It has been almost 50 years since I first started out on a career as a beginning teacher of English for students in grade 10 at Castlemont High School in Oakland, California. I began that year (1959) as the first African American male to teach the discipline at the high school level in that city.
In 1965, following the passage of Title 1 federal program, I was assigned as a demonstration teacher at a high school in the district that had a large African American student body. My lack of knowledge about how language is learned caused a bit of embarrassment for me. Worse, it was an affront to a group of male students whom I encountered in an eleventh-grade English class. I began by introducing myself and launched into a spiel about never using slang or nonstandard American English. I was immediately "schooled" by those males, who told me that if they were to talk as I was then demonstrating, they would not survive very long on the streets in their neighborhood.
That was then, and after having participated in many workshops on the dialects of American English, along with courses in sociolinguistics, I learned how to be helpful to students who came to the school speaking a nonstandard variety of American English. This resulted in my improved ability to teach with understanding and pragmatism, two qualities that I now know are important to help students to grow in their communicative skills.
Jesse A. Perry, Retired
49 years of teaching