Teacher to Teacher: A Letter to a Naively Racist and Classist Younger Me


I’m here to address a problem that you’re going to want to dismiss as soon as you hear it. I’ll cut to the chase. When people talk about systemic racism, you are a part of the system perpetrating the racism. You’re a part of the problem.

Please keep reading.

You don’t think so? You’re kind to students of all backgrounds? Great. That’s a good start.

But ask yourself this: When a student in your 1st-year Ethics course doesn’t really know how to write a paper coming into your class, are they punished at the end of the term for not having been well-prepared? Do they receive a low grade because they were not ready for the course you wanted to teach?

Look, I know you have good intentions. I also know that you spelled out your expectations from the start, and everything was crystal clear. I know you went out of your way to meet with every student who had a question, and you encouraged students who showed signs of their willingness to improve on whatever they came with.

But did you not also deduct points when assessing skills that you didn’t explicitly teach and help students develop? Think about this: If what you’re measuring is growth in skill and content areas that are key to your course, why would you grade outside of that? Are you a gatekeeper?

You are, huh? Well, why? Are you worried about the decreased expectations for students entering the university? Perhaps that is not a bug but a feature of the system. Just think about it: the more people who gain access to educators who are right-minded and an education system that is willing to bring everyone, wherever they start, up several levels – isn’t that what public education is for?

And who is it that is coming to your classroom so unprepared? So you have 120 students in the room, and you can’t get to know each and every one of them – so you focus on those sitting up front, call on any hands in the back, and hope that everyone finds a way to get engaged. Some (or many, often enough) among those students will have come from an underfunded school district. If 100 of those 120 students aren’t “up to snuff” at the start, it’s time to adjust your expectations.

You spent all of that time reading about the system reproducing its own ideology, but you haven’t noticed that you’re a product of that system, and the ideology you serve is one of class and cultural elitism. It’s racist, and it’s classist. You’ve got to stop the cycle.

If you want them to write well, they’re going to need practice. Meet them where they are and bring them up from there. Raise them up. Do not set a bar that it’s impossible from the start to reach. Make the ceiling unlimited – those who already know what you hope they should know when they arrive can reach even higher. Those who are just getting those basic skills should leave your room vastly improved – not defeated by another roadblock in a system that seems designed at every turn to halt their progress.

You’re not making things better. You’re making things worse.

Just think about the good you can do. It’s real. And realize that, the longer you act as gatekeeper, the more harm you do.

You’re a part of the problem.

I hope you can hear this.

You’ll get it eventually, and you’ll work hard to turn things around – but the sooner, the better, right?



About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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