meant that I should do it before I had even taught in a classroom. I was shocked by the idea that they thought I could try to tell other people how to teach without having taught myself! Now, they meant well, and it was flattering that they had such high regard for my academic abilities and my potential as an educator—but it was also clear to me, then and now, that they spoke from a position so completely divorced from the reality of the classroom. Theirs was the area of the professor, the academic, the researcher. But I knew that, while I could easily spend the rest of my days lounging around university soaking up more credits, if I wanted to be a good teacher, I needed to get out of that space and get into classrooms.
Emdin sticks to this idea for the rest of the book: reality pedagogy is about what we really have to work with in our classrooms, not what we might want to have, or dream of having, or what the curriculum, tests, or administrators tell us we should have. We teachers tend to forget that sometimes, if we ever knew it in the first place. I was certainly guilty of it in the UK: I got so caught up in doing what I felt I was “expected” to do, from enforcing stupid uniform codes to preparing students for their GCSEs, that I forgot I should, you know, actually be trying to help them become better people. Part of my journey post-UK has been towards becoming more “fearless” when it comes to what I actually do, day to day, to help my students learn.
Confronting the reality of the students one has also means, for me as a white person, confronting a very pernicious facet of my white privilege: entitlement. White people tend to get told that the universe owes them, and that their anger and disgruntlement when the universe reneges on that “promise” is totally justified (whereas the anger of Black and Indigenous and other groups is threatening). Growing up we’re told we will get careers handed to us out of school (that proved a huge lie). Teachers, so fresh and ready to “make a difference” and so secure in their knowledge of the content, feel like they deserve students who are likewise “ready to learn.” I know I did. Even now I still occasionally yearn for a mythical classroom of 14–18-year-olds who just want to learn calculus and read novels and have great intellectual discussions, as if those children or those moments will somehow exist in a vacuum.
Pop that bubble, and we see the world for the more complicated place it is. As Emdin articulates in this book, it’s not that students in urban environments are unready to learn: it that’s the systems in place do not recognize their expressions of readiness or validate their modes of learning. He coins the term neoindigenous so that he can liken these students’ experiences to those of Indigenous populations, which for the past several centuries have been subject to colonial policies designed to exterminate them through a combination of assimilation and outright genocide. Similarly, many of our educational practices extend this colonial mindset to the neoindigenous, rewarding students for “acting white” or for fulfilling our racist idea of what a “good” student behaves like.
This makes sense to me. Moreover, while I do not “teach in the hood”, I do work largely with Indigenous students these days in my capacity as an adult education teacher. So they have been through the traumas of the regular school system and, for whatever reason, didn’t succeed enough to get their diploma. Hence, much of what Emdin discusses resonates with me and reflects what I myself have been seeing in the year and a half I’ve been doing this.
That’s the …and the Rest of Y'all Too part of the title, of course, and it’s why this book is so good and should be mandatory everywhere teachers are trained. While Emdin’s own experience and practices are rooted in urban schools with predominantly Black populations, meaning he draws from hip hop culture, that doesn’t make his pedagogy or his suggestions any less relevant for other types of students. It just means that the specific cultural context will be different. The underlying ideas are the same: listen to the students, work with them, be open to criticism and changing your teaching style, and try to involve the wider community.
I’m looking forward to trying out Emdin’s ideas. Some of them are simple and won’t take too much effort to try; others require a little adaptation for my particular situation. Some will work out; others might not—such is the nature of experimentation. I’m not expecting it to be easy. But I’m convinced it’s worth that effort for me to be a better teacher, and for my students to get more out of their time with me.
My time in the UK was invaluable, and I learned a lot. That system tho! The system ground me down and nearly spat me back out, and I know I’m not alone—it’s no wonder so many teachers leave the profession that entire agencies make their money by recruiting overseas. It’s not education; it’s industrial warehousing of children until they can be press-ganged into the workforce. And I have so much empathy for my UK and US colleagues who are trapped in a hell of standardized tests, school inspections, and administrators who care more about appearances than actual learning.
It’s not all roses here in Ontario, but I think it’s a little better (and I certainly have a fair amount of freedom in adult education that I don’t have even in an Ontario high school classroom). Even so, one of the first and most daunting hurdles to reality pedagogy must be that fear of what happens if you screw up and something “doesn’t work” and suddenly you feel you’re behind on “curriculum” or haven’t prepared your students for that major test. And I really just want to say … so what? Curriculum is important, and it’s there for a reason—but it’s not the reason, if you get me. Tests can be useful, data can be useful, but it shouldn’t be an end unto itself. If you get caught up in that thinking, you’re not focusing on what teaching should be.
In my Philosophy of Education class, we once had a debate about whether education should/could be neutral or political. I maintained, and still maintain, even more fervently today, that education neither cannot nor should not be neutral. Education is inherently political; educating people is a political act. As a teacher, you are engaging in those politics every time you walk into that classroom, whether you work with the system or push back against it. Emdin summarizes it so well in the conclusion: “It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”
The more I look back at my teacher training, the more I think about how it didn’t prepare me for being a teacher. All due respect to my teachers, because they cared and knew their stuff, and I enjoyed my time there. The very structure and assumptions of the program, however, need reworking. The best moments were when we got to engage with teachers who were still connected to the classroom. One Grade 7/8 teacher came in and told us that if we didn’t look back at our first two years of teaching with horror, we shouldn’t keep teaching (and he was totally right). I also had the opportunity to go listen to Christopher Emdin speak when he came to Thunder Bay, which is how he first came on my radar. I still haven’t read his first book, but I will hopefully get to it sooner now. I’m really happy I pre-ordered For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, even though now I’m giving away this heavily annotated copy to a colleague and buying a few more as gifts … because I think every teacher needs to read this.
Teaching, for me, is all about critically examining what I do and the assumptions I have, and changing. Nothing stays still in this world, so why should my teaching? This book provides another opportunity to help me do that. While, at times, it reminded me of uncomfortable moments or made me cringe as I remembered less-proud actions, reading this is a largely positive, uplifting experience. It’s inspirational, but it is also not empty: Emdin presents eminently actionable ideas. The result is a balance between theory and practice. And that’s all I got, because it’s time to stop talking about this stuff and start doing it.