St. Louis educators share their stories of tackling race, bias and discipline
Racial disparities are a huge topic in education. And Missouri schools — specifically those in the St. Louis area — have been singled out as having some of the nation’s highest rates of suspensions disproportionately allocated to African Americans.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you stories of people directly participating in that system. This week, we spoke to educators, who shared their own journeys of grappling with issues of race, poverty and discipline in local schools.
Robert Dillon has been thinking about these issues for more than a decade.
He’s been an educator in the St. Louis area for 20 years as a teacher, principal and administrator. He’s now director of innovation for the Affton School District, and is a member of Educolor, a national collective of educators who are focused on diversity.
Dillon said he thought he had a good grasp of the role race and poverty play in the classroom — until he took an assistant principal job at Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood a few years into his career.
For the first time, Dillon, a white teacher from a white part of St. Louis, had to start really thinking about race.
He did that by reaching out to educators of color.
“We got together and had some really tough conversations about white privilege and structural racism and, all of a sudden, that started to change and open a new lens,” Dillon said. “I think that I had a really surface-level understanding of poverty, of what that meant.”
Dillon said those conversations, which he still has regularly, are what was needed to help change his own approach to discipline.
“I realized that for many folks they’ve got to figure out their own stuff before they can start building out solutions,” he said. “So that’s what I tried to do in that space in Kirkwood. I really tried to figure out my own biases, the things that were under the surface, those mental models that I’d probably ignored for a number of years, or had been built out by previous generations, my grandparents and parents … all those things that normally shape who you are.”
According to state data, there have been more than 2.4 million suspensions handed out to Missouri school children since 2008.
Many educators admitted to us that they haven’t mulled over these issues as long as Dillon.
Rachel Ward is one of those people.
Ward works as the coordinator of assessment and instructional coaching for the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District.
The district is relatively diverse by St. Louis standards. About 26 percent of students there are black and 59 percent are white.
The district also is home for Ward, who attended Maplewood Richmond Heights schools from kindergarten through her high school graduation.
“I remember, and I still feel this way, that when I was a student here, we were just one big family,” Ward said. “I used to say, or believe, that I didn’t see color.”
Ward said returning to the district as a teacher gave her a different perspective that was broadened even more in her latest job, which requires her to analyze data and coach other educators.
“I started to see there was still a lot of diversity but ... it wasn’t just just one huge family. There may have been a couple of little families running around here at MRH than what I imagined when I was a student.”
But for Ward, as with many people in the St. Louis area, looking at education through a racial lens didn’t start until recently.
She said a workshop this summer was where things really started to click.
“It was an intense three days,” she said. "The shift that's happened for me is that we really need to be deliberate about taking a look and identifying what different injustices might be happening with our students, and trying to address those to the best that we can, so that we meet the needs of all of our students."
Even though black students account for 16 percent of the student population in Missouri, they received about 40 percent of the suspensions last year. This disparity has been relatively constant for years, according to state data.
Not everyone we talked to felt like they had to make a huge transition.
Jacob Videmschek is a 24-year-old literature teacher at University City High School, where more than 80 percent of the students are black.
Videmschek grew up in south St. Louis and moved to Kirkwood when he was still in elementary school.
For his teacher training he was sent to U-City for student teaching. In his first few days there, Videmschek — a white guy with big, bushy hair and beard — found himself in a classroom full of black teenagers.
"I realized, this is the first time I've been the only white guy in a room before,” Videmschek said.
That day, the class was having a discussion about Romeo and Juliet.
“It was really exciting for me ... 'cause it was a totally normal classroom. Nothing was weird,” Videmschek said. “Just because a group of students doesn't look like what people think an academic group of students looks like, doesn't mean it's not a robust academic experience.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t bumps. Videmschek said he still found himself struggling to assert himself, especially when it came to discipline.
“I think the biggest problem I had was what a colleague of mine told me was white guilt,” he said. “Every time I would have a conflict with a student I would blame myself first. I didn’t want to seem like some overbearing white guy in a classroom full of 15-year-old black kids.
He said a breakthrough came one day when he jokingly told the students they had to behave — because he was desperate to keep his job.
The kids responded to his honesty, Videmschek said. And his comment became sort of an inside joke. But it also worked.
Videmschek said when he’s honest with his students about what the rules are and why they have to follow them, they behave better.
“I think a lot of people play down to kids. That’s where you really start to lose effective communication with them.”
Last school year, school districts in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County handed out almost 63,000 suspensions. Almost 81 percent went to black students, even though they make up less than half of the population.
Even though Dillon, Ward and Videmschek all had slightly different stories to tell us, they did have a similar perspective in at least one aspect: All are white.
But we also had these same conversations about race and discipline with educators of color.
One of them was Lisa Gray, a reading teacher at Normandy High School.
But Gray said that’s not her reality. She said she doesn’t find herself handing out a lot of suspensions.
Gray said the fact that she teaches students who look like her (most of Normandy’s students are black) doesn’t mean she will automatically have command of a classroom.
She said it ultimately comes down to the relationship a teacher creates with his or her students.
“I tell them all the time, ‘I’m like your mother while you’re here,’” Gray said of her students.
“I can tell you where every student sits for every class period, things that interest them, sports that they play. Once you build that relationship … they respect that I have to discipline them.”
Help St. Louis Public Radio keep working on this issue.
Become a news source in the Public Insight Network and share what you know: School discipline: How much weight does race carry?