Teaching “Other People’s Children”

A few weeks ago, I received an email that took me aback. In an effort to connect my students to their local food system, I had reached out to Western Mass beekeeping associations in search of a beekeeper willing to donate their time and expertise for an interactive school assembly. As we all know, bees comprise an indispensable part of the global food supply, and the colony collapse bugaboo has garnered widespread awareness in recent years, thanks in part to the issue’s memeification. On a positive note, bees are fascinating insects with a surprisingly complex hive culture. In my mind, this seemed like a timely and fun topic for kids. Additionally, to make the profession of beekeeping more accessible to a group of fifth graders, I wanted to highlight the shifting demographic tide in what has traditionally been a hobby dominated by white men over the age of 57.

I felt strongly about finding an expert who would challenge the expected image of a beekeeper, someone who could show my students that some beekeepers look and sound like they do. One of my schools has a roughly 90% white teaching staff and a student body that’s only about 22% white, which means the majority of students are missing out on daily opportunities to learn from leaders who look like them. As FoodCorps service members, we know the importance of representation in school. From participating in Elevating Equity trainings with Rachel Willis, Ed.M., reading Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children, and seeing headlines like this one touting the measurable benefits of a diverse teaching staff—not to mention our own experiences in direct service—we can’t ignore the reality that having Black and Brown teachers helps Black and Brown students.

In reading the above linked Brookings Institution article, I thought of all the ways my service might be more meaningful if I was Puerto Rican like many of my students. As the research suggests, there are only so many Spanish pronunciations I can fumble during a lesson before I lose their attention, and I often struggle to come up with relevant analogies to further explain what I’m teaching; I try to stay up-to-date with their favorite music and games, but I’m sure my lessons would be more on point if my references better reflected their lived experiences. Another way to flip the script on traditional power structures is to source women leaders, particularly in STEM fields, in which there still exists a gender gap dramatically in favor of men.

With that in mind, I set out with the intention of connecting with a leader who would represent the community I serve to explain beekeeping to my students. Unfortunately, the group photos and member lists on the beekeeping sites were overwhelmingly not in my favor. But it never hurts to ask, so I wrote to these associations asking for experts, noting that I would love to have a “female-identifying person [a phrase with which I unintentionally erased trans women—due diligence is important, and I should have used ‘woman’] or person of color” as my guest in order to empower my students. I still don’t know if that was a good idea, but at the time I thought it might help my mission.

Of the few replies I received, one was from a white cis man, a self-proclaimed “person of color” (since “white IS a color you know”), who, in a series of responses, derided my message and accused me of fundamentally misunderstanding the “colorblind” beekeeping community and harboring a “hidden agenda” of promoting “non-white people” “at the cost of white people.

Eyeroll. That is my agenda, sans punitive damages. Obviously, this man was not chosen to come speak. But the incident reminded me of the many ways my students experience ignorance at school. Between the lack of representation, the constant referral to Puerto Rican food and identity as “Spanish,” and mine and many other teachers’ monolingualism, the area for improvement is vast. By incorporating other languages into lessons and making international dishes at cooking club, I’m doing what I can to make the classroom more inclusive. But I can always do better.

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to obstruct social justice with your words and behaviors (see my misuse of appropriate identifiers in my email). If you’re a white male beekeeper who keeps to yourself, you may never be confronted about updating your worldview. But when you are entrusted with shaping the minds of young people in the classroom, being informed is part of the job. Teaching “other people’s children” has been and continues to be a daunting task, and I never feel fully satisfied with my attempts to make my students feel seen and supported. I’m learning more from them than they are from me, and while I’m hopeful that my site will find service members better fit to elevate the Chicopee community, I know many of my students will continue to be challenged every day to feel appreciated at school. I’ve done at least a fraction of my job as a service member if they can look to the garden and future cooking clubs as safe spaces to celebrate whatever language, crop, or special dish they hold closest to their hearts.

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