Teachers, It’s Necessary to Talk About Race
Teachers, It’s Necessary to Talk about Race
JUNE 18, 2020
SENIOR POLICY ASSOCIATE
As a former teacher, nothing has devastated me more than seeing my former students grieving from the COVID-19 pandemic. As a Black person, nothing has exhausted me more than publicly learning of the four murders of African Americans within one month—Ahmaud Arbery (25 years old), Breonna Taylor (26), George Floyd (46), and Toni McDade (38). This does not include the discriminatory encounter that happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park, New York, and the countless number of African Americans who have lost their lives to racism, and whose names we may not know.
While talking about race can be emotional, uncomfortable, and frustrating, the work of embodying anti-racism in education must continue. To help in this process, I thought it would be useful to spotlight some people who are doing the work well; and so I interviewed a student and eight teachers from across the nation on their virtual teaching experiences during the recent tragic events, and their pedagogical styles on race and identity. Given that nearly 80 percent of public school teachers are white, only about 2 percent of public school teachers are African-American men, and only 5 percent of public school teachers are African-American women, teaching anti-racism must be a collective, ongoing effort (and racial diversity must be promoted in the teacher workforce)—teachers of color cannot bear the burden of modeling anti-racism alone. Here is what the interviewees had to offer.
Leila Tazi is an exceptional student and high school senior at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, New York. She and her twin sister Lylian annually lead a mental health conference at Truman, an event which has drawn hundreds of attendees citywide. Leila maintains high grades, participates in extracurricular activities, and, prior to the pandemic, she worked a part-time job at a juvenile justice center. Sadly, Leila and Lylian lost a parent to COVID-19 in March, and they personally experienced the intersecting challenges of low socioeconomic status and poor access to health care. Despite the trauma Leila is experiencing, she continues to model allyship. In her AP classes, she is currently writing critically about the protests in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death. On social media, she is posting mental health resources that African Americans can use during this time. Leila commented that “students of color need to be validated every day, and teaching race must be strategic, because there is so much trauma and grief wrapped up in it.” Leila has committed to Brooklyn College. She will major in speech language pathology and audiology sciences. She plans to get certified as an American Sign Language interpreter. She will make herself and family proud.
Arman Green woke up on Monday, June 1 with a heavy heart, and brought that heaviness to the classroom. A sixth-grade charter school teacher in Chicago Public Schools, Arman knew that “there would be a large elephant in the room.” Arman began the class with his opinion, and then he left the discussion open for his students to comment. The students felt personally connected as some of their parents participated in protests. “Hearing my students’ opinions was nothing less than inspiring. You do not expect students so young to talk openly about race.” Arman was proud that his students knew that change must come on racial justice. Although Arman teaches math, through his commitment to his students, he inadvertently teaches civics, as well, by teaching his students the importance of making their voices heard.
A fourth-grade teacher at an intentionally diverse school in Brooklyn, New York, Tiffany Rodriguez and her co-teacher Anja Filan were able to teach the recent events using Tiffany’s pre-designed curriculum on identity. Since the closing of school buildings, Tiffany has been using Nearpod, a virtual student engagement platform. She led the class in moments of silence, used images, and presented a slideshow to teach the four kinds of resistance in which African Americans have historically engaged: overt, everyday, violent, and non-violent. Her self-identified African-American and white students participated both verbally and in writing, thoughtfully. All of her self-identified Black, white, mixed-race, and Asian students engaged in reflective writing. Tiffany emphasized the importance of “teaching self-care before learning difficult realities.” She thoughtfully strives to be trauma-informed and also show the love and community during the recent protests, in addition to grief and the pain.
Dara Jefferson, an elementary school teacher and mother in Jacksonville, Florida, underscored with her students the intersections of police and education reform. She emphasized that “we need to develop African-American children with the tools to fight educational inequality.” She wants to draw more attention to the reading achievement gap among Black and white students, and to teach students to think critically. She recommends teaching students the laws and criminal charges involved, such as the murder charges in Mr. Floyd’s case. She similarly wants her students to be civically engaged through analyzing speeches and keywords. Without critical thinking, Dara commented, “students will lose more due to ignorance.”
As a white educator teaching race to diverse students, Neal Schick practices critical humility, a reflective practice to help educators interrupt racism and become aware of what one does not know. Neal is a high school science teacher at a private school in Brooklyn, New York. He is pushing to redesign the English curriculum so students are taught the intersectionality of marginalized identities from African-American authors, such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde. Neal teaches his students about structural, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racism using the pedagogical style of radical dharma, a set of collective dialogues examining the impacts of racial injustice using love and liberation. Neal commented that “we must center the healing of our young people.” Neal’s pedagogical style is another great example of how it is not just humanities teachers that can and must be fluent in talking about race. He challenges his students to interrogate their actions, values, and emotions, and challenges his white students to disrupt racial inequalities.
Amanda Maisonave emphasized to me the unique opportunities for teaching racism to students in inclusive classrooms, including students with disabilities, and how she affirms all of her students and their experiences. Amanda similarly took a moment of silence for each of the four African Americans who were recently killed by police. She teaches at a private school in Manhattan, New York. Prior to teaching on the events, she did background research on them, going much deeper than the front-page reporting: for example, she read each of the obituaries from the families, to be able to humanize the four African Americans for her students. Amanda was gracious enough to share the slide show she prepared. Amanda’s ongoing practices of making all her students feel validated has been effective. Her first student to read about Breonna Taylor was a white student with a disability. Amanda loved learning from her students and added that “discussions on these topics never feel sufficient, this is lifelong work.” Amanda ended with “White and white-passing people of color educators like myself cannot be silent about these issues because, whether intended or not, saying nothing sends a message of indifference and complicity, and that is harmful, particularly to our Black students.”
In our conversation, A’Lexus McCollum, a K–12 teacher in the Washington, D.C., region, drew attention to school discipline and mental wellness for teachers. She wants policing in schools, particularly the racial disproportionalities in school discipline, to be addressed, just as police reform in society is garnering attention. Federal data shows that Black students are suspended three times more often than their white peers, and Black girls are six times as likely; furthermore, these students’ stories are often untold. A’Lexus emphasized that “just as holistic practices are being developed for students (mindfulness, yoga, restorative justice), the teachers need these practices too.” To do this, she embraces a community school model that is not Black versus white, but one that embraces all stakeholders, including parents. Wellness is pertinent for the school community, and will ideally help in the collective journey of racial healing.
Teaching race to kindergarteners may seem like a daunting task, especially virtually, but Stephanie Stern is taking it on. A teacher in the Milwaukee Public School system, Stephanie assigned her kindergarteners to write about or draw their feelings in response to the murders and protests. She also assigned an alphabet book titled A is for Activist. Stephanie has digitally posted resources from Black Lives Matter, and the school’s social worker is hosting a current events circle for parents and students to talk about their feelings. Her school has resources on anti-bias teaching in early childhood education. Stephanie is ensuring her students have access to these circles, and emphasized in our conversation the importance of giving her families extended times to process and do the assignments, as response rates are better on the weekends.
Courtney Green is a charter school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, and is pleased to see her non-white colleagues speaking out on race in education. She embraces the current efforts of non-Black people to take Black educators and their perspectives seriously. She recommends that schools address the entire community when a racial incident happens, so teachers and students know that racist language or other responses is not acceptable. She further advocates for mandatory training in culturally responsive pedagogies, and that Black history should be integrated in all subjects. She ended our conversation by saying, “Black history is history,” and shared resources for teaching anti-racism.
Key Takeaways from These Interviewees
The interviewees provided insightful and firsthand practices on teaching race in K–12 classrooms. Here are three recommendations worth considering.
Teach and embody anti-racism throughout the school year.
Teaching race and racism must begin with historical literacy and what Columbia University professor Dr. Sealey Ruiz calls the “archaeology of the self.” Historical literacy requires developing a contextual awareness of the historical forces that shape the communities we live in, and archaeology of the self requires a deep excavation and exploration of the beliefs and biases that shape how educators engage with their students. Both are required to accurately teach the history of race and racism in America. For example, teaching Black history should not begin with pain and suffering, as African civilizations were thriving prior to enslavement. It is also important for teachers to begin uncomfortable conversations with their students, such as why some may prefer to identify as Black versus as African-American, or as Latinx versus as Latino. As a next step to embodying anti-racism, teachers can move into what Dr. Bettina Love has called abolitionist teaching: the creativity, boldness, and methods of abolitionists to fight for an educational system for students to thrive, and not just to survive. Lastly, one of the best things teachers can do is listen. On June 1, Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year, emphasized that, “If you do not know what to say to students today, just listen to them and acknowledge their pain. You will learn more that way.”
Define and model the actions of authentic allyship.
Allyship is an action verb, and should be an ongoing learning process. Most allies agree that if allyship is exhausting and uncomfortable, then we are taking the right steps. As Education Post commented, “we may be worn out, but we must never give out!” The classroom is the perfect place to model allyship. It is not optional to talk about race and identity, and educators must take responsibility for helping to dismantle racial oppression. Fortunately, there are many resources available on how to become a better ally.
Use teacher communities for resources and self-reflection.
Within just a couple of weeks, I have seen a plethora of K–12 resources for teaching about race being circulated, even for kids who are only a year old. No educator should feel isolated in doing this work, as it defeats the purpose of building a multiracial coalition of disrupting racism. One resource I’d especially like to single out is a podcast for teachers called Fund for Teachers. Sharing resources and having accessible ways to find them is how we build community and lift each other up, even during these darkest moments.
The Work Ahead of Us
In Education Week, Dr. Love emphasized that “Teachers who disregard the impact of racism on Black children’s schooling experiences, resources, communities, and parent interactions will do harm to children of color.” Students are listening, and silence on race in education will not suffice. Some teachers have paused their lessons to allow their students to reflect, write poetry, or write to their elected officials in response to the deaths. I do not have all the answers and hope to continue learning from teacher and student communities. Their insights and these resources can be used for the summer and the next academic year. This work will undoubtedly not be easy, but through conversations about race, critical pedagogies, and, ultimately, love, we can empower our students to become social, authentic, and civically engaged changemakers.
Click here to see this article on The Century Foundation website and for more information.