Why Teachers With “Savior Complexes” Are Getting It All Wrong

Emdin wants us to reimagine how we think about teaching kids of color in urban schools. 


Chris Emdin—an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, and associate director of Columbia’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education—wants education policymakers to rethink how they go about trying to educate students of color. Instead of swooping down into a community with scanty knowledge of its inhabitants—with little more, in fact, than a fuzzy conviction that you can “save” them through teaching—he promotes an entirely different approach: actually trying to understand the kids you’re teaching, engaging them on their own terms, and letting them take the lead.

I interviewed Emdin earlier this week about his new book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, about what it means to make these connections as a teacher in urban settings. In his work, both as a teacher of future teachers at Columbia, and in the urban high-school classrooms he visits every week, Emdin promotes hip-hop education—fusing rap and popular music with academic content to get kids more engaged in learning—and innovative takes on S.T.E.M. His ideas made me wonder if education reform might work better if, instead of trying to save struggling kids, we started by getting to know them better.

Laura Moser: In your book, you talk about a white “savior complex”—well-meaning idealists who view teaching as their personal mission to save the world. I of course thought of another recent book, Ed Boland’s The Battle for Room 314, about a nonprofit executive who leaves his job to make a real difference as a teacher—only to find himself completely overwhelmed.

Chris Emdin: Yes, that book exemplifies what I’m trying to describe: “I went from my cushy job into this urban school and the kids gave me such a hard time, and they were challenging, and they were trouble and it’s so awful. We have a lot to do to fix education and the community is all screwed up, and now I’m going to leave and write a book about it.”

After one year.

Yeah, that narrative breaks my heart because someone’s going to read it—or even just hear the description—and it will reinforce a narrative that already exists about these young people.

Of course, I also have to ask about Teach for America. I’ve written about its declining enrollment recently—applications have fallen 35 percent in the last three years. What do you think of that? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

Teach for America is an exemplar of the way that we address major issues in this country, at large, beyond education—we always want to identify a quick fix. You can’t find teachers to teach in urban spaces? Well, let’s recruit these college graduates, let’s send them in there. The idea makes perfect sense, but it hides this larger issue, which is that these folks are just grossly underprepared for teaching in general, and for teaching urban youth of color in particular. And the institution supports them in this hero narrative, like, “Don’t you want to change the world? Then go into these places that are named as poor and disadvantaged, where young people just can’t do well on their own, and go save them.”

Folks go into these schools and they struggle because they have no skill set to handle teaching and learning in urban spaces, and no one talks to them about it and then they leave. What I didn’t get a chance to talk about in the book is that not only do they leave, but they leave and go to law school, or they leave and work for the Department of Education, or they leave and start up their own networks of schools—wherever they go beyond these schools, they still hold on to this flawed narrative about urban youth of color and just disperse that to the world.

It’s so problematic because it keeps reinforcing the same stereotypes, and at some point there has to be a fracture. Someone has to just say, “Hey, wait a minute, maybe we’re doing this whole thing wrong in how we’re viewing the young people, how we’re preparing the teachers, and the conversations that we’re not having.” Something’s got to give.

And has that happened yet?

I think it’s slowly getting to that point. Part of my work is showcasing the brilliance of these kids whenever you see them on their own terms and think, “Well maybe it’s not them.” I think the declining enrollment is a signal that people are realizing that this approach is flawed or broken.

Across the country, young people have been protesting the type of schooling that they’re receiving—that’s one indicator that this is happening. We have more of a critical mass of young people who are disgruntled with the way that they’ve been taught and they’re speaking out against it. And these young people, high school age, are so much more engaged in larger political conversation beyond teaching … They’re also protesting the larger dynamics at play in their neighborhoods and in their worlds. The fact that you have that kind of population that’s supposed to be disengaged and politically disconnected reengaging indicates that they’re frustrated with how things are going and they’re not willing to take it anymore.

You talk a lot in your book about meeting kids on their own ground—in barbershops, in church. Can you tell me more what that looks like?

“Meet kids on their own terms”—phrases like that have been used in education for as long as there has been education. John Dewey talked about child-centered education. One of my heroes, Gloria Ladson Billings, talked about culturally relevant pedagogy, but what I’m advocating for is not this broad idea of teaching from their perspective, or from your perception of their perspective. That’s what’s happens now: Let teachers teach from what they think is what the kid’s culture is, or what they think the kid’s background is in. What’s shifting here is, no, let’s give teachers tools to let the young people speak for themselves about what they need.

I argue that one of the functions of being black and brown and poor is that you learn to be able to speak about your concerns and your frustration more readily than somebody who has the world handed to them, so let them have the opportunity to speak to that in school and let them be supported for it and get good grades for it. Then just value the things that matter to them, like how kids dress and things of that nature. Usually the way that kids dress is used as a way to describe how they are superficial or care about material things more than about their education. But what if the fact that a kid looks like a million dollars with a family that makes $20,000 a year, what if that was an indicator of that kid’s resilience and grit and style and perspective? I’m arguing for a shift in how we see these kids by engaging with them and studying the things about them that they bring to the classroom.

Isn’t it harder to do that if you’re white?

It’s harder to do that if you don’t look like the kids and you’re not from the same place that they are. The name of the book is For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too—meaning people who come from different socioeconomic places, who are from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. There are many teachers in urban schools right now who have not interacted with a person of color until they started teaching in the school, so of course it’s going to be more challenging.

My book is also for black teachers who have been victimized by schools and become oppressors themselves. A lot of folks who found a way to make it through schools that were awful for them—they had a tough time in school, hated their teachers, hated the structure, hated the principal, hated the books, hated the curriculum—and then they became teachers and ended up enacting the same practices that they hated. For those folks, to say just because you were able to make it to be a teacher doesn’t mean you have to give the next generation the same kind of challenges that you had.

So I think recruiting more teachers of color, especially men of color, in urban schools makes a big difference, but if you have black folks with white supremacist ideologies they’re not going to do much to help black young people. Yes, it’s important to have black male role models in front of black young people, but what’s more important is ensuring that the teachers actually see the value of young people, the gifts of young people, the brilliance of young people, and have the tools to be able to do that.

I’ve seen the amazing video of Wu Tang’s GZA rapping to high-school students about science, part of the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. program you created to engage kids in learning about science by getting them to rap about it.   Can you give me some other examples of unconventional things you’ve done to get kids more interested in science?

Yeah, for the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., we had young people in schools writing raps about science content and these are kids who are failing science class, then when they have to write science raps are studying until three or four in the morning to write the most complex raps they could possibly come up with, and we’re looking at the quality of the content of the raps. We’re saying to ourselves, “How is this kid failing physics when they totally get it?” That’s one way where hip-hop has been a tool.

We’ve also been able to do hands-on project-based stuff, like identifying a phenomenon within a community that needs to be fixed. For example, we can go to a local park and find that the swings are all jacked up and have the kids engage in a service-learning project, but in the process of doing the service, they’re also learning the academic content. They’re learning about fulcrum, and equilibrium, and balance, while doing something for the community. Not only do they make it and create it, but they understand how it works. We’re connecting the service learning with content learning for kids to understand science better.

I’m also a firm believer in bringing the kids’ heroes into the school buildings. I’ve done a couple of projects where we’ve reached out to rappers. We brought GZA, of course, to come teach kids how to write science raps. A graduate student I work with had Kendrick Lamar come into a school in New Jersey to compare his last album, to Pimp a Butterfly, to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and he was essentially the teacher for the day.

I’ve brought Master P, who’s a multimillionaire rapper, to a school in Brooklyn, to teach the kids about financial literacy and connect that to what they’re learning in math class. It’s a matter of blurring the lines between who is the expert, who is the teacher. If a person is a hero and an idol to young people, then I’m going to put them in front of young people and use them as a pathway through which I can connect the young people to academic content.