The Hidden Bias of “Meeting Students Where They Are”

Richard Desinord

Edited by Clifton Boyd

This fall will mark my 13th year of teaching.[1] Some may say I’ve accomplished much through my experiences in different education settings, from building a band program at my first job in a public school system to landing a tenure-track job at my current institution. And while I can look back and celebrate those successes in earnest, I’ve always considered how I responded to the needs of my students during my first year of teaching to be my greatest shame and failure as an educator.

After completing my undergraduate degree in music education at Howard University, I began my career as a full-time general music teacher in an inner-city D.C. middle school. I was given six classes with many of the students unable to read, write, or do math on grade level. One eighth-grader was not able to even recognize her own name unless the script was in her own handwriting. But as a product of the majority-Black public school systems of Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County, MD, I was well aware of the challenges that I would face when I entered in the classroom, and felt that I was capable of fulfilling the duties of imparting knowledge to my students to help them progress in all areas of learning. My motives were sincere and I worked assiduously to consistently prep what I believed were meaningful and engaging lessons. Like many new teachers, I had a few missteps, but two stand out to me the most.

The first occurred about a month into the school year when I had just wrapped up my first two classes of the day and dismissed the students for lunch. Both periods contained a particularly large and rowdy group of eighth-graders, and I spent more time managing behavior than I did teaching. That day also happened to be the first time I showcased some of my skills on the piano outside of very rudimentary theoretical concepts like a one-octave major scale. I noticed around 10 of my most problematic students sticking around, their presence sparking a small level of concern that they were up to no good given the number of fights that I had to prevent or break up during that short month of teaching. I slowly realized they were just hanging around, and all of them eventually made their way to the piano as the most boisterous among them played a couple of notes. “Hey, Mr. D,” he called. “Can you play that song you was just playin’?”

The “song” he was referring to was just a basic homorhythmic chord progression I’d made up on the spot, and though I was curious as to what exactly had piqued his interest, it was the overall demeanor of the students that struck me as odd. After all, these students had barely shown any interest in what I had to say since school started, and here they were, listening with rapt attention awaiting my response. Just before I could place my hands on the keys, another student voiced a different request: “Naw, play ‘Lean on Me.’”

Suddenly all of the Beethoven sonatas, Bach fugues, and other classical works that I had learned came to mind as I considered the comparatively simplistic harmonic structure of the Bill Withers tune. You see, I had no conception of a theory curriculum that would meaningfully allow for the inclusion of non-classical genres outside of a few songs for younger kids. And despite not growing up with classical music, in many ways my formal music education situated vernacular music as less refined than art music through the exclusion of the former. Many of my students could sing or rap, and had a good sense of time, rhythm, and pitch, but in order to teach them, I believed I had to begin with the notion that they knew virtually nothing because they were unfamiliar with many traditional theory topics like reading Western notation.

Responding to the student’s request, I dismissively replied, “I’m not playing that.” The student’s hardened façade, toughened early by a social decree within a community that dissuades Black men from expressing any vulnerability, broke for a moment, long enough for me to see a flash of disappointment strewn across his face. “Alright,” he replied as he walked out of the room with the others following. For the first time, I had their undivided attention, but with one sentence I ruined it and never got it back for the rest of the year.

The second moment happened later that semester. At the time, I lived in the same low-income D.C. community as many of the students, an environment that I was raised in until second grade. Their accents and diction mirrored mine, but for much of the year, I took any chance that I could to “correct” them. In order to “improve” how they spoke, “we was” was immediately met with “we were.” “I ain’t” shot down in favor of “I am not.”

One day at a grocery store, I ran into one of my students and his father. I briefly conversed with the parent before saying goodbye to finish shopping. When I ran into the student at school the next day, he turned to a friend and said, “I saw Mr. D at Giant yesterday.” “And I saw you,” I replied. As I turned to leave, he stopped me and asked, “Mr. D, why you don’t talk like that when you here?” Confused, I asked him to explain the question. “When you was talking to my dad, you sound like us,” the student replied. “But at school you sound different. Like them.”

I started the year with a self-imposed and unintentionally destructive edict of teaching my students to become better students by discarding their culture. Still, in overhearing just one brief conversation outside of school grounds, the student could sense that I was much more at home using AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). While I still do not think it was wrong to furnish my students with additional tools to expand how they communicated with others, I did so in a way that positioned AAVE as an “incorrect” starting point, a cultural chasm out of which they could be liberated. I stood there for a few moments, silently processing his words, and a wave a shame overcame me.

Each of those vignettes illustrates a moment where I failed my students not just as an educator, but also as a Black male figure. I dismissed our art and way of speaking in favor of an approach that elevated European culture above my own. The silent undercurrent of internalized racism that I could disregard as a Black student in majority-Black school districts and at an historically Black university had finally bore its way to the surface. Though well-intentioned, it was a misguided effort to have my students assimilate to an ostensibly superior manner of conducting themselves, and I neglected to observe that my attitude pitted their success against their identity.

I was trying to “meet students where they are,” a pedagogical approach that encourages educators to not be dismissive of a student’s background or cultural group but rather to consider how these attributes positively contribute to the learning process. It’s a sentiment that I’m certain is imbued with the noblest of intentions, and if carried out correctly, course aims are met through careful planning that centers, affirms, and builds on students’ individual life experiences and viewpoints. Yet the mistake many teachers make, including myself, is that we see the attributes of their starting point as dirt to be washed away from a newly unearthed rough diamond. The “uncivilized” aspects of their identity, especially for students of color, function as a burden to excise and overcome.

In light of many conversations on the topic of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within music theory, we’re encouraged to meet students where they are in our field, too. Picture a student that is well-versed in the gospel tradition through their experiences singing in Black churches, but not proficient in Western classical idioms or the accompanying theoretical concepts as it is taught in the academy. What would a typical approach entail? One might cull a couple of Black music examples in a lesson. Or some would, perhaps, emphasize an aural component in order to use the domain in which they’re most comfortable. However, what goes unnoticed is that most, if not all, of our efforts in this regard are in service of reinforcing a curriculum and cultural aesthetic that is otherwise overwhelmingly Eurocentric. If a student “makes it,” whether that means learning to part-write or sing through a few lines of lied, their achievements are measured by their proximity to whiteness.

I should be clear that trying to start with the skills and cultural background that a student brings to the table is not an inherently contemptible approach. In fact, it’s likely the best tactic in many situations, particularly in areas like math where the overall goal is arguably the attainment of a neutrally beneficial skill. But in cases like having a music major in a theory class who is proficient at producing beats with a DAW but has little experience reading music, their skillset would likely be seen as conflicting with the course content. Rather, I urge educators to be mindful of the unintended harm that can be inflicted when your desire to help comes at the expense of a student’s sense of self.

Richard Desinord is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the Michigan State University College of Music.


[1] This blog series is supported by a subvention grant from the Society for Music Theory (SMT). [return]