Paley White Teacher Chapters 1-7 Reflection and the Value of Difference

Paley, V. G. (2000). White teacher. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

The jury is still out about how I feel about this book, but so far, I appreciate the ease with which I can read it and the author’s candor in her writing style. That being said, I have a feeling that it will challenge me morally, ethically, intellectually, and culturally in ways that I have yet to imagine. To reflect on this book, I wrote notes in the book in pencil as I read. Then I typed those quotations and my comments onto a Word doc using bullets, under the heading of “quotes that stood out to me.” Now I am going to just process by engaging in a free write about what stood out to me.

Reflection on Chapters 1-7:

Quotes that stood out to me:

  • “Anything a child feels is different about himself which cannot be referred to spontaneously, casually, naturally, and uncritically by the teacher can become a cause for anxiety and an obstacle to learning (p. xix).”
  • “Strangers hide feelings and pretend to be what they are not. Friends want to know and talk about everything. It is a good environment in which to learn (p. xix).” (Yet, we tell teacher candidates not to be “friends” with their students. They are the teacher. What does that mean? Why do we tell them this? Why do we believe this? What implications does this have?)
  • “The challenge in teaching is to find a way of communicating to each child the idea that his or her special quality is understood, is valued, and can be talked about. It is not easy, because we are influenced by the fears and prejudices, apprehensions, and expectations, which have become a carefully hidden part of every one of us (p. xx).”
  • Difference is not valued. Different = “school radical”
  • I related to her inability to act when a comment was made where a white child observed that a black child’s skin looked like “chocolate pudding” but the black child did not seem to respond. She reflects, “Why didn’t I say something? What am I supposed to say? Say nothing (p. 4).”
  • You see her movement across the cultural proficiency continuum (I need to get that chapter and reread it again. Maybe I should share it with others. When is the right time?) She says, “In other words, we showed respect by completely ignoring black people as black people. Color blindness was the essence of the creed (p. 9).”
  • She comments in chapter 3 that color blindness is not what is desired but rather difference needs to be recognized. We need to find in ourselves what I call the value of difference. For example, in the chapter, she quotes a black parent’s comment to her, “’My children are black. They don’t look like your children. They know they’re black, and we want it recognized. It’s a positive difference, an interesting difference, and a comfortable natural difference. At least it could be so, if you (white – I INSERTED THIS) teachers learned to value differences more. What you value, you talk about (p. 12).” This made me think about recognizing the difference I bring to the class as the “professor.”
  • She curses in this book. I wonder what the residents are thinking when they read that because I remember instances from teaching when I would do a read aloud and there was a “questionable” word or phrase that I would have to read and the children would laugh. I wonder what the residents are thinking in my group. I guess I should be asking myself, Why is it questionable? Why do I feel this way?
  • On p. 14 she talks about identity and identity formation. The author feels that she comfortable with her Jewish background, so she wants to be recognized as Jewish. This made me wonder – we all have culture. What is it? What would our individual labels be? Is it possible to not have a label? I ask myself – what would my labels be? I do not relate to my Christian heritage the way she relates to her Jewish heritage. Why is that?
  • Do we realize the roots of some of our colloquial expressions? She alludes to this but does not come out and address it. For instance, she talks about a student who is biracial – a white father and a black mother. He curses at the white children in the class calling them “white motherfuckers.” This word made me pause and break down it’s meaning, something I had not done before. How do we address these colloquialisms that are rooted in cultural backgrounds but this aspect goes unrecognized?
  • She talks about the importance of observations vs judgments! Woo-hoo! “I described Steven’s behavior, without being clinical or judgmental (p. 21).” When she does this, she had success when talking with the parents. We are so quick to judge, just as some of the residents have done to me because perhaps my approach to teaching is “different” than what they have previously experienced. Therefore, different is bad in their minds.
  • Expectations for all students – Connect to the article I just read that Michael Berson shared with us about high expectations for all students.
  • “I had the problem.” She talks about the importance of self reflection and ownership, but that is so difficult! Why? What kind of personal characteristics are required to have this kind of disposition?
  • Paley talks about how some of her black students would lapse into their jargon when they talked with each other but that they did not use this same speech pattern or style when talking with her or with the other children who were white. She then reflected on how she would do the same when she would talk with certain people from her past. She argues that engaging in these behaviors provides a “sense of belonging” and a sense of comfort where others are similar to you and can relate to you and your past. My thoughts – Comfort results from sameness, which means that discomfort results from difference. Yet, when we experience discomfort from difference, we judge and label it to be bad or wrong.




I think a theme that emerged is the tension between sameness and difference, between comfort and discomfort, between labels of good versus bad. I am amazed at which Paley uses introspection to break down and reflect upon her actions, and I felt myself doing that as I read her book. I could relate to certain parts and then I found myself asking questions to try to understand and make sense of the comfort and discomfort I was feeling. One of the aspects with which I constantly struggle is how can I develop a comfort with difference and how can I help others do the same? All of the work that I have read about transformational learning comments on the fact that learning occurs when we experience cognitive dissonance – meaning when we experience discomfort. And these moments are often highly emotionally charged, yet I really don’t think we know how to deal with these emotions. When they occur, instead of being reflective or asking why, we blame. I feel that way now when I think about the course evaluations from the fall. It is so quick and easy to blame others and yet we each had a hand in the situation. At the same time, in order to be transformed, to be changed forever, we have to go through these highly emotional, stressful situations. Wow, doing that requires incredible personal strength of character. Am I that strong? Some days I want to give up. But I know that I can’t because I believe in a bigger purpose; I believe in this work. I can say that I have cried many times in my life as I wrestle with situations that are different than what I have experienced and it wasn’t until my doc program that I learned the importance of not blaming and of being introspective. I am not perfect – far from it actually, but I feel that I have made growth in this area. However, I still have to find peace in recognizing that others are not in that same space and yet there are others who are farther along on that continuum than I am. How do I have patience with those who blame, label, and judge me for being different? How do I help them to develop a comfort for difference and that difference does not mean deficient? How do I do this especially when I am under the microscope of evaluation and scrutiny myself? They have no knowledge of this because I shield them from it. Should I? I want them to have a comfort with discomfort – to wrestle with problems. At present, I have been wrestling with my course evaluations (not sleeping, crying, being emotionally withdrawn) mostly because I care. Now, I am not saying that these responses are appropriate; in fact, I wish I didn’t respond this way. I wish I didn’t care this much. I have to have a tolerance for others who have no tolerance for me. I don’t have an answer yet. Only questions. But what I do have is the comfort that it is okay to be uncomfortable and that I will work towards finding a solution. I know no other way than to keep trying. As my daughter tells me (and she is only three), “Never give up. Try, try again.” Those blessed words give me hope and rejuvenate me that I can keep going.


As I write this, I debate about sharing this reflection with an audience. I am in a study group with three other people and I wonder what they will think when and if they read this. I have been candid holding nothing back, but should I? Paley comments in this chapter about the importance of recognizing difference. Therefore, I cannot ignore the fact that I am the “teacher” and no matter how flat I want this study group to be, I am different. I will be situated differently and will be seen in ways in which the residents cast me as “professor.” Yet, I do not want this role to inhibit their ability to be candid with me. After all, we only know that we have a community when someone feels comfortable enough to express discomfort – when someone can say it to your face how s/he feels. Wow. Then maybe I need to be vulnerable and put my thoughts out there for others to read – for others to judge – because I know that judgment will inevitably follow. I must recognize that I am cast in this position, but I think that what I can do is ask them the questions. How does having me in your group impact your ability to ask questions? To reflect? To process the literature? To speak or share candidly? How can I create (or maybe it should be we), how can we create a culture of openness and honesty in our group? How then, do we transfer this idea of creating the learning environment, or managing the learning environment if you will, with kids? How do we recognize our position as teachers and the implications that has on the children in which we teach? How does that position play a role in how we cultivate the learning environment? So much to think about.


I am sad that I will miss the study group this week. While I enjoy processing my reading through writing, I also thoroughly enjoy discussing readings and ideas with others. For now, I will take from these chapters the idea that I must figure out who I am, I must recognize, understand, and articulate my identity and realize that it will impact, good or bad, my behaviors and the behaviors of others. I must continue to know that different is not bad; it is simply different. And I must continue to reflect on my actions, my beliefs, and their (mis)alignment. I must recognize that others will be different in their own space of reflection, compassion, empathy, and understanding of difference and the value of difference, and that I have to reconcile the judgment that they may place on me because I might be different.


I continue to wrestle with the value of difference.