I am not who I was Yesterday……

Published on: Author: sharonbr

As I reflect on my 51 year career in education, I know that I am not the person I was when I first started teaching.  And these changes in beliefs are a good thing.  When I was in seventh grade the first African American student was enrolled in my school.  Lorraine sat alphabetically right in from of me.  I know I was not mean, but I also know I did not go out of my way to befriend her.  I was raised to believe everyone was created equally but that we all had our place.  My grandparents stated that even through we were all the same, God did not want us to mix. If he did, he would have made us the same color.  They further stated that people of color felt the same way.  And since I did not know any people of color I took this as fact.  This was also reinforced in the rural Methodist church I attended.  While we sang Jesus loves the little children….the message was loud and clear.  We are equal but separate.  After four years of university, I still had not met any African Americans other than those I worked with in the dining hall.  I loved them.  They were my support at school.  And then I got my first teaching job.  The school was fully integrated.  The African American students were as curious about me as I was about them.  What did their hair feel like?  Why were they always putting lotion on? Why were they always throwing the race card when they were misbehaving or not doing the work?  I realized that while I had been away and the school was fully integrated, no one had taken the time to help us understand each other.  Over time my understanding grew both as a teacher and as a coach.  I heard and saw the injustices in the school, on the courts and in the fields. I began to listen, read, watch and ask questions.  I would ask my fellow African American teachers to tell me their stories.  My belief system was shattered as I heard  how while they had been separate they certainly weren’t treated equally.  One teacher was told that even though she had her teaching certification, she would only ever be a bus driver in their district. As I continued teaching I witnessed biases first hand. Too many times when driving to a meeting with an African American collogue  we were pulled over and I was asked if everything was okay.  I began to question why no minorities were in the gifted classes or taking algebra?  I also became mindful of questioning something I observed that might reinforce my biases.  For example, when the teacher’s lounge conversation tended toward blaming issues on African American students, such as low test scores or discipline issues, I had to check myself and find out what the data really said. We have the tendency to  listen more often to information that confirms our existing beliefs. Through this bias, we tend to favor information that reinforces the things we already think or believe.  I learned that I had to be very sensitive to this.  An example was when my two sisters were shot by an African American. I had to assess my beliefs and not blame an entire race. I began to look at people as people and not as a race.   If a negative stereotype is reinforced or that is all you look for, you will be the same person you were 50 years ago. The last 20 years of my career I have been an advocate for disadvantaged and children of color.   Thankfully I have been fortunate in having experiences that have allowed me to change and refine my beliefs.  Not everyone is as fortunate.

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Sharon Brittingham has 47 years of Delaware public education experience including 24 as a middle school language arts teacher and ten as an elementary principal. Both her elementary and middle schools were National Blue Ribbon Schools. Sharon has an extensive background in special education, gifted education and literacy. In addition, she has years of successful leadership coaching and professional development. Sharon has presented at national and state conferences as well as trained educators in Maryland, Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania, and Tobago. EdTrust (It’s Being Done, Karin Chenoworth) and PD360 (Schools that Succeed video series) recognize the work Sharon did in turning around her elementary school. Sharon continues to work in schools, coach teachers and administrators and teach courses at the graduate and undergraduate level.