Michigan Education Association

Establishing rapport with a diverse mix of students

Here’s how a ‘middle class white guy’ did it.

Saginaw City EA

Michael Puffpaff and his studentsEarly on I came to realize students from east and south side Saginaw would never accept me if I addressed them like a middle class white guy. You see, in the black community there aren’t any middle class white people they know and trust, let alone male role models of color. In short, their perception of me had to change, and that is why I “transformed” myself into a black male.

To do this I established rapport with my students—speaking to them one on one about their problems at home, offering advice where I could, and even involving myself by reporting abuse when it was intimated to me.

I incorporated their slang not just in informal conversations, but here and there in actual instruction and guided practice. This caused them to break down thought paradigms of who I was as their teacher.

I studied black history as a graduate student, so I could become the expert they needed to discover their culture, instead of relying on hearsay and the entertainment industry. I researched how the black community formed in Saginaw, the prejudice it faced and the recurring issues that have yet to be resolved.

Through many sources, including watching Black Entertainment Television from time to time, I have come to identify characteristics of the urban black identity and utilize them to hold their attention, derail misbehavior, or prove a point.

Showing emotion important

Lisa Delpit said in “Educating Other People’s Children” that it is important for black students to see emotion so they understand what the proper response should be. For this reason, students feel my enthusiasm through my voice and body language when I introduce new material, and experience the anger of my voice when they are doing something that is negatively impacting the classroom.

If they begin to “peel” on me as the representative white male, to their surprise, I dish it right back to them. You see, I understand the significance of call and response and effectively winning arguments in the balance of power that is my classroom.

My methods work—only one student received a referral this year for suspension, while a student teacher received eight years worth of knowledge from me about teaching in the inner city.

As students come to know me, they see I am sympathetic to impoverished people and the urban black experience. They have the opportunity t February 19, 2009 accept the concept that I am white on the outside, black on the inside—one of them.

Making a personal connection

In U.S. history, my goal is for students to develop a personal connection with history by discovering if a particular relative played a role in a historical event.

Through research, my students have found that grandparents have marched with Martin Luther King Jr., served food to civil rights demonstrators, stared down white oppression, lived and worked as Mexican migrants in camps, and fought in many wars.

The cause-and-effect relationship is vital to appreciating history, and by having a family connection, students realize their lives have been impacted right down to the city they live in.

I always share with them the reason I teach history—the impetus if you will—when I tell about my own family which was captured by Stalinist oppression and placed in gulags where a number of them perished. A great uncle who managed to escape the oppression, not only brought my grandfather to America with him, but fought with distinction in the First World War using automotive skills learned from Saginaw’s fledgling automotive industry.

Developing special niches

The special niche I have developed is in military history. In February, members of the all-black fighter group of World War II—Tuskegee Airmen—met with my students as part of Black History month.

Throughout the year, students meet with veterans of a number of wars and write to Arthur Hill graduates currently serving in the Middle East. These former students often return to my classroom to say thank you and share experiences. It is no wonder that quite a few of my kids turn to military careers when they graduate from Arthur Hill.

If there is one anecdote suitable for printing that sums up what I have learned in eight years of teaching after switching from a career as a newspaper reporter, it is this one: As I struggled to find my way as a new teacher at Arthur Hill, I listened to the homily from my priest that November Sunday when he spoke about “adapting” and “persevering” in our lives. I felt that message was meant directly for me and I took it to heart.

Michael Puffpaff teaches U.S. history and journalism at Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw.


Updated: February 19, 2009 6:13 PM